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Solo Hungers for ‘Time Machine’ to Correct Missteps on Path to Law Practice

Posted Sep 27, 2010 1:59 PM CDT
By Randi Menendez

Editor’s Note: We asked solo practitioners to write an essay or record a video telling us how they innovate. Specifically, they were asked to answer this question: “What innovation will be most valuable to you in your future practice as a solo practitioner?” The author of the best submission will get a check for $5,000. This year’s winner will be announced Friday, Oct. 1. And today through Thursday, we’ll be posting submissions from the runners-up.

Christmas Day, six years ago, I spent my 4,112th hour in the office that year. I was a mere legal assistant at a big-name law firm in Boston, and it was on that day that I realized I could be exactly where I was, doing the exact same thing, only making several times my current salary, if I were a bona fide lawyer.

Almost immediately, I began interviewing young associates around the office about where they went to law school, were they happy with that decision, and would they have done anything differently from the perspective of a highly paid, well-respected, big-firm associate? The Columbia, Yale and Harvard law school graduates (which encompassed everyone with whom I spoke) answered with an emphatic “yes!” to my last question.

“The debt!” they exclaimed. “I wouldn’t sacrifice my life, my family, my happiness to take on so much debt!” An acceptance letter to Columbia Law School, they explained, was a beeline for a miserable existence in which one’s soul was sold to Big Firm LLC for a mere $150,000 a year, plus bonus. “Who needs a soul,” one of them quipped, “when you only have a few hours each week to yourself, and those are spent dejected, alone and likely drunk as well?” It was unanimous: Going to a good school was important, but going to a cheap school was paramount.

My disillusion was so resounding that I could not hear the placid but steadfast voice of reason coming from the corner office. Had I listened more carefully, I would have heard that seasoned old voice telling me to disregard the pleas of the younger attorneys, for they could not yet see the greatest benefit of their top-10 law degree was opportunity.

So I embraced the admonitions of the younger contingent of Big Firm LLC and applied to state schools; I attended the one that offered me the greatest scholarship. When campus recruiting time came during my 3L year, Big Firm LLC was nowhere to be found; in fact, Small Firm LLC was also notably absent. The U.S. economy had tanked, and no one seemed to need so many lawyers anymore, let alone those who did not achieve top ranks from a top-10 legal institution.

Now, in my third year as a solo practitioner, that seasoned old voice I ignored as a legal assistant is the one I turn to for dependable advice and mentoring. As I listen to his wise and careful words, I contemplate a reality in which I had heeded his advice six years ago and attended a Columbia or a Yale. For my own professional aspirations, I am convinced that I have missed certain invaluable experiences, precious relationships and a myriad of opportunities over the years, due to one crucial decision I made before my career even began.

Truthfully, I love being a solo practitioner and desire only success in this capacity for my future. Ideally, however, I would have made this decision on my own, rather than for lack of another opportunity. Thus, the most valuable innovation to my solo practice would be a time machine or, alternatively, any device that would enable me to avoid making mistakes I know I made only in hindsight. On a grand scale, I would have chosen to attend a different law school. On a slightly smaller scale, I would not have discarded form contracts that I came across during my tenure as a legal assistant. Ultimately, the best innovation for my solo practice would be one that not only fixes my mistakes but also finds a way of preventing them.—Randi Menendez

Randi Menendez is a solo practitioner in San Diego.

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