Solos & Small Firms

A Little on the Side


Bart Countess
Photo by Mika Fowler

“I saw a lot of ‘gunners’ who worked 90 hours a week. I thought that was crazy. I didn’t want law to dominate my life,” recalls Bradley, 27, who graduated in 2006 from William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. “If I’m going to practice law, I’m going to do it on my own terms.”

After graduation, Bradley joined West Publishing in sales, and this year he became an editor at legal information site FindLaw. Yet he also wanted to practice law “in some sort of fashion.”

Through word of mouth, Bradley acquired a few contingency cases within a year of joining West, in­cluding a salesperson’s unpaid compensation claim. Meanwhile, he logs 40 hours a week at FindLaw.

“After work, I might draft a demand letter until 10 or 11 at night,” he says. When court appearances are required, Bradley takes a vacation day; FindLaw, he says, is a flexible employer. Having a part-time solo practice enables him to keep his skills sharp and control the direction of his career.

IN GOOD COMPANY

Bradley is not alone in practicing law while working a day job. some lawyers do it to maintain their legal skills, while others do it for extra income. Jennifer Rose of Morelia, Mexico, vice-chair of the ABA’s General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division, says there are no statistics tracking how many solos have additional day jobs. She says older law school graduates are more likely to practice part time while maintaining a previ­­ous career.

“They may need to put in a few more years to qualify for retirement benefits, continue health insurance benefits or maintain the income stream, [and] they can’t give up their day job for the uncertainties of solo practice,” Rose explains.

Alternatively, she says, one’s law practice may transition from full time to part time when a hobby like farming or real estate becomes more interesting or lucrative. Or attorneys discover that legal skills can be leveraged into writing or consulting, which they then assume full time.

For Bart Countess, law is something he does part time until he can take early retirement from his job as an air traffic controller in Tallahassee, Fla. Countess became interested in law after being exposed to arbitration through the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. He didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree, so he spent the next decade in night school.

Countess, 44, graduated from Florida State University College of Law last year. His goal was to join a small firm, but he found that “jobs are not what they once were, and not every firm wants a 40-year-old associate.”

So he spends 40 hours a week at the FAA, working off-hour shifts that al­low him to make court appearances assisting a solo practitioner who de­fends criminal cases. All told, Countess spends about 15 hours a week practicing law.

The biggest challenge, he says, is “making two incompatible schedules work. It’s a lot like juggling chainsaws. You can’t make a misstep—the impact is drastic.”

A FindLaw colleague of Bradley’s, Michael Taylor started out as a full-time solo handling employment cases. But he says that he had “a bad business model” under which he was working on contingency.

“I had no idea how long it would take for cases to settle. I ran out of money,” says Taylor, a 2000 graduate of the University of Minnesota Law School.

Years later, while advising an attorney client at FindLaw, Taylor had a “great epiphany: Most people don’t have to go to court to solve problems.” He then resumed practice part time, offering “a la carte services” in em­ployment and family law. He also has an advisory program, in which he gives practical advice about resolving legal problems for a flat fee. He attracts clients through online advertising and networking—and, like Bradley, Taylor says that FindLaw’s flexibility permits this second career.

Practicing on the side is “very doable,” Countess says. “I’m getting a good taste of something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.”

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