ABA Journal


ABA Journal Podcast

They started their own firm right after law school—and so can you (podcast with transcript)

Sep 3, 2013, 02:13 pm CDT


This is so scary thinking you can represent clients (in criminal cases no less) with no experience! Can't get a job as a medical doctor, just open your own clinic and ask other doctors questions. One would think protecting clients from these delusions would be an important priority for the bar. But in recent years, its frantically encouraging new lawyers to believe they're ready to practice without experience to deal with the fact many new lawyers are stranded. Dealing with dozens of new lawyers who are "working for themselves" I can attest that they mostly have no idea what they're doing or what they don't know and its a disaster for clients.

By Santana on 2013 09 04, 8:04 am CDT

As a fellow law school grad to shingle hanger, I am glad to see that the ABA has picked this up as a viable option.

By Jonathan LA Phillips on 2013 09 04, 3:09 pm CDT

I give credit to these new attorneys starting their own firm and I hope they do well. Most green attorneys find the prospect of opening their own office to be absolutely daunting and rightfully so. I was recently forced into solo practice a few years ago (that's what happens in this profession to many attorneys without luck/clients/favorable economic conditions, etc!); and fortunately it has worked well for me prior to opening my own shop I had 10 years of experience plus 5 years clerking experience throughout law school and undergrad.

The biggest issue I see with starting your own shop is that without experience is that you'll be forced, like the attorneys, to do simple general practice type of work- i.e. criminal def., general litigation, wills, personal injury, divorce, etc. There's a lot of potential clients out there but there's also a lot of competition and especially in this town there's a lot of price competition. It's going to be difficult to work your way up the ladder into higher paying areas of law like commercial lit; probate, ins. def (i know it's not that higher paying), etc. That's OK but the market is overly saturated. You've also blown your chances forever of being in a middle sized or large law firm. You'll never be partner at a 'real' firm somewhere else; you'll forever be hustling for cases. Even if you have a few associates covering your court call, you'll still be a solo attorney hustling for a $2,000 retainer from somebody with a $5,000 net worth.

I've been fortunate in my solo practice over the years. I've learned that in today's market you need two things: a brand and an 'in'. I've employed these with my 'brand' that attracts new clients every day; and my 'in' comes from an of counsel relationship with my former law firm (where I didn't make partner). Chicago - like most major markets - is a market where you must have an 'in' - you must have a case source either through advertising or a referral source immediately or else you'll be struggling for a long, long time. Without that 'in' the uphill struggle is so great that so many fail and you're better off going into a different profession. I meet solos all the time without an 'in' and they're mostly struggling and looking for alternative work even after 5-10 years as a solo. It's brutal.

My opinion for new grads who are determined to open their own shop is to open up in the suburbs or collar counties (especially in Chicago). The suburban and collar county courthouses are filled with middle aged attorneys who have been around *forever* covering the same courtrooms doing the same types of law. The average age of the attorneys in most collar counties (excluding state's attorneys) is probably 50 or 55. An aggressive younger attorney who is willing to under price the middle aged competition will do very well. Somebody once told me that nobody wants to hire his father's attorney; and that's true. Most attorneys in court in the collar counties are my father's age or older, and a little competition for cases would be a good thing.

By Peasant with student loan debt on 2013 09 04, 3:29 pm CDT

As a follow up, the 'in' doesn't need to be the greatest of 'in's. It's doesn't need to be $100k+ of referrals a year or a steady case load. It just needs to be a platform or a base to jump off from. My base was about $50k of referrals from a firm (and the hourly rate I accepted to earn that $50k was less than my plumber charges!) but those clients referred me other clients; and I mined my existing clients for additional cases, and so forth; but without that $50k the first year I would be struggling to find a retainer. A fellow attorney in my firm who also failed to make partner (like 95% of all associates at former firm fail to do) also tried the solo route and hated it. This lawyer eventually found another job doing something; it ain't easy being a solo and there's a lot of competition. I cannot stress that enough, there is SO much competition out there. The pie is continually shrinking and yet the number of lawyers trying to eat from that pie keeps growing bigger.

My suggestion? Find another line of work!

By Peasant with student loan debt on 2013 09 04, 3:35 pm CDT

Criminal work? How are these ladies ever going to qualify for the Capital Case defense bar imposed upon the practicing Bar several years ago in Illinois? Do they know the handful who are part of that select group so they can get the "experience" requirement to qualify? Otherwise, small change cases will get real old in a couple of years.

By Publicus on 2013 09 04, 3:54 pm CDT

Why am I not surprised by the negative, skeptical comments...

By The Artist Formerly Known As Bakes on 2013 09 04, 5:33 pm CDT

As a response to #3 and #4 above, I am a solo attorney who started practicing in a Chicago suburb right out of law school six years ago. Contrary to those comments, I did have a specific field that I wanted to work in and have been able to successfully do that (I have done plenty of work outside of that field, but never for a majority of my work). My 'brand' was making myself the best I can in the field I want to work. I do admit to getting lucky in that the suburb I am in had a definite need for what I wanted to do and I do not have much direct competition. Also, as was stated, almost all of the attorneys I see in court and at County Bar Assoc. events are in their late 50s or older. It is my hope to have the market all to myself in 10-15 years.

To those who say that a newly minted attorney is doing a disservice to his clients b/c the attorney is not as knowledgeable or experienced as he could be - I think it's important to remember that no one is getting a murder defense or a multi-million civil suit. The clients you will find will be grateful for the little help you can offer for the reasonable fee you can afford to charge. There is a huge gap in the legal market for lower-class and lower-middle-class clients who cannot afford even a $2,000 retainer. If you can think on your feet and are wise enough to know what you don't know (but know how to find the answer), you can certainly earn a legitimate fee from your clients.

By Chicago Collar County Attorney on 2013 09 04, 7:21 pm CDT

As for the "experience" canard... that is why smart young attorneys attract and maintain mentors to assist them as they gain that valuable experience.

By The Artist Formerly Known As Bakes on 2013 09 04, 7:36 pm CDT

Publicus, time for an update. Your comment is irrelevant:

And Santana, after clerking for the Circuit Court of Cook County, I can attest that there are plenty of lawyers out there who have been practicing for years and still have no idea what they're doing. Perhaps this variable is inspiring new attorneys to work for themselves.

Let's give these attorneys the credit they deserve, instead of cutting them down with criticism. Congratulations, Katie and Amanda!

By Life is what you make of it. on 2013 09 04, 7:37 pm CDT

No. 9's middle paragraph is correct. There are more than a few folks thirty and forty years out of school who are no better than a new graduate. Good lawyers need to have a sense of fiduciary loyalty and they need to care about the quality of their work. I'm not sure those things can be taught in law school.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 06, 12:12 pm CDT

Why is the ABA putting all of this attention on young attorneys doing it the wrong way? Why not write a story about a young public defender or prosecutor putting in the hours and actually getting trial experience and being properly supervised.

These ladies don't even know what they don't know.

Perhaps all the ABA attention will help them keep their business afloat. But this is the wrong message for young attorneys. If you can't get a job at the public defender's office or the prosecutor's office or working for an experienced criminal defense attorney - then go do something else other than criminal defense. And if you want to do it this way and screw up cases for years and years while your clients suffer then don't expect anyone but the ABA to pat you on the back.

By L. Sammis on 2013 09 06, 1:09 pm CDT

Congrats to these smart young lawyers! Not everyone realizes that a law license guarantees you have a job right out of law school - sometimes, however, you are your own employer. While many of today's law school graduates worry about someone "giving" them jobs, these folks went out and seized the day - good luck!

By JimfromBham on 2013 09 06, 1:45 pm CDT

I admire these ladies for striking out on their own, but in many states, admission to the bar comes months (almost a year in NY) after taking the bar exam. In those scenarios, you can't even hang out the shingle until you're already delinquent on all of your bills.

By SC2NJ on 2013 09 06, 2:09 pm CDT

The second-worst moral failing of the law school's market ploy is to tell students that they always have the "hang your own shingle" as a safety net to not finding a job.

The worst moral failing is telling them that they can get a job that pays enough to service law school debt.

Despite a few counterexamples of students who have that rare quality, good connections and sheer luck to succeed solo out of school, just like the rare counterexamples of who do get jobs at twice the average pay, it is nothing but folly these days to start that way--unless you are single living at home, or married to a breadwinner.

By Hadley V. Baxendale on 2013 09 06, 3:18 pm CDT

Kudos, ladies. Let all of the negative comments inspire you to soar to even higher heights.

By And The Beat Goes On on 2013 09 06, 3:26 pm CDT

Rock stars!

By Emm on 2013 09 06, 4:34 pm CDT

I started five years ago, coming into law quite late, but with business experience behind me. I had a good business plan, it should have worked. I was in an area that I did not think was saturated, and tried to build the business. Five years later, while the office pays for itself, it does not meet my family needs (which really aren't much), nor does it pay my student loans. My loans are in the IBR, where they rot, and I am not renewing my license for another year of painful struggle to get nowhere. I know the work is there, other attorneys in my preferred areas of law are doing well, but I have not attracted any of that business, despite what I think is pretty good advertising. So, I am done. Absolutely no idea what I am going to do, but it won't be the practice of law.

By JME on 2013 09 06, 5:05 pm CDT

@ #11 L. Sammis

"If you can’t get a job at the public defender’s office or the prosecutor’s office or working for an experienced criminal defense attorney - then go do something else other than criminal defense."

Of course... in a profession where there is already little work, lawyer saturation and stiff competition from more experienced attorneys, your advice to them is to further limit their opportunities to make a living. Makes perfect sense.

By The Artist Formerly Known As Bakes on 2013 09 06, 6:34 pm CDT

I am happy for these young women. Lawyers are such snobs. Comment number 1 (Santana) killed me. He's obviously never been to small-town Wisconsin or small-town Nebraska, where new lawyers pop up all the time and they draft wills or they probate small estates and they figure it out by doing the necessary research and the preparation.

The answer isn't to exclude new attorneys or to demand that new attorneys practice with other more experienced attorneys before being able to represent clients on their own. Every situation is unique. It sounds like these attorneys are aware of some of what they don't know and they're aware of their obligations to their clients. Good for them!

By MCB on 2013 09 06, 6:48 pm CDT

Hi All. For those that are interested, let me speak on this personally for a minute.

My wife and I have done this as well, and from the same school no less. I am not familiar with the two attorneys in the article as we were two years ahead of them, but this is not uncommon. Out of our graduating class in 2010, I am personally familiar with about 20 attorneys who have all hung their shingle right after graduation. I am sure there are more. Several of us worked for the State's Attorney's office, for free I might add, for all of law school only to get pushed off by a change in leadership and budget cuts jusr prior to the final semester. (Ehh… Extremely irritating, but that's politics and bad timing.) Others were working for attorneys who were happy to pay them as clerks, but with no intention to extend the offer to move up into an attorney position. Again, no disrespect there as those firms were responding to the economic realities as well.

Therefore, with no prospects and mass layoffs being reported daily by Above the Law, we did what we had to do. Our philosophy, “If you can't find a job or don't want to find one then make your own.” My only disappointment was how slow the schools, the legal community and the CBA were to react to the new reality. Support was nearly zero from formal institutions. DePaul seems to attract a breed of figure-it-out, self-motivated go-getters. When the formal institutions failed us, we sought out informal support. Like these ladies, you latch onto anyone with experience and advice to give for a cup of coffee. Also, as @7 said, you have to earn your way up to major cases. No one with a big issue is out there hiring an untested attorney with no reputation and/or competency. Even as a solo start-up you have to pay your dues; the difference is that now you are convincing clients instead of senior partners that you are worth the dollar they spend. Let me assure you, clients are much more discriminating on how they spend their money.

Finally, as @7 also said, you have to know your limits. After the hours and hours of professionalism requirements (the required professionalism exam, the guest speakers brought in by the school to talk professionalism and the required semester of professionalism and ethics courses) it is fair to say that we are equally as aware, and as scared, as all of you of the consequences of too much, too soon, too fast.

I wish these women the best and offer one piece of advice from my wife, “Whenever a nursing home director yells at you and your client and calls you a ‘high school attorney’, be sure to smile when you hand him the administrative decision awarding your client everything you were seeking.” We may be younger than many of you, but that does not mean we should be underestimated.

By DePaul Class of 2010 on 2013 09 06, 7:48 pm CDT

Well said #20

I had a near identical experience... a year in the PDs office, a year in a Judicial externship... and a summer in the Philly DA's office. I had my heart set on the DA gig, but the economic realities of the time meant that they hired a smaller class of interns than usual. So I did contract work for three weeks, before miraculously getting called for a clerkship with a judge in Common Pleas court... homicide and PCRAs at that. Did that for a year then was kicked out the nest by my judge and onto my own.

Thru the Bar Institute I became certified to handle misdemeanor cases in first Municipal Court, then Common Pleas Court... then felonies... then majors. After a couple years of successfully working my way thru case after case (with the help of a rich network of fellow alumni practicing in the area, plus attorneys I met thru my clinical work, former professors etc.), wouldn't you know it, the DA's office came calling. I was pretty successful in my own right, but still wanted the position, so I accepted. I've been back on my own for a couple years now, having discovered the Holy Grail of personal injury cases (and carving out a niche within), which I now practice, along with criminal defense and bus/orgs-entity formation. Pretty eclectic practice but it keeps things lively from day to day. I tip my hat to all young attorneys willing to be brave and humble enough to hang their own shingle. For those who think this as some "moral failing", I suggest you practice that lecture on yourselves first, you need the advice the most.

By The Artist Formerly Known As Bakes on 2013 09 06, 9:07 pm CDT

I think this effort makes reasonably good sense. Those who are jobless can sit around and cry, or they can try to do something about it. One of those alternatives at least has potential to accomplish something positive.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 07, 12:36 am CDT

I am an attorney who hung out my shingle a couple months after passing the bar, after not being able to find a paying job (and of course, needing to make a living and pay off loans). In starting, I had the same concerns as most others, and reactions from older lawyers who knew me were mixed. However, I acted very cautiously.

First, it helped greatly that I had been a paralegal for several years before law school, as well as doing externships in law school. Second, I have mentors who have helped tremendously and overseen my work and given advice and constructive criticism (in exchange for some hours given to their firms here and there, in which I also learned a lot). Third, I use law libraries and research and prepare for all work. To supplement my income as well as my experience, I have always done contract work. This helps build referrals and good business relationships, too.

I have been doing this a little over 2 years, and have now narrowed my practice down to mediation and transactional work in family (and a little civil) law. I enjoy the work I do, and serve a very underserved client base (low and middle income people). The nature of my practice also has a relatively low overhead cost, and I am able to pass these savings along to clients (in addition to the young attorney discount). The cases I take are not complex, and are cases more experienced attorneys would turn away because of the low value.

It is very true that any attorney must work their way up. Besides, many of my friends in firms get little to no training, and feel like they do not know what they are doing. Oh, and by the way, I make more money now than some of them do. Running my own business has also in itself taught me a lot, and I always keep in mind what I don't know that I don't know - which is another good reason to check in with my mentors on what I am doing.

My clients have overwhelmingly been very happy and grateful to find an attorney they can afford, who cares about their case, who practices with common sense and empathy for others so that cases get resolved where possible (something neither law school nor big law firms teach), and they have generally been quite happy with the results of my work. For example, I had a client recently tell me (and she has been through several previous attorneys, all of whom had at least a few years on me and started with firms) that I am the sharpest, most effective attorney she has ever had - I settled her divorce to her satisfaction within a few weeks of taking the case, after it had dragged on for a few years, and with a very nasty and aggressive attorney on the other side.

So, in sum, it can be done. It's not for everyone, but with the right amount of conscientiousness, hard work, mentoring, and good business relationships, it definitely can be done well. I have several friends who graduated with me who are also successful young solos, too!

By Young Solo on 2013 09 07, 1:10 am CDT

It is important to start out a little slow, and with careful case evaluation. You don't want to be the idiot that takes and files every colorable claim, until he is working 600 files, none of them well, in hopes that some of them will settle without effort. People who start that way rarely get anywhere else.

By contrast, if you do good front end evaluations and take the number of cases you can handle well (and if you do handle them well, and treat colleagues professionally) you will become one of the attorneys firms think about when they have a client with a case that is good, but below their price tag. In time, you will also be one of the attorneys firms think about when they have a vacancy.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 07, 5:50 pm CDT

JME: your comments are proof you should stay in the industry, rather than egress. Wish I could offer more.

As far as these two, hat-tip to them for a year well done. But as JME shows, time is the greatest judge of all.

Except Scalia, of course. If you asked him.

By DC cog on 2013 09 08, 1:22 am CDT

I would never hire someone right out of law school. I find their confidence breathtaking, and misplaced. They can't possibly know what they don't know, which is the most frightening part of all of this. I worry about their clients, who may not understand the ramifications of hiring someone without significant training.

By StCheryl on 2013 09 08, 8:56 pm CDT

@26, the only thing "breathtaking" is your arrogance... in assuming that young attorneys aren't sufficiently aware of their shortcomings, and in assuming that clients lack the awareness to appreciate the "ramifications" as you call them, that come with hiring ANY lawyer, let alone inexperienced ones.

By The Artist Formerly Known As Bakes on 2013 09 08, 9:35 pm CDT

Among my "experienced" colleagues are that set who, in criminal cases, take the client's money to plead them to the "standard deal," and in civil cases, take 33% if the case can settle, but state right in their retainer agreement that any trial will have to be handled by someone else.

"Unbundeled" legal services have helped to make these things possible. Is there any real client service involved in these arrangements? Can they possibly be in the client's best interest?

To my way of thinking, a young and less experienced attorney who at least has a sense of the fiduciary, and who cares, is a better lawyer than those who only use their decades of experience to screw their own client by practices barely removed from fraud.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 09, 12:17 am CDT

I have worked with both of these attorneys. They got every experience they possibly could before striking out solo. I personally worked on capital murder cases with them through our law school clinic... while as new attorneys they may not know what they don't know, they also have gone great lengths to secure support of other more experienced attorneys that they can ask for advice. They have done more than many attorneys who have more time in an office than they do, who you would hire just because they have been out of school for 10 years instead of two. Keep it up, Amanda and Katie!

By Candice on 2013 09 09, 2:52 am CDT

It amazes me how many people are rushing to their defense. I agree with @26 and @1. I practiced for many years before I felt like I could provide competent counsel to my clients. I just didn't know enough to be able to be sure that I wasn't missing something crucial that could change the outcome of the matter I was working on. It is interesting that they are working on criminal matters. I wonder if they would receive such levels of support if they were working on corporate or commercial matters for large clients, where money, not people's lives, were at stake.

By Justicia on 2013 09 09, 3:07 am CDT

Well, some people are slower than others, to be sure. I think it is completely conceivable that students deciding in their 2L year that they wanted to do this could be ready by graduation.

By B. McLeod on 2013 09 09, 4:55 am CDT

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