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ABA Journal Podcast

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

Posted Sep 3, 2013 9:13 AM CDT
By Stephanie Francis Ward

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Unlike fellow graduates in the Class of 2012, Katie Kizer and Amanda Graham weren’t worried about finding jobs after law school—because they had decided a year earlier that they would start their own criminal-defense firm together. It’s been liberating, they tell ABA Journal Podcast moderator Stephanie Francis Ward.

In This Podcast:

Amanda Graham

Amanda Graham, a criminal defense lawyer, is co-founder of the Law Office of Kizer & Graham in Chicago. She has researched and written about the death penalty, as well as criminal-defense investigations and juror voir dire. She also co-authored Post-Conviction Practice: A Manual for Illinois Attorneys, and is a board member of the National Lawyers Guild. She graduated summa cum laude from DePaul University College of Law, with a certificate in criminal law.

Katie Kizer

Katie Kizer, a criminal defense lawyer, is co-founder of the Law Office of Kizer & Graham in Chicago. She handles state and federal court matters, including post-conviction petitions and federal habeas corpus petitions. She has written about the criminalization of gang membership, and co-authored Post-Conviction Practice: A Manual for Illinois Attorneys. She graduated summa cum laude from DePaul University College of Law, with a certificate in criminal law.

Podcast transcript:

Stephanie Francis Ward: Most third-year law students are fretting about finding jobs. Not Katie Kizer and Amanda Graham; they took a leap and started their own firm after graduation.

Katie Kizer: Who knows, we have no idea what we're gonna be making in five or 10 years, but at the end of the day, it's all about the work you choose to do.

Stephanie Francis Ward: When we return, I’ll ask them how they did it—and how others could too.

Advertiser: This ABA Journal Podcast is brought to you by Westlaw Next. Folder sharing in Westlaw Next enables you to tap into previous research across organizational boundaries like never before, saving you time from reinventing the wheel. Learn more at westlawnext.com.

Stephanie Francis Ward: What prompted you to start your own firm instead of trying to find a job–and you guys came to this decision early in law school, right, as opposed to “it’s a month before I graduate, I'm just going to do this on my own.” So how did that work out?

Amanda Graham: Right.

Katie Kizer: Well, we were like you said, law students, and we knew we wanted to do justice work. And that means something different to everybody, obviously, but to us it meant finding a way to do criminal defense. And we just decided to start our own practice in order to pave the way for ourselves. There are, I mean–it’s true there aren’t that many job opportunities. At least there weren’t at the time in criminal defense; but we realize it’s really possible to do it yourself, if you prepare and if you ask the right questions.

Stephanie Francis Ward: How did you prepare?

Amanda Graham: It was a long process. We started by just sitting down and talking to each other about our different expectations, and our different goals, and sort of our different vision for what it would look like, and making sure we were kind of on the same page. And then we basically started building sort of our support network. Because we were doing this right out of law school. So we didn’t have the advantage of 10 or 15 years in practice before going out on our own. So we wanted to do this kind of work responsibly.

So we just started asking questions and asking for advice from people who've been doing the kind of work we wanted to do. And we started getting as many experiential sort of internships, externships, working for lawyers–any kind of work we could get our hands on. And building our mentor base was kind of the long process that we undertook. But some of those relationships we built, we know that they’re going to be lasting for the rest of our career.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And were you looking for both government connections with internships and externships, as well as people who are in private practice so you’d know how to run a business? I think that’s a huge problem for people who might be 20 years out.

Amanda Graham: Totally.

Katie Kizer: Absolutely. And we’re constantly having this conversation. It’s: What are our deficits, what are our strengths, what do we not know anything about? And for us that was running a small business. We always joked that we never saw ourselves as entrepreneurs, but there we were starting our own practice. So that meant assessing what we needed to know, and if we didn’t know what we needed to know, was asking "what do we need to know?" And saying, "Who had small practices that were private practitioners in the field that we wanted to go into?"

And we reach out to them and say, “Could we take you for coffee or dinner sometime and just pick your brain about how you did it? Because we want to do the same work–carry on the same work that you are doing.” So it was sort of a process. That way it snowballed as we determine what we needed to find out.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Will you tell me what your goal was for earnings your first year out?

Amanda Graham: A number?

Stephanie Francis Ward: Or a range, yeah.

Amanda Graham: Well, what I will say is that we set down in our business plan–we had a detailed outline of budgetary issues, concerns, personal goals that we had financially. And I will be honest with you: In our first year, our goal was to make sure that we could pay the rent on office space, and the rent on our own personal living space.

Katie Kizer: Right.

Amanda Graham: And we’ve far succeeded–we’ve succeeded in that goal.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And do you have law school loans?

Amanda Graham: We do.

Katie Kizer: Yeah.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And was that a concern? Because I think some people would be like, "Oh, I can’t do this because I have law school loans, but–"

Amanda Graham: Yeah and you know we try not to offer too much advice and that because–

Katie Kizer: We're really not experts.

Amanda Graham: We’re not experts in the loan department, and that’s a really a very individual kind of thing. Everyone has different concerns; people have families to take care of, a lot of different living expenses. So really, the school-loan thing means something different to everyone.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Sure.

Amanda Graham: So.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you also think though, I mean that there's this–and I know starting your own practice is not for everyone for a variety of reasons–but do you think that there is a chance, I mean perhaps you’re doing better–clearly you’re doing better than your peers who don’t have jobs yet in the profession–but do you think that there's a chance this will be a more financially smart decision to make? Especially five years down the road when you’ve got your business and whatnot, as opposed to working for someone else.

Katie Kizer: Well “financially smart,” I think it’s funny; again, it goes back to your personal sort of goals and objectives. And to us, it’s never been about the money, and it never will be about the money and we know a lot of our peers who might get jobs in public defender’s office. It might not be about the money for them either. And for us, maybe it’s more ebb and flow, because we’re in private practice and who knows, we have no idea what we’re going to be making in five or ten years. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the work that you choose to do.

And if you’re doing social justice work, that is never going to be something that buys you the five-bedroom mansion or something. You always have to supplement; you always have to think creatively; you always have to determine like what your own personal goals are. So I think it’s hard to say. I mean, I think people just run the gamut of what experiences they have in social justice work. So.

Amanda Graham: But I do think there’s something to be said for the value that you can’t really attach a number to, of running your own life totally–not just personally, but at work. And we get to make a lot of decisions, and do a lot of things, and be flexible in a lot of ways that other people can’t who do have a job where they’re working for someone else. So that is a huge value that you really can’t attach a number to. And maybe our salaries are a little lower than someone who works as a public defender or something, but we have that flexibility, which has been great.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you think that if more people coming out of law school did work for themselves there might be more people enjoying their profession and maybe sticking with it? It seems like there are so many people who leave.

Katie Kizer: Yes. I think so. I mean we pinch ourselves all the time, because we just say we're incredibly happy, and feel very lucky, because we just designed our own practice and our own careers. And that not many people to do that. And we answer to each other, and we answer to our clients, and mentors and other lawyers that work with. But for the most part we get to sort of forge our own path, which I think is probably difficult for a lot of people who go into offices where there’s a chain of command and tight pressure and budgetary concerns and everything else.

So I think that–we’re definitely proponents of more people going into private work, especially because it can just–once you start to not like something, make a decision to change it, and go a different direction. And that like Amanda said, you have the flexibility to do that when you have your own practice.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you get the sense with your peers that there’s going to–that there are more people doing what you’re doing? Or do you feel like you two are so unique?

Amanda Graham: I think there are more people doing what we’re doing, and I’m really–Katie and I have talked about this recently, with the way the legal field seems to be changing and evolving–which I think is a good thing–sort of away from BigLaw. And people are finding that they are happier, maybe in a smaller office, or maybe going solo. And we do have several peers who we sit down with and talk about how to jumpstart their practice, because they’re thinking of doing it. And what are the concerns, what are the risk factors, how to mitigate those risks. And so we are seeing more people doing it.

I think one thing is that there are numerous people graduating from law school now, who want to be doing good work. That’s why they went to law school. They want to be doing justice work and fortunately, we're friends with numerous people like that. And so it can’t be that you have to get a job at a nonprofit or at a government agency to be doing that kind of work; because that means that we have many able hands sitting idly, and that’s not OK. So it makes me–makes us excited that there's people who are willing to take the risk to go out on their own and forge their own path, but be doing the work that’s totally necessary.

Stephanie Francis Ward: How do you get business, what has worked so far for you?

Katie Kizer: Well, it is like–it’s like any private practice: it's referrals; represent one client in a certain institution, and then other people reach out to you and ask you to help them; or you have other lawyers refer cases to you, or call and say, you know, "I have this big case, I need a second chair, could one of you help." So then our firm comes in, and then one of us helps that the lawyer, just like we do with a bunch of our different mentors that bring us onto different cases.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you cover motions for people, too? And do they do that in the criminal court?

Katie Kizer: Yeah.

Amanda Graham: Oh yeah.

Katie Kizer: We do a lot of running around. It's great though, because when you’re–we always talk about humility. Always remember what you don’t know, because that’s the way to do this thing responsibly. That’s the way to practice law on your own responsibly.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Right, right. Will you tell me–so, when you were speaking with mentors about doing this, what sort of advice did they give you on what to charge people?

Amanda Graham: You know, that was something that we did ask almost every single one of our mentors who had done some work in the private field. Because asking some of our mentors who were in public defense, they don’t have the same kind of finger on the pulse of that. But–and we got a wide range of answers. It was very interesting. So for us, we have our own kind of way of doing things–it seems that’s that the trend, a lot of lawyers really just–it’s very individual.

Some lawyers sit down and think, "OK, how many hours do I think this case will take me?" and then what does that add up to, based on "X" hourly rate. Other lawyers think, "How many court dates is this regardless of the time?" So really, what we got out of this conversations was what factors into what you charge a client. What are the kinds of the things you need to be thinking about. What kind of case is it, what kind of clients are they, where is it, all those kind of things.

Stephanie Francis Ward: When you were still in school and talking to people about these plans, did many people tell you that you shouldn’t do it?

Katie Kizer: Some people did.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Yeah.

Amanda Graham: Yes.

Katie Kizer: But then again, that was sort of like training for when you first get out into the field, and people are doubting you again.

Amanda Graham: Oh yeah.

Katie Kizer: Definitely. But I think there are lessons in life that we learned before that point, about what we can and can’t do personally, and what our own strength is, and our stubbornness sometimes to do it the way we want do it. And I think there were people who had concerns, because it is that you don’t have the safety net; it’s not like you’re coming to a job where there are benefits automatically and things of the–concerns that people have, valid concerns.

But it was almost helpful to hear that. Because whatever those concerns were, we were already thinking of, "And how we can best anticipate that and take certain steps to avoid not being able to pay for our own health care or something like that?"

Stephanie Francis Ward: Did you also hear, though, that if you’re going to do this, this is the time? Because you’re still young; so, health insurance is wonderful, but it’s not as dangerous to not have it now. Like if you were 40–do you have children?

Amanda Graham: No.

Katie Kizer: No.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK, well, that’s another factor.

Katie Kizer: Right.

Amanda Graham: Oh yeah.

Stephanie Francis Ward: With mortgages, all that, and you don’t have the gold handcuffs yet either, that some lawyers do.

Amanda Graham: Yeah, I mean–we didn’t so much hear that. We heard it more after we did it–

Katie Kizer: Yeah.

Amanda Graham: –which is interesting.

Katie Kizer: Yeah.

Amanda Graham: "Well, you told us it was a good idea!"

Stephanie Francis Ward: I would imagine people would be like, "Oh, I wish I did this when I was your age." Do you hear that much?

Katie Kizer: Not really. I think because–

Stephanie Francis Ward: Maybe they did. I mean, we forget.

Amanda Graham: That’s true.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Yeah.

Amanda Graham: Or you know, I think we are really open with a lot of our mentors about some of the challenges. Because it’s challenging and we talk about, "we’re very happy, we’re doing the work we want to be doing, but it’s very stressful." And so they–and a lot of our mentors are also in private solo practice and so they are already kind of set up, and they're in the less stressful end of the startup process. So.

Katie Kizer: And a lot of them–we have a lot of mentors who maybe were in the public defender's office a long time ago, and right now are in private practice. And when they’ve had those experiences in the past, they learn a lot from being in the public defender's office. And we say all the time, we’re very–we respect public defenders, and we know that if we were in the public defender’s office, we would be learning. So it would be trial after trial, in court all the time, and that’s not what we chose to do. That’s the just the avenue that we pursued, I should say, but so I think you just–you learn a lot from whatever you choose to do, as long as you’re doing the work that you love to do and you want to do.

Stephanie Francis Ward: When your friends who are still in law school, when they come to you and they're interested in doing what you’re doing, what’s the main advice you give them?

Katie Kizer: Well, we don’t normally gave them many pieces of advice because we are so eager to encourage them to take the same path. But I would say we tell them to start asking questions, and start really reflecting on the decision, and make the decision. That's something that we tell people all the time. It’s very easy to sort of say, "I think I should do this. Let me dance around this issue for a little while and think about it. Let it sit with me," but there comes a point where you need to make the decision and own that decision. And it’s a scary thing to do, to say, "I am doing this. I’m not applying for jobs. I’m starting my own practice." And that’s sort of like the first thing that they need to do.

Amanda Graham: I think that was the best thing we ever did to get things off the ground, Katie and I, was that we were tossing the idea around, we were still looking at the application processes that were out there, and we just said to each other, "Are we going to agree to not apply for anything?" And so neither of us did. Because you know, it was kind of the feeling that if one of us is putting all her energy into this, and the other is one foot out the door, applying to other jobs in the hopes they might get one–it would throw the whole thing into tumult. We just kind of decided. And so I think that was a huge decision, anyhow.

Stephanie Francis Ward: How did it feel the third year, when everyone’s scurrying around trying to find work and you are focused on starting your own practice? How did it–was it scary, sometimes? Was it a relief? Was it–I mean, with everything? How did that feel?

[simultaneously]

Katie Kizer: We haven’t actually, I was very–

Amanda Graham: We would–

Katie Kizer: We haven't even talked about this.

Amanda Graham: No.

Katie Kizer: I felt relieved.

Amanda Graham: It was great.

Katie Kizer: I was just–you were just grinning.

Stephanie Francis Ward: But you didn’t have any letdowns, because like we said, you never know what’s around the corner.

Katie Kizer: Right.

Stephanie Francis Ward: The letdowns will come, but you don’t have to anticipate them.

Katie Kizer: You have all the time in the world to plan for that. I mean, with them, it was so much uncertainty about whether they'll would get a job; and for us, it's "We already have a job." And we will–it was our precious thing, that we were kind of fostering and it was–it was ours.

Amanda Graham: And we were–because we were so focused, we were both working–well, interning, externing, paid, unpaid, full-time, and then going to class at night. One of the things that we decided going into third year was we needed to get as much experience as we possibly can. And so how can we basically facilitate that.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I see.

Amanda Graham: So it was the two of us in different places, running to and fro, different lawyers' offices, being in the federal defender, still doing work for some private lawyers to build that experiential base while we could.

Stephanie Francis Ward: So you kind of built your own externship your third year?

Amanda Graham: Yes.

Stephanie Francis Ward: As many people say law school should, but they don't.

Amanda Graham: Right. Absolutely. We just built it into a full-time thing.

Katie Kizer: Yeah. I mean we–and we loved all–you know, we loved going to the solo’s office and getting little research assignments, or going with them to court and watching them in court. And then being the federal defender and being really a part of that program, of being welcomed there and seeing how they operate in federal court, and just being all over the place and it was really–it was a wonderful and critical experience for us to have before we were sort of unleashed into the world.

Stephanie Francis Ward: How much capital did you start out with?

Amanda Graham: We did put money in–some money aside. We had kind of calculated what we would need for the first month after the bar, and then we made it through that first month, and we had something to get us through the next month, and so and so forth.

Katie Kizer: Yes, so it was about a month's worth of savings, I think, is what our nest egg was, which was not a lot.

Stephanie Francis Ward: That’s funny to me because when you read the articles about starting your own practice, that "You should have a year worth of savings–"

Amanda Graham: Oh my gosh, I know.

Stephanie Francis Ward: –that’s not realistic.

Amanda Graham: That’s really scary.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, that’s, I mean–and maybe that’s an issue in the profession, is in terms of the advice you get about doing it, perhaps it's not realistic. I mean, what do you think?

Amanda Graham: Well, I think we have to be cognizant that we do a kind of work that is unique and that it's low-cost.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Yes.

Amanda Graham: We were doing criminal defense, where there aren’t filing fees, and we don’t need to go to depositions and pay for experts, those kinds of things that are happening so much more frequently if you’re doing some different type of civil work. So I think that it really depends on the kind of work you want to be doing. If you want to take on a civil rights case, you have to have a pretty substantial amount of money to pay for the upfront costs of that. And that’s not true with criminal defense work, so.

Katie Kizer: And we were really aggressive in the first–that month. We knew we had had a month, so we didn't just sort of sit behind our desks, and wait for the phone to ring and for someone to walk through the door. We were out there–there’s a lot of hustle.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And is that easy for you? I mean, hustling is easier for some people than others, I think, and–

Katie Kizer: Yeah, we were just really–we are really driven about it, and again, at the end of the day, I don’t think it would come as easy to us as if we didn’t love the work for the work's sake and the clients, and just what we’re doing on a daily basis. I mean, I can’t imagine if I were doing a different type of law that I would have the same hustle in me.

Amanda Graham: Yeah. And I think there’s something to be said about–the hustle for us was because we hadn’t had so many experiences. And now we were lawyers, and now we can stand up in court, and so for us it was, "I want to get, and that case." "I want to observe that lawyer." "I want to work alongside that lawyer" or "I want to try this different type of case" or "I want to do this sentencing" and so it wasn’t so much, "Oh, we’re going to get paid on that." Eventually, hopefully, but it was more: We want those experiences. We're hungry for the experience–and we still are.

Stephanie Francis Ward: How do you think law schools could do a better job of preparing students to go out and practice on their own?

Katie Kizer: Focus on the experiential practical skills, across the board. Clinics should be the centerpiece, in our opinion. We talked, you know, at length about this; we tried to build our own, as we said, sort of super-experiential third year. But I think that we would be churning out better lawyers, more qualified, if we from the beginning–from the get-go–sort of tossed out the book on the traditional law school. And you have to have this hazing process first year, where you learn about laws that you’re not going to remember by the time you have to take the bar exam, and instead focus on actual practical skills.

Stephanie Francis Ward: OK, that's everything I have for you. Do either of you want to add anything else?

Amanda Graham: I don't think so. Thank you!

Stephanie Francis Ward: Thank you!

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