I used to be an apostle of lawyers starting their own practices. I think it’s the best way for a young lawyer to make a living and keep her soul. But it’s been long enough since I started my practice that I’m not sure I know the environment well enough to recommend that course. This article from the Wall Street Journal makes the picture look pretty bleak for new lawyers, whether they’re looking for jobs or starting their own firms.
Houston criminal-defense lawyer Nathaniel Tarlow wrote these ten suggestions for new lawyers hanging their own shingles (please let Nathaniel — ntarlow at gmail dot com — know if you find the suggestions useful):
As a new lawyer who went the “hang their own shingle” route, I can tell you that it’s not easy. Though there are things that people in this position can do to make it better and up one’s chances of success. Here are some that worked for me:
1. Be willing to do family law. Uncontested divorces are a simple and relative painless way to get rent and other bills paid. While not everyone knocks over a liquor store, people of all strata seem to be getting divorced or having other family issues that require a trip to court. This goes for other kinds of law too, but family cases are by far the most frequently filed causes, and tend to be steadier in coming in.
2. Be willing initially to take some cases for less money. While it can hurt one’s pride to be “that lawyer” who is walking into the courtroom for less, it’s better than sitting in the office drinking coffee and waiting for the phone to ring. Besides, with exposure in court comes more experience and the chance to pass out cards to people who ask for them. Time spent in the office can be used reading codes, reading the listserve (which in education unto itself), or brainstorming ideas.
3. Band together with others new lawyers in the same boat and share costs, including advertising. This eases overhead and helps with those lean months.
4. If you have a language skill, market yourself in that particular community. Being a Spanish-speaker, I make it a point to try to interact more with the Latino community, as people like a lawyer who speaks their language and can relate to them better in a communication aspect. I’ve enjoyed many a bowl of pho in midtown only wishing I could speak Vietnamese. It makes a difference.
5. Don’t be shy about asking for help. I often need it, and when it’s asked of me, I often give it. I clerked for some excellent lawyers during law school and they’ve always been willing to take call or a visit from me. They’ve helped me, and continue to do so. The wages of karma both good and bad can’t be ignored.
6. Get on court appointed lists in the counties where you qualify and can regularly go. I’ve gotten some decent referrals out of court appointed clients in Galveston Co. whose friends could pay. Besides, court appointed clients often appreciate you more when you do a good job because their expectations are frequently lower. So they’re often willing to help you in return when they can. And hey, just because someone doesn’t have money today and needs a court appointed lawyer, doesn’t mean he won’t have money the next time he/she needs an attorney.
7. Entertain to the extent possible, the “shop-around” types who come in for free consultations. While they often waste your time, it’s a good chance to sharpen one’s personal interaction skills and get to know people as a whole better. When they leave (usually without signing a contract) send them out the door with a few business cards. You never know, I’ve had some come back. It never hurts to get a card out there. Once your practice is more established, these can and probably should be phased out.
8. Try to get to know some lawyers in other counties. Often established lawyers have practices that are very heavily centered in one or two counties. They know they can’t be in 2 places at once, and might ask you to either cover for them in a county where you are that day or just straight out give you the referral. Covering for that attorney is a favor to that attorney, and he/she will be more willing to take time out of his/her day later on to give you advice if/when you need it in a hurry. And a referral or two can make a difference between a bad month and an average one, or an average and a good one.
9. Bring in other lawyers as co-counsel, even if they end up with the lion’s share of the fees in that particular case. While the recompense factor has been cut by having to share fees, what you can learn in that first go can justify your fee the next time such a case comes in. Knowledge is priceless, and if it costs you a chunk of the retainer to get it, I’ve found that it’s usually money well-spent.
10. This has been the most important lesson I’ve learned so far: Make peace with your situation. Being a new lawyer is a challenge, and the fact is that like in any profession, you’ve got to pay your dues. Accept the fact that getting a business off the ground is hard, and be prepared for setbacks. I’m still dealing with this, and still trying to learn.