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July 16, 2007

"You Ask.....I Answer." Aren't New Lawyers Better Off Working First Before Hanging A Shingle?

This question was posed by a student on a listserv I frequent in response to my recent post regarding the misinformation given to students regarding employment options and salaries available to new lawyers upon graduation.


Ms. Liebel,

I think this is an informative post. I agree with the basic thrust of the post (and the comments below) that there are too many law schools and too many law school grads chasing too few jobs. I think this can be traced, in part, to the overly-optimistic employment prospects that many schools give applicants.

That said, I was wondering if you would apply the same level of bracing realism to your posts on becoming a solo practitioner. While working in the legal community where I am at during the summer, I have been told that it is an incredibly poor idea to become a solo practitioner straight out of law school. In addition to the business difficulties (lack of ties to the legal community, no client list), many view it as a disservice to the clients as the newly-minted practitioner is often  learning (and making errors) on the fly. While I have seen incredibly poor lawyering from all types of lawyers with all sorts of experience, the very lowest levels of lawyering hell that I have seen were occupied by fresh-faced solo practioners.

An opinion expressed by a judge, which I agree with, is that a new lawyer should work for a few years in a firm / state's attorney / PD before hanging out their shingle in order to gain some practical real-world experience and hopefully some mentoring. Thoughts?


Your opinion is well-considered and you ask a valid question. And it is the same perspective/opinion many lawyers/professors/judges share. In the premise, however, is the assumption when one gets a job at a firm or any other legal entity they are getting mentoring which will enable them to come out at the other end better for it and better qualified to service clients.  The other assumption is the new attorney has no clients.

First, there are very few organized 'training programs' out there. And they are generally in the Big Law firms (think mega firms) where most attorneys will not gain employment. If mentoring is the key and learning from the expertise of another is the most important element in preventing a new solo from getting in over their heads and avoiding harm to the client, new solos fresh out of the chute generally will have a safety net of experienced attorneys they can call upon to assist them.  But now they are functioning as peers.  The mentoring attorney gets many benefits beyond altruism.  This new attorney will bring them business they would not otherwise get.  And therein lies assumption number two.  Getting your law license doesn't mean you didn't exist before passing the bar.  Most business an attorney will get (62%) will come as referrals from friends, family and co-workers who already know, like and trust this individual.  The law license is a bonus.  Understanding how one gets clients initially, by leveraging current relationships, is key.  And a smart mentoring attorney knows this.  So there is profit to be made in addition to being altruistic for attorneys to mentor new attorneys.  And these mentoring attorneys will advise the new attorney on the full spectrum of legal knowledge as well as the nuances of running a legal services business.  So, a new solo can have multiple mentors treating him as a peer in the legal community.  In addition, there are invaluable resources through legal associations, CLE, Solosez and more.

If one is to take the attitude solos have to get a job first and the jobs are not there, isn't it better to address what the new attorney is presumed to gain from the job and find the solution within the legal community so they can create their own opportunity?  The economy is not pretty and will be less pretty in the not too distant future (a whole other topic.)  New attorneys need to be educated on multiple options upon graduation, whether by design or lack of gainful employment.  The legal community and law schools do a grave injustice to new graduates by perpetuating the 'myth' of how impossible it is to start a solo practice upon passing the bar and declining to offer help.  Malpractice will never be lower then when you first graduate.  Did you ever wonder why?  Because the statistical likelihood of a new attorney committing malpracticing or getting a high ticket case and causing serious financial harm is minimal.  The greatest number of malpractice claims are made against those who have been practicing for 8 - 15 years.  And the only reason solos/small firms are singled out is because larger firms have the clout to finesse themselves out of it...solos/small firms have less resources as they are running their businesses.  So, first thing we need to do is stop perpetuating myths....not you, but the legal profession as a whole.  The majority of lawyers are solos...shouldn't this message be broadcast to law students?  And then shouldn't colleagues, judges, professors and asosciations help them to achieve success whenever an attorney, newly minted or well seasoned, chooses to go solo?
I know there are many who read this blog who agree with the writer of the e-mail I answered.  Please join in the conversation. Let's talk! 


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I would say to the questioner, it all depends.

It all depends on the quality of the position you obtain right out of law school AND what you do with your time during that period. Even at a big law firm, if you spend two years, say, conducting document reviews on large scale commercial litigation, this won't be very good preparation for a solo career in consumer law, real estate, whatever. You must assess your available options with a sharp eye towards your future career as a solo. Not all options, even "prestigious" or high-paying ones, are necessarily the best road to follow.

I also will say that law students seeking paid employment generally expect to be paid more than they would make if they hung a shingle. Hanging a shingle is understood to require a certain amount of financial risk and belt-tightening until one's practice starts to take off. But who would think about taking a salaried position for such little money, right?

This makes no sense. It may be very practical for a newly admitted attorney to find a high-quality solo or small firm practice to join -- at below market pay -- precisely to gain valuable experience in a somewhat more secure environment. But most law students don't think like this. They should.


Having opened my own office, I find that being effective as a solo practitioner depends a lot on asking the right questions of the right persons. Sometimes I don't think this would be different if I had a job under someone else.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Theresa, in your brevity your answer was right on the money. It's asking the necessary questions of the right people. Congratulations on going solo.

Marion T.D. Lewis

I took a 7 year break after law school, taught elementary school then came back and opened my practice--with no experience. It wasn't so much that I wanted to do that but I knew that if no one would hire me fresh out of law school with no experience, certainly no one would hire me seven years hence and still with no experience. So I created my own opportunity. Is it easy? Hell no. Some days I wonder like Katie Couric: "Oh my god what did I do?" But would I trade this experience for the world? No. Everyday is a learning experience. Every mistake teaches me a valuable lesson I take to the next case. I am starting to understand that I am my own brand. And I learned an important lesson this year: what affects me personally affects me professionally. There is no law offices of Marion T.D. Lewis without Marion Lewis. So I would tell any young solo branching out, take care of thyself, above all else.

I would say that growing up a client base is probably the hardest thing, and it helps to be a social butterfly and to be known by many people. (I am not a social butterfly so its harder.) Still, as I enter my third year of practice building my client base will be my focus. Finding a mentor is probably the most challenging. But hope springs eternal because I still need a good one. In any event, thank you for writing this article. I needed to hear someone say the things you said.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Marion, You are absolutely right. It is hard work multi-tasking and building your client base. And it is intimidating realizing you are the brand...there is no alter-ego. And yet, as most solos say, "I wouldn't have it any other way." Congratulations on your commitment to the brand, you.

Peter Olson

I think the "x" factor is the quality of mentoring/training that you might get at a firm. I'm solo now but worked at two small firms previously. Thankfully the first place I worked my boss was excellent and to this day a valued mentor. At the second place there was little or no training. If my first job had been at this firm it would have been brutal. Build a mentor network...I'm always looking to mentor because in mentoring I'm always getting mentored too.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Peter, you are absolutely correct. It is about getting the right mentors. And as you so astutely put it, as a mentor you become the mentee, as well. As always, your points are right on the money. A major key to a solo's success is the right network of mentors.

Lisa Solomon

I must take issue with your statement, in the last paragraph of this post, that malpractice rates are lowest for new law school grads than experienced lawyers "Because the statistical likelihood of a new attorney committing malpracticing or getting a high ticket case and causing serious financial harm is minimal." That's only part of the reason.

Malpractice insurance is written on a "claims made" basis. That means that a policy covering, say, the policy year July 1, 2006-June 30, 2007 will cover claims made during that period, regardless of when the act or omission out of which the claim arises occurred (within certain limits spelled out in your policy). Thus, malpractice rates for new law grads are low partly because, since new law grads have little or no practice history (assuming that the new solo has insurance from Day 1), the new grad has not committed any acts or omissions before the inception of the policy that could potentially result in a claim during the policy year. (Of course, a claim might arise from acts or omissions that occurred during the policy year, but that's a limited time frame.)


Susan, care to elaborate on this comment: "The economy is not pretty and will be less pretty in the not too distant future (a whole other topic.)"

I happen to agree with you, but I was a little surprised to read this sort of sentiment on a solo attorney blog. How bad do you think the economy will get and what can a solo attorney do to survive a severe economic downturn? Thanks.

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