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April 10, 2008

"You Ask...I Answer" - I Know I Want To Go Solo. What Can I Do To Prepare While In Law School?

Question: I will be starting law school in Atlanta this fall. I'll be 34 when I start law school, and 37 when I pass the bar. I'm going to law school to become a criminal defense attorney, and want to start my own firm upon passing the bar. I already subscribe to Solo Practice University E-zine. What, if anything, can I do between now and the time school starts? Could I start on my business plan? Start a blog? Twiddle my thumbs?

First, congratulations on your pre-law school decision to go solo.  Given you wll be a non-traditional law student you clearly have some background behind you from the work world so I'm assuming you went to law school with your eyes wide open.  But not fully knowing your background I wonder if your career counseling office has given you any advice about how to navigate through law school given your solo ambitions?  We'd all be curious to know if you got any direction and/or advice and what it was.

That being said, there are many things I would do while in law school to prepare for solo practice. First, you have three (or four) years to put together a very thoughtful business plan.  Here is a link to some basic elements. Location plays a key role.  There is also some reading you should do: How To Start and Build A Law Practice by Jay Foonberg (as a student you should get a discount through the ABA) and Solo By Choice by Carolyn Elefant. In addition, although I haven't read it yet, there is a new book out by Ed Poll called Law Firm Fees and Compensation. Also, join Solosez.

As far as your law school experience, if I was your advisor and knew you wanted to go solo upon graduation, I would navigate you accordingly:

After your core courses, I would take every possible practical course offered and taught by adjuncts.  Why adjuncts, because they are currently practicing and already connected in the community.  Thus, your professional networking begins and your professional reputation starts.

Absolutely do clinical work at your school. Get accustomed to case flow, court room experience if possible. (My best experience came from doing an actual trial, preparing the case, examining witnesses.)  This will give you as a close a flavor to practice as any if your clinic is good.

I would get my self involved in any internship or externship programs (hopefully placed with a solo) so you can actually see how a solo operation runs and will have a better chance to actually DO work which will simulate your future work, getting into court, reading and writing pleadings, meeting clients.  Even if the solo or small firm you work for turns out to be an example of the type of solo practice you DON'T want to create, it remains a valuable lesson for that reason alone.

Since you want criminal work, try volunteering at the PD's office. Strive for any internships the school can arrange or create your own.  Yes, try to create your own on your own time even if it is for a week of shadowing a PD or local criminal defense attorney.  Make it your own non-credit, non-paid creation if you must.  And if all else fails, go to the school itself...that's right, the court room and sit in on as much as you can, note the players.  Every court has a core group of 'lawyer celebrities' both famous and infamous and you should know who they are and watch their style, learn the language.  The biggest intimidator for most solos is is believing 'they won't know what to do.' (And many colleagues will feed this fear.) Imitation (with a little knowledge) is a beginning.  You won't be the first to do it, trust me.  Learn the rhythm of the court house.  Get to know the marshalls.  Be seen in your million dollar suit.  Just having people see your face is big.  Once you pass the bar, most people won't know why they know you. They just will.

And if you know you are going solo, unless you have extra energies to spare after doing all the above, skip moot court and law review.  They are great if you want to pad your resume and get a job.  Their value is marginal if you are going solo because appellate work is NOT the norm when you first get out of law school.  Every day experiences takes top priority if this is your course of action and if you need to take a course which will give you practice, take trial practice.  Learn how to define and then try a case.  And if you are lucky, the course will be taught by an adjunct from the PD's office or a practicing plaintiff's trial lawyer.

Create a blog.  If you have to do so anonymously because you are not ready to have your name out there yet, that's fine. The most important goal of blogging while you are in law school is to become familiar with the blogging platforms, technologies and techniques, learning how to connect with others and understanding it will be a powerful marketing tool upon hanging a shingle.  If you master the skills now, understand you need to put aside 'marketing' time to do this, develop good blogging habits, it will stand you in good stead when you open your doors.

And you should follow the construction progress of Solo Practice University as it will be in full session while you are in law school and definitely give you the 'how-to-tools' you will need to comfortably go forward with solo practice upon passing the bar.

I hope this helps.  If others would like to add points I may have missed or share their own experiences, please join the discussion.


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I might not recommend skipping moot court, since appellate practice is a tangible skill that some clients might need, and the brief-writing skills strike me as transferable to motion practice generally. One way or another you still need to write organized, persuasive briefs. Might as well take all the opportunities to practice that in school. Plus, often there are moot court competitions, and if you can do well at them it'll be a confidence builder.

In fact, I might even have to say that finding time for moot court could even be more important than finding time for blogging, and I'm normally a huge advocate for blogging. I did both in law school, though, and they were some of my favorite activities. I also drew on both experiences when I worked in a small firm following graduation.


I graduate in December, also as a non-traditional student. My background is automotive engineering for five years, then business process consulting for Fortune 500 companies for another five. I started law school part time, then switched to full time, and also plan to hang out a shingle as soon as I pass the bar.

As a student, I can't say whether I will regret not being on moot court or law review, but I chose not to do either of those because of the time demands. Instead, I too am taking all the practical courses taught by adjuncts that I can. I am working an internship that I created with a two attorney firm, and spending time at my local courthouse getting to know everyone and watching real trials and practice in my areas of interest. It is invaluable. You will find that you only have so much time when you're in law school, so you have to prioritize. Law review and Moot Court might be enjoyable, but I'd recommend an externship with the Solicitor's office for actual legal practice experience. Having a good relationship with the Solicitor's Office will be worth its weight in gold if you do criminal defense work. The number one challenge will be bringing in a steady stream of clients, and your best source straight out of school is to be known at your local courthouse as an intelligent person of integrity. It will also help you get better results for your clients if you have a good working relationship with the Solicitor's Office and District Attorneys. The attorneys I work for have been better advisers than my professors, but I've always taken a practical approach to things. Best of luck to you!

Carolyn Elefant

Hi Susan,

Thanks for recommending my book. I also really like your idea of creating a job of shadowing a PD and finding a way to try a case.

But (and I admit bias here, since I was an avid moot-courter), like Cathy, I'd have to say that I would try to work moot court in if there's time. I think that there are appellate opportunities when lawyers start out - perhaps not handling the appeal themselves, but writing a brief on a contract basis for a lawyer. Also, appeals can be a very quick way to make money - they are easy to flat-fee, you are limited to the issues raised below and thus, a new attorney might be able to pick up a few appeals on a flat fee basis that a more experienced lawyer might charge much more for.

Also, moot court comes very, very close to mimic'ng real life practice. Moot court arguments are notoriously more difficult than "the real thing," and the issues raised are usually much, much more complex than you'd encounter in actual practice.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Carolyn and Cathy, I think the key is prioritizing for the greatest likelihood for success as a solo practitioner who can hit the ground running once they pass the bar.

In a perfect world we would do it all. But when time is tight and you have to make choices...'street' learning is, in my opinion, a much better use of one's limited time, grittier, and helps to deal with the realities of hanging a shingle right out of law school.

But, what you do depends upon what will give you the most confidence when you graduate from school. So, for some, moot court and law review may very well give you the confidence boost you need.

James Devlin

While working at the PD office is useful another thing to consider would be to work at the District Attorney's office. This is for a number of reasons. First, it is always good to know the how and why of the decisions made there; second, you will create valuable connections for the future (and personal connections often help your client); third, the DA office can often pay their interns while the PD office usually cannot offord to. Pay is always good. You will also get to know the defense attorneys and their pecking order as well as those that you can ask for advice and those you don't want to talk to any more than you have to. I fell into criminal defense and, generally, many of the attorneys have no problem sharing their expertise. Good luck and fight the good fight.

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