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June 06, 2008

"You Ask....I Answer" - If I Know I'm Going Solo, What Should I Be Doing During the Summer Breaks While In Law School?

(It's that time of year...so I resurrected a post from last year for all those law students who want to know what to do this summer to further their solo ambitions.)

The question this week comes from the gifted Anastasia Pryanikova who writes Lawsagna , a blog which provides very valuable information to law students currently navigating through law school, the practical, the spiritual, and the inspirational.

Question: I saw your category of "You Ask...I Answer" posts and thought I'd ask a question on behalf of my readers.  Summer time is when many students try to get practical experience by interning at a firm, government or non-profit.  If students know they would like to go solo after graduation, what would you recommend they do during their summers to prepare for their solo practice?


Anastasia, this is a difficult yet easy answer at the same time. So, where to begin.  If you know you are going to become a solo practitioner upon passing the bar then everything you do, from your course selection to your extracurricular activities to your summer internships should be geared towards two things, networking/building professional relationships and gaining 'practical' experience that mirrors the life of a solo practitioner.

Therefore, and I know some will give me flack for this....does it make sense to spend your time on Moot Court and taking courses in Entertainment Law, or getting practical experience interviewing clients and working on real cases through your internship and externship programs as well as taking courses in the basic practice areas the average consumer will hire you for?  Should you be burning credits taking philosophical courses or business management courses?  Should you be learning how to interview, negotiate and mediate with your extra credits or just taking irrelevant gut courses?  Should your extra time be devoted to volunteering in a solo's office (unpaid) or competing for Law Review (unpaid.) You have to map out the course in the law school which serves your ultimate goal.  Some may argue you can't really know. I say most students do know if they want to be an employee or an entrepreneur

In your three years of law school everything you do should be laying the foundation for your solo practice.  Everything.  And here comes the blasphemy.  If you KNOW you are going out on your own, do not put the extra energy into getting A's in all your classes.   No client you get is going to ask your class rank or what your grade was in torts.  Only an employer will during the screening process.  Spend your extra energy and time learning the business of law in the trenches.

So, how do you spend your summers?  By getting in the trenches.  Let me preface this, however.  In the trenches is not a summer associate position doing document review at a mid-sized firm where you have no client contact, no opportunity to visit the court house, no exposure to rainmaking or the business end of running a law practice.  You gain nothing in furtherance of your solo practice.  In the trenches is not worrying about getting paid for your legal work...bartend at night if you have to earn money because you can't get a paid legal position that gets you in the trenches. But, you HAVE to get in the trenches.

Be prepared to give away your time....call it a marketing expense...and then follow these three steps.

Find solos/small firms who do the type of work you are interested in doing.  Ask for a job.

If they are not hiring, tell them you would like to work for free shadowing the attorney and be given the opportunity to learn about the business of running a law firm as well as doing the legal work. 

THEN tell them you would like to practice your rain making skills (that will perk up their ears) and if you bring business to the firm, you would like to work on that case and get paid an hourly rate for the work you do on this particular case.

This three step approach is very important to your solo success.  You will learn the following important lesson:  "If you are not bringing in money, you are overhead.  And overhead is expendable."

As a solo you have to be first and foremost a rainmaker.  You have to learn to bring in business.  And 62% of all your business will be directed to you from your friends, family and co-workers.  So, whether you realize it now or not, you already have a huge pool of people ready to be leveraged. These same people are very anxious for you to graduate so they can refer business to you.  If you let them know you are working for Attorney XXXX and, although you are not a lawyer yet, you will be able to work on the case and gain experience for your solo practice, they will send business your way.  You will be able to start meeting other practicing attorneys and develop professional relationships.  You will be able to hone your interviewing skills, see how to 'close' clients on retaining your services and then be able to do the actual legal work.  It will closely mirror your experiences as a solo.

And you bring value to the attorney without being overhead. This is very important. Having you in their office presents a no lose situation for the accommodating attorney.  The business you bring in is business they would not otherwise have gotten and it is gained at no marketing cost to them.  And if you prove your worth bringing in business and producing quality product, you may be able to parlay this into a regularly paying gig until you graduate and pass the bar.  You bring value to the law office...it is "what you can do for them."  This is the real selling feature.  And if you can advocate for yourself in this way, you can effectively advocate for others when you've passed the bar.

If you can't get a paid legal job or a position as described above, and you are not working or working part time and have hours left, start acting like a lawyer.  What does that mean?  Spend time at the court house.  Get to know the players meaning the top lawyers, law firms in the area of law you want to practice.  Watch them in court.  Watch the procedures in court.  Learn about court-appointed lists attorneys can get on for appointments to do legal work.  Go to the criminal courts, the family courts, the bankruptcy court, the probate court and watch and learn.  If you find a lawyer who is doing a trial or an interesting case, get a copy of the motions in the file to start building your form file.  Be seen.  Be heard if it is appropriate by introducing yourself as a law student who enjoyed watching the lawyer.  Now for something interesting:

Make up calling cards.  That's right.  Calling cards.  You are not a lawyer but you can have a card with your name, contact information including e-mail and expected date of graduation to use for introduction.  This is not pretentious. This is smart.  Imagine you meet a lawyer you would like to work with as described above.  You are talking with him about his case and hand him a calling card and say, "I would love to shadow you some time, maybe bring some business your way while I'm in law school. I'm not a lawyer yet but I have a lot people anxious for me to get my degree.  I'd like to be able to refer them to a great lawyer."  Remember, you have to learn to make rain for yourself, too.  Great way to practice.

I hope this answers your readers' questions.  And if others have ideas about how to get practical experience during the summer which will help their solo practice efforts, please share.  I know this has just skimmed the surface.


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» Susan Cartier Liebel of Build A Solo Practice, LLC answers my question from Lawsagna
Susan Cartier Liebel is an attorney, national coach and consultant who shares her wisdom and advice on how to create and grow a solo practice in her blog Build A Solo Practice, LLC. Here’s what I asked Susan:“I saw your [Read More]

» Get Google Wit It!!! from Chuck Newton
There was an interesting exchange on Susan Carier Liebel's Build A Solo Practice the other day concerning what a law student should do during summer break to prepare to go into solo practice. There were a good number of good suggestions, but ultimately... [Read More]


Seth R.

Pretty simple. Get a job (any job) and make as much money as you can. If you have to clean carpets, wait tables, shingle roofs, whatever... that's fine. Just reduce the debt load.

If you're going solo right out of law school, you absolutely want to minimize your student debt. That is the big priority that trumps all others. You're probably going to have quite a few meager months financially after passing the bar, if not a couple years.

Peter Olson

Agree about minimizing the debt load. I think the challenge is finding many solos that are doing a lot of hiring...if you're in Chicago e-mail me. I thought that law school clinical experiences were very useful...great for client contact. I didn't feel prepared for the business side of the practice at all and still not totally sure where students can get that effectively.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Peter, thanks for your insight. (I always try to comment on your blog but it never works. You have some great posts!) It is hard to get a global view of practicing law unless you are with a solo/small firm because only there can you really see how all the pieces fit together. And thanks for your offer to students in the Chicago area. IMHO it's a win/win situation all around. And glad to see you are going home to go to work.


Excellent advice, Susan.

However, I would emphasize even more strongly the critical importance of developing true legal expertise.

The goal is to convince potential clients that one has the ability to handle their legal problems effectively and efficiently. This is difficult for new law school graduates to do because they don't have the credentials that a more experienced atty (who may have clerked, spent some years in a firm, or worked at a govt agency before going solo) has.

So they must be able to convey this ability through a spoken command of the relevant legal principles, and knowledge about what is happening in the client's industry. This can only be obtained through focused study. Not the kind of inefficient, hide-the-ball teaching that takes place all too often in law school -- but by reading the best treatises and periodicals and attending CLE classes.

At the end of the day, we are selling a service (preferably at a high price) to people who need legal help. One cannot do this without a significant level of expertise -- more so than can be gained through law school alone.

Indeed, it seems to me that there is an even greater need for personal knowledge and expertise for solos, because solos lack easy access to partners and associates to assist with -- and take partial responsibility for -- handling legal issues. As I prepare for my own solo career, I realize that being fully conversant with one's chosen field of law is absolutely indispensable.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Steve, You bring up very valid 'perceived' hurdles a new solo will face. I say, 'perceived' because they can be addressed in several ways. When I started my career right out of law school, I immediately sought out 'mentors,' other solos who would willingly shorten my learning curve by being available with a phone call, offering 'expert' advice, direction or co-counsel if needed. This gave me the safety net you describe. I did the CLE which I found to be more practical then any class because it was based in the practicalities of the day-to-day business of law. And I also retained the faith in myself to do what law school truly teaches you, the ability to find the answers you need to help your clients. Another valuable resource for the solo is Solosez,


a listserv group of more than 2400 attorneys available to answer your questions, but more importantly, point you in the right direction to get the answers you need. Another valuable safety net. Not everyone chooses to go solo but finds they have no option but to go solo. Knowing the way to provide 'expert' safety nets for themselves is key to overcoming these 'hurdlel.' True legal expertise is a dangerous concept. One can be knowledgable over time but the laws change, the procedures change, and it is critical a lawyer never become complacent or 'sure' of her knowledge. Therein lies the basis for a malpractice suit...usually hits around 8 - 15 years when lawyers feel they have 'true expertise.'

Chuck Newton

Google. It sounds silly but it is true. Spend hours - days -nights Googling everything about starting a law firm, your desired practice areas, the court and courthouses in which you will practice. Google forms. Google practice software. Google all of the attorneys that practice what you want to practice in your area. You will lean the language of the profession and the practice group. You will learn the players by name. Treat it like a giant virtual road trip. It will be truly amazing. Be manic about it. Keep notes and links.

Ron Miller

Minority Report: When you graduate from law school, you are not qualified to handle a single case. You are just not. How many clients are you going to have that would not be better off with a seasoned lawyer? Zero.

Get a job. Learn the your area of practice. It does not take very long. But trying to handle cases on your own without any experience I think is crazy.

Ron Miller

Also, I'm on a Listserv and I see those emails looking for help with the most basic of things. My thought always is: this person should not be handling this case and any lawyer on here would get a better result for the client. I also remember that person's name. Not exactly the best way to begin developing a reputation.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Ron, Welcome to BSP and thanks for joining the discussion. What you are in fact saying is supporting a position I have which is law school is not doing its job. However, that being said, I do not agree with your premise, 'they know nothing' and would simply be better with a seasoned lawyer. In addition, what is preventing the new lawyer who has established this relationship with a potential client from working w/a seasoned lawyer on the case? What is preventing a mentoring relationship which mimics the supposed relationship one has 'working elsewhere' but which in reality seldom exists?

It is this lack of 'creativity' which frightens new lawyers. This blog is about encouraging the creativity and entrepreneurship in those who wish to go solo and dispelling the myths which get floated around. Consider this blog 'Snopes for lawyers.'

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