Hive Mind Career Advice: Starting My Own Law Practice
In Stupid Tuesday Questions, Burt Likko wrote about his own anxieties in applying for a judgeship in California. My answer to his question was about my own anxieties about starting my own firm. Burt responded that he partially wrote his stupid Tuesday question to work out his own anxieties and fears. Now I will do the same.
As I have written about a million times before. I went to law school at the world’s worst time to go to law school. My post-Bar career has been a middle of the pack odd spot place of having several long term contract positions combined with some smaller jobs. I have a few friends who are in my position. I know a good deal of people who did land firm positions (but maybe not as prestigious as they wanted or would have gotten under normal conditions and a lot of people working for their parents) and a lot of people who are simply not working as lawyers with varying degrees of happiness about their alternatives. Some of us in the permanent freelance position have found are selves in stretches of unemployment or underemployment. I am currently a six weeks into my third bout of unemployment after finishing my third contract job in less than three years. I’ve been considered a good worker at all my jobs but there was not enough work to justify bringing me for a full-time position.
My mom is gently encouraging me to open up my own practice. She explains her big concern as not wanting me to be downsized or laid off when I am in my 50s or early 60s with kids in college and not being able to get a new job. This concern is fair enough but it seems too abstract and conjectural to me as a 34-year old without a girlfriend. I don’t even have strong opinions on whether I want children or not. Every now and then my mom will say something about how I might not have any other choices. She also probably thinks starting my own practice is likely to keep me in the Bay Area instead of returning to New York.
The big issue is that starting my own firm involves a lot of overcoming of doubts and a counter-intuitive thought process. The Doubting Parts of my brain are inherited. My mom has told me that when she was in college she was a bit gob-smacked that her female friends would believe the guys with tall tales. She didn’t understand how anyone could believe a 20-year old guy talking about how rich and successful he would be even a 20-year old girl.
I have the same doubts and this includes about myself. I never quite got the bro-dudes who managed to convince themselves that they will always be successful and they were God’s gift to women. This includes guy’s at school who would tell women that they were lawyers when they were law students. Friends of mine have told me that they think I walk the walk more than those guys but the bro-dudes are better at talking the talk. In short, I sell myself short and doubt my own prospects.
The truth is that you have to be a bit full of yourself to start your own business. I’ve had other friends who felt stuck and I broached the idea of starting a firm and they always are intrigued initially but then demure and say they are not risk-takers. One friend joked and said he would join me if I got 5-10 good cases. I wonder how much said friend is joking though.
The doubts come from the practicality of setting up a business including where I am supposed to get the money for renting office space, malpractice insurance, and other issues. I’ve been told that if you set up a law practice that you should only do the type of cases that interest you otherwise you will want to blow your brains out. I’m mainly interested in plaintiff-side litigation. This is all done on a contingency fee basis. I know some solo lawyers who have done plaintiff’s work on their own from the first day of their careers. They all say that the upfront costs have gone up significantly with mandatory mediation and that the cases they cut their teeth on as young lawyers are gone. Those cases were stuff like car crashes with a moderate level of damages. Any boomer plaintiff lawyer can probably tell you about earning their wings on car crash and injury cases with damages of a few thousand dollars, maybe ten thousand maximum.
The Counter-Intuitive side is thinking that I will be successful despite the fact that the legal market for lawyers is still under a crunch and unlike previous recessions, the legal economy is still lagging behind the general recovery. The Market in New York is seemingly better than the market in San Francisco. I’ve been told by firms that they like my work but don’t have enough work to justify hiring me on as an associate or even giving me another project. It seems odd to think that I can get clients on my own or go knocking on doors for freelance work as others have suggested while building up my own practice.
I do know some people from law school who tried setting up their own practices because no one was hiring. They all quit being solo practioners as soon as they found someone willing to hire them. There was not one person who said “You know, I think I will continue with my own practice and see where it takes me.” It feels rather hard to start my own business with that fact out there.
I get that the rewards of having my own practice could be great both financially and psychologically. Yet the risks now seem way to daunting to justify taking the chance.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
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