Privilege and Entrepreneurship

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96 Responses

  1. Stillwater says:

    So even if someone is being really frugal, it can still be very daunting to start their own business. So why do we think entrepreneurship is the solution to our unemployment and underemployment problems? My guess is that telling people to take a risk and start their own business is a solution that requires the least amount of sacrifice from those that already made it. They don’t have to higher more people, they don’t need to pay more taxes in order to have a good safety net, they can moralize about the laziness of a generation and who doesn’t like doing that?

    Remember your theory about people being butthurt?Report

  2. zic says:

    Entrepreneurship is one of those words that means different things to different ears.

    This use, to start a business, doesn’t necessarily suggest that the person so engaged is an entrepreneur — someone dedicated to growing a business quickly. Staples, the office supply company, was entrepreneurial because the goal, from the start, was to grow. The mom & pop who open a card shop, which might also sell office supplies, might have, in its founding, been called entrepreneurs, because they started a business, but they’re probably not entrepreneurial if that cardshop is their vision, and not many card shops or some other offshoot rooted in the original vision.

    I don’t think most people think entrepreneurs, lawyers hanging out a shingle, are entrepreneurial and will create jobs; they’re creating a job for themselves, and that’s the goal. But two or three experienced lawyers founding a new partnership where the intent is many lawyers and much support staff might be considered entrepreneurial.

    So long and short, I think there’s confusion here; small business formation to create a job isn’t really going to solve unemployment, and when we hear that entrepreneurial businesses are key, this confusion often arises. Rather, entrepreneurial business intent on growing quickly (like Staples was, back on the day, or Starbucks or Five Guys,) are the job-creating engines referred to by economists.Report

    • Mo in reply to zic says:

      I disagree. I don’t think we should dismiss lifestyle business just because their goal isn’t to become a multi-national corporation. If anything, the mom and pop opening the card shop are putting a lot more on the line than the venture backed 23 year old.Report

      • zic in reply to Mo says:

        You’re miss-understanding me, I think; I would never dismiss the value of that mom&pop, and my sweetie and I both earn our incomes in the gig economy.

        But Saul’s conflating things — entrepreneurial growth, which historically has been the job generator — and forming a gig-economy business, and I suspect he’s hearing the word ‘entrepreneur’ at the root, and thinking different things are the same thing.

        An entrepreneur might start a business that’s not entrepreneurial, without intent for it to grow beyond a job for herself and perhaps one or two others. She might also start a highly entrepreneurial business that grows by leaps and bounds and receives multiple rounds of venture funding and finally has an NYSE IPO. That second is the job generator, and not to be confused (and put undue pressure on) the first, which is difficult and expensive, as Saul pointed out.Report

  3. Notm says:

    The armed forces are usually looking for lawyers.Report

  4. Tod Kelly says:

    A few thoughts…

    “So even if someone is being really frugal, it can still be very daunting to start their own business. So why do we think entrepreneurship is the solution to our unemployment and underemployment problems?”

    First off, as alwaysI think you are conflating your own personal wishes with everyone’s reality. The question, “can I really become a successful attorney on my own with an office in the middle of San Fransisco without a whole lot of seed money” is a very, very different question from “can I start my own business with whatever skills and capital I have right now?”

    Secondly, I think you are taking a glamorous but rather inaccurately limited assumption of what an entrepreneur is. Yes, Steve Jobs was an entrepreneur, but so is the guy with a ladder and a hammer who works for a local roofing repair company that decides he wants to open his own roofing repair company. So is the person who puts an ad on Craig’s List to clean your house once a week. So is the kid in my neighborhood who, not being able to find a job he liked working that paid him well, now has a business walking dogs for the myriad of people around here who own dogs but don’t have the time or schedule to do it on their own (but really, really don’t want to have to deal with either hyperactive pooches or poop in their house or their yard when they get home). THAT kid is making a rather obscene amount of money compared to the other teens around here.

    Lastly, you seem to be condemning entrepreneurship not being for non-risk, which is like chefs and bakers for making things that will spoil and rot over time.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      The “in San Francisco” bit being central. I will go out on a limb and guess that office space is a lot cheaper in, say, Modesto. Can Saul get any clients from his Modesto office? Heck if I know. It would depend a lot on what sort of work he is trying to do.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      That kid is the definition of entrepreneurship as I see it — identify an unmet need and figure out a way to meet it. Are there groups in San Francisco that are “underserved” by the legal profession? Or new/better ways to provide services to the legal community? Under-capitalized is always a problem — entrepreneurs are almost always in a race to generate revenue before the cash runs out.

      I live in an area that’s a hotbed for tech entrepreneurs. I know one couple who had tried for a long painful time to get law enforcement interested in their photo database and facial recognition package. Because the conventional wisdom was that law enforcement was the only market for that type of software. Their big breakthrough was repurposing it for cruise ships.Report

  5. Christopher Carr says:

    My dad’s a lawyer. He actually decided to stop using an office and start making house calls a few years ago and doesn’t regret it. His clients actually appreciate him for it, and his business is even picking up through personal referrals.Report

    • Man (rings the doorbell) Burglar! Burglar!
      Woman Yes?
      Man Burglar, madam.
      Woman What do you want?
      Man I want to come in and steal a few things, madam.
      Woman Are you a lawyer?
      Man No madam, I’m a burglar, I burgle people.
      Woman I think you’re a lawyer.
      Man Oh I’m not, open the door, let me in please.
      Woman If I let you in you’ll ask for a retainer.
      Man I won’t, madam. I just want to come in and ransack the flat. Honestly.
      Woman Promise. No lawyering?
      Man None at all.
      Woman All right. You’d better come in then.
      Man Mind you, there are many situations where you’ll be glad you’ve already got a relationship with an attorney.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      These discussions of the business of lawyering tend to be confused by the tendency to conflate all areas of lawyering, as if they were the same business. If the lawyering is of a sort that doesn’t require support staff with access to paper files, then the office is optional. On the other hand, a real office provides a young lawyer beginning his with some gravitas. A laptop at Starbuck’s can’t do this. Being established and getting those personal referrals is its own gravitas.Report

      • Kim in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        I bet $5000 and an interior decorator could provide a lot of gravitas to a home office.

        Why is it so bad for lawyers in SF to work out of their home? Greengrocers used to do the same thing all the time (shop below, house above — inbuilt security).Report

        • Richard Hershberger in reply to Kim says:

          I bet $5000 and an interior decorator could provide a lot of gravitas to a home office.

          I bet it couldn’t. The issue with gravitas and lawyers is that the client is buying the lawyer’s expertise. How does the potential client judge the lawyer’s expertise? The trappings of an office serve to signal this expertise: This is a successful lawyer, presumably achieving this success through hard work and effective advocacy for his previous clients. The mere fact of its being a “real” office conveys this, even without the wood paneling and shelves of (absurdly obsolete) law books. You can’t get that from the extra bedroom, even with good decorating. Not every lawyer in every specialty needs this boost, but if you are trying to establish a clientele, the office gives the sense that handing money to this guy is a good idea.

          This is, incidentally, the same reason that bank buildings used to be constructed to resemble Roman temples. It conveyed the sense that the institution was going to still be there when you wanted to withdraw your money. Nowadays the FDIC sign serves the same purpose, to the architecture need not be so impressive.Report

      • Christopher Carr in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        Maybe I’m in the minority, but when I hire someone for their services, I try to judge them by how well they perform the service that I’ve hired them for rather than the hue of the mahogany of their desk or what kind of endangered jellyfish they have in the neon tank in the lobby.

        I will acknowledge that there are those who are both richer and dumber than me however.Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to Christopher Carr says:


          I don’t think richer is the answer here. The things I know how to do are plaintiff side personal injury. Clients for this field aren’t rich. You get paid on contingency, so a percentage of award one if any. Sometimes these cases are complex and other times not.

          Clients could theoretically be well-off but many to most are not. They couldn’t afford a lawyer if it were not for contingency fees.

          I think an office for these people could represent that they are not dealing with a minnow. It could be an extra sword or shield. Somewhere where they can go for sanctuary that is not their place.

          Plus in litigation, it matters for a new person to have an office address to call their own when dealing with the opposition. Otherwise they will get dicked around with more than usual.Report

          • Christopher Carr in reply to Saul Degraw says:

            If they’re injured of course, they might appreciate you going to them even more.Report

            • LeeEsq in reply to Christopher Carr says:

              There are actually some really serious restrictions on how lawyers can get clients. Direct solicitation like this is considered a very big ethical violation in theory.Report

              • Drew in reply to LeeEsq says:

                Well yes, but that is not necessarily what Mr. Carr meant. Assuming there was no solicitation on the lawyer’s part, I don’t see anything wrong with a lawyer making a house call. If a client sees your number and calls and asks if you can do the intake interview at his/her house instead of the office, I see nothing improper there.Report

              • Christopher Carr in reply to LeeEsq says:

                That’s interesting, actually. I was thinking more about visiting people who had been personally referred and were existing clients. But to this point, and Mr. Schilling’s above, why would this be considered unethical, provided appropriate limitations are put in place?Report

              • LeeEsq in reply to Christopher Carr says:

                @christopher-carr it is unethical because the PRC says direct solicitation is unethical. Law is a business but for a long time American lawyers tried to pretend that they were not in business. This was inherited from the English legal system. Law was one of the few things the sons of peers and gentry could do for a living without being seen as being in trade.

                There are lots of limitations on how lawyers can promote themselves because of this. Lawyers weren’t even allowed to advertise until 1980, when the Supreme Court held that blanket bans on lawyer advertisements were unconstitutional. Before than, lawyers just had put up a shingle, put themselves in the phone book, and hope clients approached them in theory. Lawyer advertisements are weird because of the ethical rules. When you see a lawyer looking person indented as a compensated spokesperson its because the PRC requires it. Same for actors pretending to be clients.Report

              • Christopher Carr in reply to LeeEsq says:

                My dad refers to lawyers that advertise as “case-brokers”.

                Also, any time anyone mentions the English legal system, I’m reminded of this:

              • At first, I was all, “Cool! Another teaching tool!”

                And then I watched it and I’m all “Errrrrr… No.”Report

        • Richard Hershberger in reply to Christopher Carr says:

          when I hire someone for their services, I try to judge them by how well they perform the service that I’ve hired them

          How do you do that? This is a serious question. If you have just been in a car accident and decide to lawyer up, how do you choose from the innumerable candidates for your business?

          If your cousin was in an accident a few years back, and was happy with his lawyer, then your problem is solved. But if you don’t have some such source of insight, what basis do you have to choose? One basis that some people use is visible signals of prior success. A real office is one such signal.

          An established lawyer might be able to dispense with the office. He is getting his business via referrals from prior satisfied clients. He doesn’t need an office to signal his competence. But someone just starting out doesn’t have the critical mass of prior satisfied clients.

          This is no different from, say, choosing a car mechanic. That shade tree mechanic might be an automotive genius, with people lining up to hire him. But if you have no way of knowing this, most of us will probably favor someone with an actual garage with a car lift.Report

  6. Kazzy says:

    “So why do we think entrepreneurship is the solution to our unemployment and underemployment problems?”

    Who is this “we” you speak of? Who thinks this?

    “My guess is that telling people to take a risk and start their own business is a solution that requires the least amount of sacrifice from those that already made it.”

    How deeply cynical! People are telling you to start your own firm because they don’t want to actually help you and the only reason you can’t successfully start your own firm is because no one will help you!

    “Rather most young entrepreneurs grew up upper-middle class or above and have access to financial capital that covers their basic needs (and then some) while they are working on their businesses.”

    You’ve spoken often of your upbringing and it seems as if you grew up upper-middle class. I wouldn’t necessarily expect you to, but how come you can’t access financial capital to cover your basic needs while working on your business? Is there family you could reach out to? Could you go and live with family while getting your feet under you?

    Or is the issue, as @tod-kelly points out, that you want to start up a business in one of the most expensive places in all the world?Report

  7. Kim says:

    “Most people do not have this luxury including people who grew up rather comfortably.”

    Yeah, because most people don’t live in New Jersey. Last I checked, NJ offered classes on entrepreneurship for people out of work, and some seed money to start out new businesses.Report

  8. Saul Degraw says:

    Updating to updateReport

  9. Saul Degraw says:

    @tod-kelly @richard-hershberger

    We have been through this before. I have family and friends in the Bay Area including a girlfriend that I am quite serious about. She has a job and career here. I also have some work connections as small as they are. I know no one in Modesto or other small cities in California. So it seems rather odd to think that it is a winning plan both socially/psychologically and economically to move to an area where I know no one.

    I’ve also mentioned this before and it doesn’t seem to really stick (except for Gabriel Conroy) but I’m Jewish and like to be around fellow tribes people. A google says that the Jewish population of Modesto is about .07 percent. The Jewish population of the Bay Area is somewhere over 200,000. I get that if you are a white, heterosexual dude with some degree of Christianity anyplace is great for you. But it is not necessarily so for non-Christians. I don’t understand why is this goes over the head of so many dudes who are nominally to very Christian. It is a bit frustrating!Report

    • Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      I’m not ragging on your choice of place to live. if I could afford it, I’d be in SF too — it’s a hell of a place to live, no foolin’.

      That said, we just got a new neighbor around the block, who moved specifically to be in a modern urban Jewish community. It doesn’t have to be NYC or San Francisco…Report

    • Mr. Blue in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      So how much does society owe you on account of your desire to live in San Francisco, with family and other Jewish people? Does it owe me less because I had to say “Wow the job market in Memphis really sucks I guess I can’t stay here”?Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Mr. Blue says:

        Weren’t you essentially tricked out if leaving Memphis?Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Mr. Blue says:

        This. You are the guy who gets mad when the bill comes when eating out. “What do you mean, my choices have costs associated with them?”

        You can live with your tribes people and your girlfriend in a city you love. Or you can be a successful lawyer tomorrow. It seems, right now, you can’t have both. Maybe that sucks, but that’s life. Grow up and deal. And listen to Tod and stop assuming your situation reflects anything other than your situation.Report

    • krogerfoot in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      I get that if you are a white, heterosexual dude with some degree of Christianity anyplace is great for you. But it is not necessarily so for non-Christians. I don’t understand why is this goes over the head of so many dudes who are nominally to very Christian. It is a bit frustrating!

      Saul, for God’s sake. Did you do a Google search on the Jewish population of Japan before you moved here? The people counseling you to get serious about your career plan, most of them anyway, have your best interests at heart. If you don’t want to follow their advice, fine, but throwing such a transparent hunk of bullshit at them is unbecoming.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Then perhaps set up a reverse commute: Find office space as far out in the ‘burbs as you are willing to go.

      I haven’t been around here as long as, well, most all of y’all, so I don’t know the details of your situation. But where I am sitting, I see the observation that a very expensive city is a poor place to start a new law practice with poor capitalization. As surprises, go, this isn’t great. Something has to give. Your choice is what it is. Or start buying lotto tickets.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Richard Hershberger says:


        I’ve applied for jobs that are reverse commutes including ones that people would consider a bridge too far.Report

        • Richard Hershberger in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          But we’re not talking about finding a job. We’re talking about an affordable spot for your shingle.

          Which reminds me. In this neck of the woods, it is not uncommon for lawyers with some extra space to sublet to other lawyers. This is actually a pretty normal way for someone to get started. The newbie gets a “real” office while the established lawyer brings in some cash for space that would otherwise be a dumping ground for closed files that really should be scanned and shredded anyway. Do they not do that out your way?Report

          • Richard Hershberger in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

            Another thought. Have you looked into criminal defense? This has several advantages as a point of entry, at least as it is practiced around here. The work is done cash up front (if by check, there has to be time for it to clear before trial), so there is no futzing around with billing your hours or getting paid at the end of the process. The rules of procedure are pretty simple for the low level stuff. Once you get some experience, you can sign up for spill-over work from the PD’s office. The down sides are: (1) You are competing on price with the PD’s office, which is free. People prefer to hire a private defense attorney for obvious reasons, but in a down economy even the criminals don’t have money; and (2) You spend your life defending criminals. I am told that criminal defense attorneys find disconcerting the rare occasions they realize their client is innocent. It changes the definition of a “win” from “no jail time” to “no record” and throws the whole system out of whack.

            FWIW, I have a good friend who has made a decent career this route. She started out sharing office space, partnered up with a guy once she had some experience, and has just moved into a more established partnership (with secretaries and everything!) after impressing them in a big trial, which she had gotten from the PD’s office after impressing them with her previous work. It can be made to work. But you have to be willing to begin by marketing yourself with a Sharpie, writing your phone number over the urinals in the jail bathroom. (Not really, on that last bit.) (I think.)Report

            • Kim in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

              “you have to be willing to begin by marketing yourself with a Sharpie, writing your phone number over the urinals in the jail bathroom. (Not really, on that last bit.) (I think.)”

              … I wasn’t paying her for Sex,officer! I was paying her to write my number on the bathroom wall in the jail…Report

            • Francis in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

              In LA County, the bar panel path (lawyers who take cases when the Public Defender is conflicted out / too busy) is now virtually non-existent. And the number of defendants who can afford private counsel is really small. And private counsel are almost all former public defenders who can show years of experience.

              Crim. def. is a very tough route for newish lawyers.Report

              • Richard Hershberger in reply to Francis says:

                It could well be that this varies by region. My friend is in Baltimore. Come to think of it, the combination of being female, attractive, and a good lawyer might have helped, if only in making the initial connections.Report

            • Saul Degraw in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

              I was a friends with a lot of criminal defense and public defender types in law school.

              The SF Public Defender and Criminal Defense bars are very small and competitive. One guy was able to get into the PD’s office in San Diego but the rest had to move to rural areas for the experience.

              Francis notes that many private criminal defense attorneys have connections because of their days in the DA, PD, or U.S. Attorney’s office.Report

            • Drew in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

              There’s no money in criminal defense. I don’t mean that as in you can’t get rich, it’s hard to make a living period outside the PD. The vast majority of criminal defendants can’t afford private counsel. Even the best criminal defense lawyers fight for the tiny minority of defendants who can afford private counsel. Unless you’re a big name like Roy Black or Gerry Shargel you will struggle even if you’re very good.Report

              • Richard Hershberger in reply to Drew says:

                Again, this might be a regional thing. My friend does a lot of DUIs and possession with intent and the occasional gun charge. My impression is that the income from this is not lavish, but it is not nothing. As previously noted, she also is moving up the ladder.Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

            Sometimes but not always. I haven’t seen offers for that stuff in a while.Report

    • Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      I believe Minneapolis has a Jewish population about the size of San Fran’s. I wonder if you’d have an easier time getting a job there? Or Cincy?

      Or perhaps Cleveland, where the Jewish population is an even larger portion of the city’s whole? Or Atlanta?Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Chris says:


        The issue here would be needing to get another bar license and the year or so that would take plus the relevant expenses. I’ve applied to jobs in Seattle and Portland and DC despite not having a bar license for those areas either.

        And I am not the type to move to areas without a job lined up. I broke up from a long-distance relationship for many reasons but one reason was that my ex-girlfriend did not understand that I wasn’t willing to pack up and move to an area without a job lined up. My reasoning is what if I moved in with her, couldn’t get a job, and then she got fed up and broke up with me. Then I would be really screwed.

        Yeah, I am a cautious person.Report

        • Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          Being cautious is prudent and sensible, man.

          Are there any telecommuting options? My neighbor up the way is working legal cases in Massachusetts, while working from her house in Pittsburgh.Report

        • Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          Those are all valid factors to weigh against moving. San Fran romanticism and ignorance of most of the rest of the country are not.Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Chris says:

            And I have always listed these reasons and the personal utility reasons more. I am probably more of a New York and SF partisan and I get that a lot of Americans find that annoying but I have also said that there are a lot of metro-areas where I would consider living. There are some not as much areas as well like Burlington, Vermont and Portland, Maine, and Amherst, MA.

            So I think you are reading things in that are not there.Report

            • Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

              I’d be surprised if people didn’t find my cheerleading of Pittsburgh more annoying. SF and NYC seem like obvious places to like.

              I do find your “I am a sober and responsible Adult, and therefore won’t consume this entertainment because it would detract from my persona” attitude a bit unpleasant, but it’s really your loss.Report

              • Richard Hershberger in reply to Kim says:

                I lived a few years outside of Pittsburgh, and had friends their. This was going on twenty years ago, so I can’t really speak to Pittsburgh today, but I really liked the city back then. Other than the special hell which are the various and sundry bridges. But apart from that, I found it a very attractive city.Report

              • I actually lived in Philly for a while (I was born there, spent my childhood there).

                It was a pretty awesome place to be a kid, at least in the 80’s, because I was a latchkey kid back before that was child abuse and… well, I hesitate to say that “I was allowed to roam around the city at will” because “allowed” wasn’t the cultural attitude. It was “the kid is old enough to take care of himself for a couple of hours” and so I did stuff like “go to the mall” or “go to the grocery store” or “go to the playground”. Stickball with tennis balls, or nerf guns, or basketball were normal pastimes and it was just the way our parents though it was when they were growing up.

                The crime problem, sadly, encroached on this little ideal world when a couple of bad guys started seeing this as a good staging point for whatever bad action they were planning and I made the mistake of confronting them and it didn’t turn out particularly well for me.

                Well, my mom freaked out and told me that I had to go live with her brother and his wife in Bel Air.Report

              • Richard Hershberger in reply to Jaybird says:

                Well, my mom freaked out and told me that I had to go live with her brother and his wife in Bel Air.

                And the punchline is that it was Bel Air, Maryland.Report

        • Drew in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          It is trivially easy to be barred in DC if you are barred elsewhere. You either meet a minimum MBE, or, if your MBE is too old you can waive in for a fee after ~5 years of being licensed. If you’re serious about searching for work in DC might as well get the process started. Large firms will pay you for the year or so it takes to waive in, but most non large firms will want you to hit the ground running and be barred right away.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Dude, I’m not saying you should move, or change jobs, or abandon any dreams you have.

      I’m just saying that having a very specific dream that takes a hella lot of money means that you have chosen a very specific dream that takes a hella lot of money — but that’s about it. Trying to extrapolate ideas like “entrepreneurship doesn’t really work” from the data point of “you” is likely to produce inaccurate results. It’s similar to how, because you personally aren’t interested in business, you assume that universities that teach business must really to actually teach anything.

      Maybe the best way I can make my point is to put the shoe on the other foot:

      Imagine you came to me for advice about how to stay in SF and have a comfy lifestyle, and my advice to you was, “just sell your current business for a lot of money. You can retire and do what you want.” It wouldn’t matter how much many times I assured you that it was what I did. It’s not particularly relative to you right now at this point in your life. You would likely shake your head and wonder why the hell I couldn’t understand the you didn’t have a business to sell right now.

      It’s the same when you say no one can be an entrepreneur without a hella lot of money, because you personally need a hella lot of money to do this one thing you want to do.Report

      • Saul DeGraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @tod-kelly @krogerfoot @richard-hershberger

        I apologize. I am feeling a bit stressed and just vented my frustrations at Tod and Richard. This was uncalled for.Report

        • Tod Kelly in reply to Saul DeGraw says:

          Oh, there is absolutely zero need to apologize! Or at least to me.

          I was being critical of you, so I have no problem with you being critical back. You said nothing inappropriate.Report

          • Richard Hershberger in reply to Tod Kelly says:

            I, on the other hand, feel deeply offended, and possessed by the urge to flounce. OK, not really. But I’m willing to pretend, if it will induce Saul to someday buy me a beer.Report

  10. Burt Likko says:

    I don’t think hanging your own shingle is the best solution; the startup costs are indeed daunting. Rather, I think doing things for yourself is likely the least bad, with the assumption that a regular 8-to-5 is not available because the market sux.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


      You might very well could be right. I am just struck by too many paradoxes. Maybe you need a sense of something or other that I like to think you will be successful despite the rule and odds?
      Foolhardiness? Daunting? Courage?

      1. If the market is flooded and/or depressed, what makes me think that I can succeed and get clients and make enough to support myself instead of going into debt?

      2. I’ve approached classmates in my situation about joining together. Their response is always “Ugh, I don’t have any money….” So clearly people think this is insane.

      3. I suppose my biggest hurdle is that I am trying to break it all down and get overwhelmed. Again cautious and prudent. A lot of people are basically urging me to throw my head to wind and not worry about things that freak me out like malpractice insurance, filing fees, the trust v. operating account issues (which is where lawyers get in the most trouble and when you can withdraw to pay yourself. For some reason, the answer never makes sense to me). Plus the whole website and marketing issues. I am clearly not the type willing to max out a bunch of credit cards to start a business. That sounds like a recipe for bankruptcy.Report

      • Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Investigate what bankruptcy would actually cost you (seriously!) — it’s always good to know what the downside risks are for a given action.

        Honestly, you seem to have looked at the issue, done a decent cost/benefit, and said “no, not for me.” Now, if most of your hurdle is “I need XYZ amnt. of money”, well, you could pursue ways to make that happen as a more proximate goal (moving out of the city for a while might be a way to minimize expenses and save up for it… IF that is, you’re all fired “I want to be this kind of lawyer” — which I’m not sure you are.)Report

      • Francis in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I’ve never gone solo, but every lawyer at every stage of his/her career needs to keep asking the following questions:

        what is my area of expertise?
        who are my clients?
        how will my clients find me?
        how will I get paid?

        Do you want to compete in the unlawful detainer field? Personal injury? Family law (wills and divorces)? Immigration? Employment? Patent drafting [need PTO license for that one]? Regulatory compliance / permitting? Or do you think you can compete as a jack of all trades?

        [I’m sure with a few minutes’ consideration Burt could toss out even more areas of law where solos compete effectively.]

        If you’re joining a firm you get the luxury of figuring out what you want to do while on a salary. But you, sir, need a business plan. And mostly you will need the hide of a rhinoceros because a great deal of rejection is in your immediate future.

        For sake of argument let’s assume that your sole competitive advantage is that you have personal connections into the SF Jewish community that other solos don’t have. (You attend a synagogue / your family and friends are willing to put your name out there in their community / etc.) What legal services does the community consume, and are you in a position to compete on price (since you can’t compete on expertise)?

        Don’t know what services your community needs? Ask! Ask the richest people you know to tell you what legal services they need, then ask them if you can do the work!

        In my experience, most Bar functions are crammed with lawyers trying to take work away from each other. Instead, try to find the times and places where you can meet real potential clients in a business context. This requires learning who they might be and what their needs might be, and figuring out your pitch that will lead them to take work away from their current lawyers and give it to you.

        (I think the odds of being able to develop paying clients out of people who don’t currently use lawyers is pretty slim. By the time you’re slashing your rates to the point that they can afford you, you’re working at starvation wages.)

        This is likely to be an extremely unpleasant way to practice law, but it seems to me that you have few alternatives for getting started on your own.

        As to office space, before you sign up for a monthly lease try to find office suites that will let you rent conference room space by the day or the hour. If you’re using the space just to meet clients, there’s no reason to pay all the time that you’re not in meetings.Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to Francis says:

          My main experience is on the plaintiff side. I have worked on a lot of stuff as a freelancer from car crashes to employment to mass tort to anti-trust to 1983 cases. The big issue for me career wise is that when you freelance lawyers will pretty much let you do everything besides take depositions and do court stuff. I think this lack of deposition stuff is my biggest hurdle. But I find it odd to say get some clients of my own just to get depo and court experience in order to get a paying job.

          Since this is plaintiff’s work, I would be paid the contingency fee which is lucrative or can be lucrative but requires being able to wait a bit before getting.Report

          • Drew in reply to Saul Degraw says:

            Here’s my advice for depos: find a solo personal injury lawyer who does mainly slip and falls and auto accidents. Really small stuff. No one’s going to let a freelancer do a depo on a mass tort or antitrust case so forget about that.

            You develop a relationship with them. Then, ask if you can sit in on a few depos. Then, ask about defending depos (a common issue for solos-schedule conflicts are a bear, it’s nice to pay a competent freelancer to defend your depo so you can run to court/get on a conference call instead of owing one of his lawyer friends a favor). Eventually you ask if you can take a depo in a small case, maybe with him sitting in the room.

            Easier said than done, but that’s how I did it.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Well, here’s a couple of things I’d tell you from my own experience.

        1. Trust Account: Learn this first.

        2. Marketing: There is no shortage of work. There’s a shortage of paying work. Sometimes you have to take less than you think you’re worth, and one of those “sometimeses” is when you’re starting out and the client really can’t pay.

        3. Facilities: You’ve gotta make a deal somewhere. With someone. Somehow. If it’s an executive suite or a Fegen suite or a conference-room-as-needed with a friendly standalone firm, or something.

        4. Your self-diagnosis of “Paralysis by Analysis” is almost certainly correct. Remember, even in worse economic times than these, law firms have been started from ground zero and profitably operated by thousands of chuckleheads. You can be one of them!

        5. Specialize, not initially, but quickly. After you start doing a few things, figure out what you like and what actually brings in the amount of cash at the rate you want. Then start marketing that.Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

          2. I know this from friends who started their own practices. They always said getting paid was the hardest experience. I believe you mentioned this in your three cultures essay.Report

        • Sometimes you have to take less than you think you’re worth, and one of those “sometimeses” is when you’re starting out and the client really can’t pay.

          This is one of the classic situations for entrepreneurship (which, in my definition, does not include “I’m an independent small business person with a business that looks just like hundreds/thousands of others”): how to be productive enough that the costs can be lowered to create an entire new group of customers. Speaking from the outside, and with no disrespect, the entire legal system seems set up to make that sort of change as difficult as possible. From the outside, it looks like we have a 19th-century system with a few up-to-date frills. Eg, I can get SCOTUS opinions within minutes of the time the Court announces a decision, but in terms of productivity (cases per year, say) is the SCOTUS any better or faster than it was 100 years ago?Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Cain says:


            There are some start-ups that are trying to disrupt the legal market and/or be a kind of Uber/Lyft for lawyers but there are a variety of issues:

            1. Clients of all sorts want gravitas and law is a very traditional field this way. Big corporate clients might not be happy paying lots of money for legal work but they like the gravitas (and resources) that a lot of firms have.

            2. People are paranoid about client data and not willing to trust the cloud completely yet or remote working. I’ve worked remotely before and I have also been told “under no circumstances will you work from home.”

            3. The problem is that too many courts are like local fifedoms. The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure were supposed to make things more streamlined and they have but they still allow for a lot of variance in local rules for each district court and then each state court also has its own rules and traditions.

            4. As per your question, the Supreme Court probably heard more cases in the 19th century because they had less control over their docket and the Federal Court system was not fully established until the late 1800s. You can get statistics. There are hundreds of thousands of cases filed every year in the California State courts (just civil cases alone) and very few (a few hundred) go to trial. Most settle.Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Cain says:

            The other problem is allegedly loans. Lawyers could probably charge less but they need to start off charging a lot right away because of the expenses of business and paying back all their student loan debt.

            There is also probably a price paradox. Lawyering on the cheap makes people think a lawyer is shoddy. So finding that sweet spot is hard where you are being competitive without looking bad.Report

        • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:

          Again, updating to update.Report

        • Drew in reply to Burt Likko says:

          Trust accounting is not that hard, just get a good book on it and find a good bank (Capital one is good with this). Don’t be shy about calling your state’s IOLTA hotline if you have questions. Try to find a bank that won’t automatically rat you out to the Bar authorities if you accidentally write a business check from your IOLTA (some states they are required to by law, if they’re not, find a friendly bank). Get different colored checks for your business/IOLTA accounts.

          Google Apps is your friend, you probably don’t need fancy accounting or case management software until you have at least a dozen active cases-otherwise it’s not worth the cost.

          Trust accounting can be a landmine, and bars don’t fuck around there-but really, it’s not that difficult, just bone up on it, don’t be paralyzed with fear.Report

    • nevermoor in reply to Burt Likko says:

      a regular 8-to-5

      I hate LA Superior Court soooooooooooo much.Report

  11. Patrick says:

    Typically there’s avenues here.

    So your problem is a self-referential one. You need an established client base to cover costs in order to open an office because the office costs are expensive where you are.

    You have three choices: have money fall out of the sky, move or open an office somewhere other than where you are, or establish a client base that does not require you to first have an office.

    The first one is improbable. The second one you’ve discarded for matters of personal utility (that’s okay with me, for the record).

    So the third path is your way forward. Well, you need folks with money to see you as a competent attorney without you first doing work for other folks with money.

    That means doing work for entities that need attorney work who are also affiliated with folks with money.

    These entities exist. Non-profits and NGOs are often involved in litigation, contract law, all sorts of stuff… and they typically don’t have the resources to pay well up front, because they’re largely dependent upon donations.

    But they also… you know… get their donations from somewhere. Usually from folks with money.

    So build a network by doing work for folks who need work – and will pay for it upon delivery – but who don’t need a fancy office with leather chairs to convince them that you can do the work. Just start dropping in on NGOs, tell them your wheelhouse, and find out what you can do for them.Report

  12. Bert The Turtle says:

    Patrick:So build a network by doing work for folks who need work – and will pay for it upon delivery – but who don’t need a fancy office with leather chairs to convince them that you can do the work. Just start dropping in on NGOs, tell them your wheelhouse, and find out what you can do for them.

    Alternately, what about pitching legal services to small theater troupes/performance artists with offers of low cost representation/services. Your MFA and background in theater may be of added value to them since you’re familiar with the nuances of their situations. I don’t know what sorts of legal services they would require, but offering to swing by their practice studios to draw up or review contracts, deal with landlord issues, defend obscenity charges, etc. for a (low) fixed price may be a comparative advantage for you. I realize that theater types are not the wealthiest folks in the world, so it may be a hard sell with lots of rejection. On the other hand, it could combine your love of theater with your practical lawyerin’ abilities while providing an opportunity for further networking down the road.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Bert The Turtle says:


      Perhaps I am being accurate and maybe cynical but in my experience, theatre troupes are either so young that they barely have money for anything beyond renting a space, lights, and other stuff or they get to a level of establishment where very established lawyers are on their board of directors (usually a partner at a big firm) and will to do the legal stuff for free. The young companies might not even really need a lawyer. Most fold before the are 501(c)(3) eligible.

      Or if an artist gets into trouble, the prestigious pro bono crowd comes in quickly. A few years ago a playwright got a cease and desist for putting on a dark-parody version of a popular sitcom. I didn’t know the playwright but knew people who did and volunteered my legal services or assistance through them. I was promptly ignored because the big guns took up the cause.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Bert The Turtle says:

      Of course I can just be an old-fashioned person with old-fashioned skills and interests who is not suited for the current economy.

      If you give me a legal question, I can get almost certainly you an answer. Probably a solution (if one exists).

      Asking me to look at where there is an unmet demand is not in my skill set.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        You don’t want advce. You want the world to functon dfferently.Report

      • Chris in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        If I were going to give you advice, developing new skills would be one of the first things I’d suggest. Learn to network better would be the second. If “I do not have an important skill necessary to succeed in my chosen profession in this market” is your excuse, your solution is staring you in the face.Report

      • Drew in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Asking me to look at where there is an unmet demand is not in my skill set.

        Yes, but skill sets are developed. Did you pop out of the womb with legal knowledge? What else do you want to hear? I mean I get that it sucks, but it’s got to be worth a shot. Otherwise you might as well complain about the sun rising.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Bert The Turtle says:

      This is a great way to leverage Saul’s personal experience and all, but I agree with him that start up theater troupes aren’t necessarily the sort of folks to have access to folks with money.

      Now, on the other hand, theater programs that work with K-12 education to get performing arts back into our school system… every moderately well-to-do supporter of education (particularly public education) bemoans the lack of performing and fine arts in education, so I can guarantee that there are multiple non-profits working in this area.

      Look ’em up on teh Intrawebs. Look at your local school district’s extended education efforts. Call up private schools and ask them if they work with a local performing arts group.

      Network, baby, network.Report

      • Bert The Turtle in reply to Patrick says:

        That’s probably a good point about start-up theater groups not having much in the way of connections. I’m a salaried engineer in a somewhat rural area of NY, so my knowledge of any arts scene is limited to a few of my wife’s artist friends in the area. Still, Saul has a somewhat unique background and I think it would be good to try to use that in some way.

        My main point is that he needs to try something different, since what he’s doing right now doesn’t sound like it’s working.Report

  13. Drew says:

    I’m also a lawyer, but only a year out. Like you I have subsisted on a contract and per diem basis (luckily my wife is employed). I am looking for any kind of permanent work, and am facing the fact that I will never be a transactional lawyer-it just seems much more difficult to hang a shingle for that kind of work, as opposed to something like personal injury.

    But personal injury is not easy to break into-it’s a crowded market because, I think it’s “easier” to break into-to do transactional work, you need big or at least midsized firm exposure to decent sized clients, which means getting a firm job. Personal injury like other retail law (divorce, criminal, etc) you can theoretically break into purely on advertising.

    But in virtually every market, you need to front costs in order to be competitive. Not to mention it can take years before you see a dime (settlement, trial), if you ever see a dime. Every case is an investment. So you’d have to: get a loan (hard-some professionals can easily get loans-like dentists, but dental offices are reliably successful), save up the capital, or expand your practice area for more immediately-paying cases until you can sustain your practice on personal injury alone. Not easy. And consider that the PI lawyer’s bread and butter is slip and falls and rear end auto collisions-pretty rote, uninteresting stuff-will take years to get the really interesting cases if you ever make it there.

    But yeah, “be an entrepreneur.” I’ve heard that myself. Great advice! Ugh. I’m considering doing a postbacc to get into medical school. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor but I fell into the path of least resistance. At this point I might as well look into my other nonlegal options. Good luck to you.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Drew says:

      it can take years before you see a dime

      Does California not have a limited discovery process for smaller cases? In Maryland there are parallel trial courts. The District Court has exclusive jurisdiction for everything up to $15K, the Circuit Court for everything over $30K, and they share jurisdiction in between. District Court has only limited discovery–i.e. interrogatories, but no depositions–and you can get medical records and bills into evidence without putting an expert on the stand, and the trials are bench trials. Oh, and the filing fee is $38. So your rear-ender soft-tissue injury with a couple of months of therapy case doesn’t take years to resolve, even if it goes to litigation, nor is it expensive to pursue. (Also, Maryland Personal Injury Protection is awesome: the dollar amounts are low, but the PIP carrier has no subrogation rights on any liability settlement or judgment. Come to think of it, Maryland PIP may be the hidden engine driving the practice of personal injury law in the state.)Report

      • Drew in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        No idea, I’m not a California attorney (I’m barred in New York and New Jersey, though virtually all of my freelancing work comes out of Jersey). So I know that New Jersey at least has four discovery “tracks.” So PIP or a UIM claim is Track I and gets you 150 days’ discovery. An auto accident or standard personal injury case or employment law case is Track II and gets 300 days’ discovery. Med mal, products liability get 450 days, and then Track IV is 450 days with active case management. Most of the stuff I’ve done is Track II.

        I suppose you could make a living on PIP in the beginning, but you’d still need to do other legal work or have some startup capital.

        There’s also workers’ comp-most of the PI guys I’ve worked with also do comp. Has it’s own headaches but it’s more informal and fewer discovery headaches.Report

  14. Brandon Berg says:

    The young adults who are starting their own companies often live very comfortably even while their companies are worth less than zero dollars.

    Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean money from parents. Tech startups are typically funded by outside investors. In the very early stages, when you’re building a prototype to pitch to investors, you might need some money to get started, but at this point a startup can consist of an idea and a couple of people working on computers that they already own, so you really just need living expenses. On a developer’s salary with no dependents, you can pretty easily save a year’s worth of living expenses per year of work, so even just a couple years out of college you can save up more than enough to bootstrap a startup.

    The QZ article misprepresents the data, as well. For example, they cite this paper as evidence for the proposition that most self-employed individuals got money from their famly. But while the paper (which, first off, is based on 1981 data) does show that people with large inheritances were much more likely to be self-employed, large inheritances were fairly rare, so a wide majority of self-employed individuals had received little or nothing in inheritance or gifts (e.g., at age 33, 80% of self-employed individuals had received less than 1,000 pounds).

    Also, on what basis do you say that their companies are worth less than zero dollars? That would imply that they’re debt-funded, would it not? My understanding is that tech startups are way too risky for debt funding, due to the limited upside and high likelihood of going bankrupt.Report