Hang out the shingle or get more experience first?
May 21, 2009 12:10 PM   Subscribe

I just graduated from law school on Sunday. I want to open my own law firm and practice criminal law after I pass the Oregon bar. But how can I get up to speed fast enough that I don't give my new clients poor legal services?

I've been reading several books on starting your own practice. (Foonberg's 4th edition, How to Start your own Solo Practice and Succeed by Gerald Singer, and Solo by Choice.) But these books all focus on the business side of starting a law practice. Getting clients, running an office, whether you have the right personality to solo, etc. What I want to know is can I realistically become competent enough in criminal law that my clients aren't getting screwed while I learn the ropes?

I would really like to hear from anyone who has started their own law firm in any area of law. Did you start right out of law school or did you work for someone else first? What would you change if you could do it again?
posted by Happydaz to Law & Government (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I run my own law firm, about to merge with another.

I would strongly advise against this. I spent 3 years under someone's wing first. You are not yet a comptent attorney, no matter how smart you are. You need real experience being the only lawyer on the case. I think this is an ill-conceived idea. Even with Law Students In Court experience you aren't ready. Furthermore, what are you going to tell clients who ask you your experience? You have to be 100% truthful. I couldn't say I've never tried my own case without supervision to a client's face. Just could not do that.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:25 PM on May 21, 2009 [5 favorites]

IANAL but I am a lay member of the regional Grievance and Discipline Committee of the Bar Association. I think solo practice right out of law school is difficult. Most of the good criminal defense attorneys who I know either started out in the office(s) of the prosecutor/legal aid or were in law enforcement prior to law school.
The most frequent problems I have seen young attorneys make are: failure to follow good business practices and getting desperate and hungry for clients, practicing out side of their competence, missing deadlines and filing dates, failing to escrow funds and mixing funds. Remember, you will be working against experienced prosecutors who do what they do full or part time, have office support and know with whom and when to cut deals. Representing criminal defense clients means being able to negotiate effectively on your clients behalf, knowing the system and establishing/maintaining credibility with the court.
I respect your desire not to screw up--after all, this is about your client not you. BTW, I think law school in general do a less that adequate job of thoroughly preparing their graduates for the actual practice of law. This is where I will give it hands down to medical schools. Those years of internship and residency serve a purpose.
posted by rmhsinc at 12:33 PM on May 21, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the comments so far. It's worth mentioning, I've had two internships and a year-long clerkship at a DA's office. I prosecuted 8 cases on my own. But, as Ironmouth points out, I had support and advice from attorneys any time I needed it. And I don't intend to practice in the county where that DA's office was located.
posted by Happydaz at 12:36 PM on May 21, 2009

Your best training would be as a DA or public defender for at least a few years. You will also be building a network which you can use to get business and advice into the future. I know people who have done what you are contemplating and with one exception it was pretty miserable at first, in many ways, including lack of business and difficulty in providing competent legal services due to inexperience and a lack of people to answer all the little questions that come up.
posted by caddis at 12:55 PM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Internships and clerkships are no substitute for a couple of years of full time lawyering with access to other attorneys. Aside from having people around who know the law, there are many unwritten rules in most courthouses. Experienced attorneys know them. You will waste a lot of time blundering about because you will not know them.
posted by Mavri at 1:36 PM on May 21, 2009

Medical licensure requires you to go through clerkships and residency. Legal licensure does not. That doesn't mean that that kind of experience is not completely necessary, however. Just make your own "residency" by getting a job with a firm or the DA's office. You'll be so glad you did.
posted by Capri at 1:58 PM on May 21, 2009

This is possibly relevant, but on my mind -- before we put people in front of a college class as the sole instructor, we (usually) let them serve as a "teaching assistant" first. This gives them experience in doing the little things (explaining individual concepts, grading homework and exams) before they have to handle the "big things" of organizing an entire course. I'm thinking about this because I'm preparing to teach my second-ever course as the sole instructor; the first was before I was ever a TA, and it was a disaster. I've been a TA since then, and I feel more confident about my abilities now.

Law, I suspect, is similar. Any complex skill is similar.
posted by madcaptenor at 1:59 PM on May 21, 2009

Short answer: No. It's not impossible for you to do this, but it is probably not a good idea from the standpoint of imperiling your clients' liberty interests. A little experience prosecuting someone does not really prepare you to defend someone, not really. You don't know how different statutes interact (there was a good AskMe the other day about immigration consequences of criminal convictions, which is a good example) and all the sneaky defensive maneuvers you never needed to know about when you handled those 8 cases by yourself. I moved to criminal defense work after several years of intense civil defense and I would have ruined someone's life most assuredly had I not been surrounded by people whose job it was to make sure I was on the right track. Heck, even after three years doing this I live in fear of ruining someone's life

Maybe join a small well-respected criminal defense firm and get your chops. Some bar associations or criminal defense lawyers' associations have mentoring programs, which may be an option if you are really set on going out on your own.
posted by *s at 2:12 PM on May 21, 2009

What everyone else said. IME there's roughly a two-year learning curve for minimal competence in the practice of law.
posted by paultopia at 3:27 PM on May 21, 2009

Best answer: This is a bad idea. My husband is a public defender and one of his coworkers has been in misdemeanor court for about 18 months since he passed the bar. The coworker just announced that he is quitting to start his own criminal defense practice. We are frankly a little disturbed that he is doing this prior to obtaining at least six months of felony experience and at least 25 jury trials. You, on the other hand, have no experience; and no, your internships do not count as experience, even if you were trying cases. That is like saying you can ride a bike even though you haven't yet taken off your training wheels. Most state attorney and public defender offices that I am familiar with have a three year commitment, and I think that is about the right amount of time to become familiar enough with the law, the judges, the procedures, the courthouse politics, and all of the other random knowledge you really ought to have before you hang your own single. You really don't know any of these things.

Incidentally, being bright has nothing to do with this. I wouldn't hire Chief Justice John Roberts (or any other justice, take your pick) to handle a DUI case for me, because he simply doesn't have the relevant knowledge regarding my state's DUI law, what procedural quirks my judge has, an educated guess as to my potential sentence based upon past cases with the judge so that I can properly evaluate my plea options, etc. If I wouldn't hire John Roberts, I sure as hell wouldn't hire you. Get some experience and start your own firm in a couple of years.
posted by gatorae at 4:03 PM on May 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yep, experience is the only thing that will give you competence.

Every baby attorney commits (hopefully minor) acts of what could constitute malpractice. You will mess up. The nice thing about working under someone else the first couple of years is that they are there to cover you. When you are on your own, you do not have anyone who has your back to catch your mess-ups.

Criminal law is especially dangerous because your mess-ups can mean loss of freedom for a client.

I would advocate beginning underneath someone else. Unfortunately every baby lawyer falls into that category of "not knowing enough to know what you don't know." In other words, you don't know even where to look for blind spots.

And this is no insult to you or your experience. It's just natural. It's why the law use to be apprenticeship driven.

I grew up in a family of lawyers. I worked at law firms through my youth. I researched and drafted things for family members and went to cases. In law school, I worked full time my 2nd two years (took night classes) with one of the pre-eminent catastrophic personal injury lawyers in this country. I was years far ahead of my fellow graduates as far as practical experience. And the first year or two, I still needed help here and there. As I go towards the end of my 2nd year, I was ready where I could be on my own. Years later, it is still helpful to have other people around to bounce ideas off of... and it will always be that way.

I respect solos. It takes a certain degree of confidence and hardiness to do it. But I personally think there should be some rule that solos are not allowed until the 2 year mark.
posted by dios at 4:07 PM on May 21, 2009

I had and will have the benefit of working this summer for a state AGO office. One of the "benefits" of this opportunity last summer was having lunch with a district court judge and a state supreme court justice. Both stated that a law student should never graduate and throw a shingle out, with the district court judge commenting that in most cases of lawyer malpractice that came before her, the majority were people who had done such a thing. The supreme court justice advised strongly that the best thing an aspiring law student can do upon graduation is to find a mentor. So there's some judicial advice on the subject.
posted by Atreides at 6:26 PM on May 21, 2009

But how can I get up to speed fast enough that I don't give my new clients poor legal services?

Let me add that I am heartened by the fact that you asked the proper question--which isn't "how do I get clients?" but "I have realistic concerns about my ability to serve potential clients."

This tells me that once you get some experience, you will be a fine criminal practitioner or litigator.

I would suggest getting a job with the Federal Government, preferably with an agency that does a lot of Administrative Litigation work. Especially out west, that means the Department of the Interior. They have a ton of that kind of work involving land use, etc. That will give you the real seasoning you'll need. You'll understand what judges are looking for and get more experience than you want, frankly.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:43 AM on May 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

IAAL. I had two criminal defense interships in law school, a year-long defense clinic, and have been a PD for about 18 months, and I would still be extremely nervous about hanging out my own shingle. In fact, the people who have left my office recently after 2-3 years have all gone to work for private defense attorneys as associates, none have hung out their own shingle. I would advise against you doing this 100%.

The only advice beyond that I can give is that you are only as competent as your secretary. Whenever I entertain fantasies about going out on my own, I always scheme about how to get one of the secretaries to come with me. Because otherwise I'd be screwed. But it's only a fantasy because I have a ways to go before I'd actually make the jump.
posted by falconred at 10:10 AM on May 27, 2009

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