Why don't I quit while we're still speaking?
December 10, 2011 9:57 PM   Subscribe

Seeking advice on striking out under my own shingle as a lawyer -- if you've been here, please help.

I am a very young lawyer (graduated 2010, licensed for six months) and for personal reasons that are non-negotiable, the time has come for me to change my work situation asap.

Long story short, I've been working for a family member since mid-way through law school, first as a law clerk and as an attorney immediately upon getting my license. I've taken cases in family law, criminal defense, and some civil cases. I dabbled in probate but not as much as I'd like.

Because working with family blurs the line between "work problems" and "personal problems," I need to get out, now. I intend to give notice on Monday to be done there mid-January. I don't have a lot of money saved up because I've been putting spare cash towards paying down debt. I think I can have $1500 - $2000 by the time I plan to finish (unless giving notice gets me fired).

My plan is to do as much court-appointed work as I can while advertising for family law and criminal retainers. I am planning to work from home with a PO box and I have contacts to borrow conference rooms as needed. The idea is that this will go on for a year or so, at which point I will reassess with an eye towards having kiddos.

I am also applying for jobs in the area but realistically I must accept that I'm probably going to have to do this myself. I know what I need to earn to cover my bills and I am fortunate to have a living situation with a partner who provides plenty -- but it is very important to me that I continue to contribute. If you are in a position to know, please give me advice as to:

1. Whether my plan is insane and will I starve.
2. How much legal malpractice insurance cost when you started out.
3. How you decided on a legal research subscription.
4. How you started up your practice on six months or less of experience with little or no capital.

posted by motsque to Work & Money (18 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Mostly I'm going to be checking this thread for helpful advice for myself in a few months time, but I know of two separate instances where people have managed to do this well.

1. Is a lawyer I worked for before going to law school, in Manhattan. His is a very small practice but it is exactly as successful as he needs it to be, and it is based around his choosing a very specific and obscure area of law and focusing entirely on thnat. In his case, it is immigration for artists of extraordinary ability. This is a perfect choice of practice for several reasons.
a. Big Firms, and even most small firms, are going to be much more expensive for this sort of thing. This attorney is able to employ only himself and one or two office assistants and get the job done in a small office with very low overhead.
b. Because this is all that he does, he's the expert on it, and firms are happy to refer their clients to him on this matter (which is also rare enough that it's not like he's going to be brought on by any firm for this particular expertise.) Additionally, because this is all he does, he's happy to refer his clients back to other firms on other matters, because he isn't interested in representing them on anything else.
c. NYC is an area where this issue comes up more than really anywhere else in the country. He's got a steady client stream, but not to the point where it overwhelms him.
d. He can set phenomenally good hours for himself, and sleep in as well, because his clients don't like to set appointments in the mornings any more than he does.
e. He knows the system so well by now that the job is very easy for him.
This track will be very trecherous at first. You need to use all of the connections you've got right now and find something that you can do better, and less expensively, than the firms you'd be competing with, in such a way where they are fine with that.

2. My closest friend from law school returned home to a small town in Maine after graduation, and lived with his family while studying for and taking the bar, and then while starting his practice (he still does live there, actually.) He got himself on the CJA list and started taking other General Practice work wherever he could find it, being the bargain-basement - but well-pedigreed - option in a poor town. Eventually, via the CJA work, he argued often enough and well enough against members of a local small firm that they offered him a job with them, which he accepted a couple of months ago. He was practicing solely for a little less than a year.

So those are my two stories, from the only two people I know who were crazy enough to try this, but both of them made it work, somehow. Keep in mind, however, that a great deal of luck was likely involved in both instances.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:46 PM on December 10, 2011

Malpractice will be $800-900 a year. Google AdWords makes me money. Avoid Westlaw and Lexis like the plague. Usually your state bar will have a deal with a second-tier provider of legal research.

Your Clients have a right to choose their counsel. Hold off for a week while you get outside advice on how to handle them decide on their part--these battles are about the book of business. Write a memo laying out your Client's rights to choose. My old boss was a stickler for ethics and played by the rules when his wife forced me out (I was billing $100 less an hour than my boss but was billing more in absolute dollars.) Put them in a position where they have to ignore your written memo regarding your Client's constitutional right to select their attorney to cut you off from them. Odds are they won't, if you do this because lawyers don't want to be put on notice of your duties.

Expect to be fired the minute you say you are leaving. MeMail me with any questions.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:54 PM on December 10, 2011

The people I know who have done this have not been immediately profitable.

I don't have a problem with the solo practice plan in theory, especially since you have a partner who will support you and is capable for providing for both of you. The problem is that you plan to do this for a year and then reassess with an eye toward having kids.

If you want to have kids and practice law at the expense of building a law practice, don't build a law practice. If you can't find a permanent position, find contract work.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:59 PM on December 10, 2011

I meant to add, are you sure you have to give that many weeks of notice? I'm not sure you need to give any notice, and if you want to leave in mid-January, mid-January may be the time to tell them you're leaving.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:01 PM on December 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I did this -- pretty much exactly what you are contemplating. I was successful pretty much immediately. It worked for me because my city has a lot of crime and so there's plenty of business for criminal defense lawyers. At the beginning I moved into a very, very shabby office right across from the courthouse. I've since improved my office space; I'm still near the courthouse, and I have four full-time employees. I'm one of the busiest criminal defense lawyers in my city. I have never had a legal research subscription. The courthouse across the street has a law library with free Westlaw. I get a lot of appointed work, but those fees are gravy; my main cash flow comes from fee-paying clients.
posted by jayder at 11:06 PM on December 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I started to write a long answer, but will instead link to a previous answer I wrote to a similar question.

Short version: No, you're not crazy, plenty of people make it work. Join Solosez. Buy Jay Foonberg's book. Malpractice insurance varies widely depending on your location and your specialty. Look into legal research options through your state bar rather than subscribing to Lexis/Westlaw. Memail me if you'd like to talk details of my shoestring startup right out of law school.
posted by katemonster at 12:08 AM on December 11, 2011

In the UK, a friend of mine did this, working from home on primarily family law cases, with a little criminal defence work as well, usually for existing clients who'd got into trouble. She set up on her own after many years of working in different firms, where she'd built up a shedload of contacts who could refer work to her. As you don't have that network yet, you might find it difficult to attract (the right kind of) clients in the beginning until your reputation is established.

Another friend set up, like jayder, doing criminal defence work, out of a tiny office, and he got a lot of work and did well, but had to take pretty much anything that came his way and work insane hours for a few years.

Good luck.
posted by essexjan at 12:17 AM on December 11, 2011

Can I please ask you to be very careful about taking criminal cases? I don't know why people think getting into criminal law as a solo practictioner right out of law school is a good idea, but for some reason then do... I guess because it's an easy way to get clients...

You will have your clients' lives in your hands. The learning curve is high, and the mistakes you will inevitably make can have brutal consequences. It's like a young doctor coming out of med school and offering to perform operations without any experience actually cutting people open.

I've been practicing criminal law for more than six years now (most of it with a firm where I had very experienced attorneys to teach me), and I'm still nervous with every client I take.

Think about hooking up with your local public defender's office first, or at least a small firm with some experienced attorneys, where you can get some training.
posted by mikeand1 at 12:23 AM on December 11, 2011

Mikeand1 raises an important point. But I disagree with him, finally, because (a) you can get your start with low-stakes cases (driving/traffic offenses and petty misdemeanors where your client is not facing significant jail time) and slowly work up to bigger cases; (b) you've studied law for three years and you are more than capable of learning how to defend a basic criminal case in short order, and (c) you can and should lean heavily on the other criminal defense lawyers you will meet at the courthouse.

Assuming you are assiduous in learning and zealous in defending your client, you can do just fine. People seem to think you are starting from zero when you get your law license. No, you're three years in at that point. Don't sell yourself short. You are already an expert of sorts.
posted by jayder at 12:35 AM on December 11, 2011

Oh, one more thing I meant to say. In criminal defense, if you are actually trying, you have elevated yourself above 50% of the practitioners. It is hard, given the pervasiveness of incompetence in criminal defense, to counsel an idealistic new lawyer against going solo assuming they will try hard and seek mentors as they go because, honestly, the average level of competence is not all that high.
posted by jayder at 12:50 AM on December 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: A friend of mine did this. He is also my attorney now.

I know that, like you, he was working as a clerk. I know he struck out on his own after passing the Bar. I know he takes criminal and immigration cases - we are in LA - and there are no scarcity of these types of clients. Often, the issues overlap in his practice. He also took a shabby office downtown near the court houses, but has since moved into much nicer digs.

The one thing I was struck by when he handled our immigration issue was that everyone seemed to know and super super respect him. He wasn't practicing all that long at the time, but man, that guy goes by the book and then some. Everyone noticed. My husband got his visa really easily. It was remarkable!

I'm pretty sure your conduct will have a lot to do with your success. I also know lawyers in NYC that have private offices they share, but are not part of a firm, operating independently. Mostly landlord/tenant there, FWIW.

That said, You don't have enough saved to strike out on your own. Bank some more money or get another gig before you strike out on your own.

Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 1:32 AM on December 11, 2011

A friend of mine did this. He worked as a staff attorney for a non-profit for a couple of years when he got out of law school, then went solo, working out of a co-working facility. He focuses on traffic law - lots of short duration cases - cash payment up front, etc. He seems to be doing just fine.
posted by COD at 5:55 AM on December 11, 2011

Make sure you have a good network of colleagues, for a lot of reasons.

1. Covering court calls: The folks I knew who did this (successfully) had 3-4 people they could call on any given day and say "I've got to be in three different courtrooms at 9:00 am tomorrow. Can you go to Judge Smith in Courtroom X and present this status/ this agreed order for continuance / set a trial date / whatever minor administrative action could be taken care of by a colleague unfamiliar with the case."

2. Sharing sample documents: Not only will you get an issue that's new to you, but a colleague who is willing to share his boilerplate Motion for Substitution of Judge for Cause will save you several hours drafting time with an unfamiliar but routine matter.

3. Legal research: No, not giving you their Westlaw password, but for discussing cases with, and trial strategy, and how to handle particular judges. Be careful with your jurisdiction's rules for client privilege, but be aware that ethics also require you to seek the assistance of more experienced attorney if you are faced with something you don't quite know how to handle. I mostly worked in large organizations in my early career and if I had taken better advantage (or, in the case of at least one firm, had any opportunity to get assistance from more experienced lawyers), I would have been significantly more successful.

4. Referring clients: That's pretty self-explanatory, but really don't overlook it. I've referred only about six people to attorneys in 10 years, even though I get asked all the time. The important part of that sentence is "I get asked all the time." (I have referred such a low number because most of my attorney friends are in criminal defense or patent law and I don't get asked about that). Make sure your opponents respect you--they will make referrals for you. Pro bono is--really--investment in your career and firm.

5. Think very very carefully about your website/email address. One of my projects at work (I'm a staff attorney with a policy group) involves looking at websites for law firms (for information about the practices) and they are shitty shitty sources of information. A potential client who looks at your website needs:

--Clear cut and pasteable telephone number, street address, and email address. (not an image)
--Layperson's description of the type of cases you handle, not "civil litigation" and not the names of cases you've won.
--Whether or not they can come talk to you about your case without paying anything at all or up front.
--Something easy to navigate on what may well be a public library computer without the latest browser
--An email address that's easy and not davidlchesterlawofficesinmi.org. Lots of the good domains are gone, but try to keep it simple.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:33 AM on December 11, 2011 [4 favorites]

How much legal malpractice insurance cost when you started out.

This will vary according to various factors, but it can easily be over $1000 per year. It will typically go up every year for about 5-6 years (more clients means more potential lawsuits, up to the statute of limitations). Your carrier may allow you to finance the payments over some months. Remember, it's not retroactive, so you need to get insured before you take any clients, and the application process can take a little while, especially around the holidays, I expect. You'll want to get the ball rolling very soon if you haven't already.

How you decided on a legal research subscription.

Seconding checking whether your state bar has a deal with Fast Case or one of the other non-Lexis/non-Westlaw services. If you were good friends with your law school Lexis or Westlaw reps you might be able to get a free month or something. Does your current firm have a Lexis or Westlaw rep? You could talk to them as well. Lexis is rolling out its competitor to Westlaw Next, and they may be offering freebies to get people to check it out; Westlaw did when Next was new.

If you are a very efficient researcher and only need access to a small number of databases, Lexis and Westlaw aren't too expensive. But "all you can eat" plans can be pretty pricey.

Whether my plan is insane and will I starve.

Probably not insane but you should be aware that, all things being equal, it is quite likely that it won't work out. Something like half of all the law school graduates in the United States never find permanent work in the legal field. If it were easy to successfully set up your own shop, that number would be much lower. Remember also that you're essentially starting a small business, which is never an easy thing to do. I say this not to scare you but to keep you grounded: if it doesn't work out you can't necessarily blame yourself. As long as you get out there and try to hustle up business (and do right by your clients, of course), then that's about all you can do.
posted by jedicus at 7:39 AM on December 11, 2011

"It is hard, given the pervasiveness of incompetence in criminal defense, to counsel an idealistic new lawyer against going solo assuming they will try hard and seek mentors as they go because, honestly, the average level of competence is not all that high."

It's true about the level of competence, but that's not the standard you should use to measure yourself.

Anyway, I'm just saying be careful. I agree with jayder that if you go this route, you should start by taking small cases -- I'd say only misdos or cases that will not result in time.

And totally agree about finding other (good) attorneys for advice. One thing about the criminal defense bar is that other attorneys are typically very willing to help you out. Take advantage of that.
posted by mikeand1 at 9:34 AM on December 11, 2011

I agree with jayder that if you give your clients your best, you'll be fine. Sincerity and competence is WAY better than what the average small time criminal defense attorney gives his clients.

You want a small office short walking distance to the courthouse; and near the county law library. You want to get paid up front, for obvious reasons. Representation should be a flat fee depending on the kind of charge and the kind of service (e.g. flat fee of $xK for misdemeanor plea; $xK for felony plea; per case basis for trial.) You may want to charge separately for motions (a case where you need to research and write a motion on, for instance, the validity of a search, will be many times more work for you than a "go to court, enter a plea, be done" case.)

Network with bail bondsmen if you can. They are a reliable source of clientele.

Go to the county networking events so that you become friendly with the judges, prosecutors and other defense people. I was astonished at how chummy these groups can get.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:23 PM on December 11, 2011

I think Jayder and Mikeand1 both have solid advice, and so does Ironmouth. Conventional wisdom says you need to have multiple months of living expenses saved up (a year is ideal). The fact that you don't decreases your cushion and increases your chance of failure overall, but you probably know that already.

I looked into solo practice before lucking into a public defender job the day I passed the bar, and I found Foonberg's book to be very helpful. But then again, seeing as I'm still at the edge of the pool waiting to make the jump into solo practice in 5+ years, perhaps I'm not the guy you should be listening to for any of this.

One thing I learned from the solo practice seminar I attended is that banks will actually consider lending you money when you start your own practice. You might want to talk to your career services people at the law school you attended to see if they know which bank has the best lending relationships with lawyers. If not, call around until you find one that will give you what you need.

If you are doing criminal defense, do your best to figure out how publicly appointed cases are doled out in your jurisdiction, and then be very, very nice to the people who make those decisions. In some jurisdictions it's the judge, in others, it's some sort of consortium or a single secretary who farms out cases to the various firms.

As far as networking - you should be networking with other practitioners doing the same thing you are, because they'll be a good mentoring resource and a good support network. You should be networking with other practitioners doing things you're not doing because they will be a good source of referrals.
posted by Happydaz at 11:07 PM on December 11, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all of your responses. After reading these, I actually feel that I am competent to be on my own -- I have a good handle on criminal procedure from what I've done already and I've learned the number one trick of law practice: knowing where to look to learn something new.

jbenben has it though -- I need to be a big girl and admit that I don't have the capital to do it on my own. I'm going to keep banking here while looking for something higher paying so I can get there faster.
posted by motsque at 8:11 AM on December 14, 2011

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