Graduating and the legal market is looking bad? Go solo!

By M. Jude Egan

Practicing law as a solo practitioner can be daunting. Yet, at a time when more new law school graduates than ever are complaining that they cannot find employment after graduation, “hanging a shingle” is the road not considered, much less taken, by many potential lawyers. 

According to a 2017 ABA Journal article (“At least half of the lawyers in these nine states and jurisdictions aren't working as lawyers”) 42.7% of California lawyers are not working as attorneys. 

Imagine spending all that time and money (especially that money) and not even practicing in the field you studied?  Sure there are pitfalls, and it is difficult enough dealing with judges and opposing counsel without also running a business and making payroll. 

Still, sole practitioner is the choice many new law school grads should take for the following reasons.

Getting clients not as monolithic as people assume

In this era of internet marketing, client access might be the easiest concern to alleviate. A simple website and a little bit of work in promoting it will land clients just by making the site go live. In larger markets it is even easier because there is always a need for lawyers no matter how many potential clients are lost to referrals. Plus, if you open your practice to growth areas or areas where there is always a large volume of work, work will find its way to you. 

One such areas is family law. There were almost 800,000 divorces in 2019 across the country. Somewhere between 40% and 50% of new marriages end in divorce. Meanwhile, it has been my experience that if a lawyer is not a divorce lawyer by trade, then they do not know anything about divorce law and do not want to know anything about divorce law. Within no time you could become your community’s divorce expert.

Pricing your work – Avoid greed and you will be fine

As a new lawyer you should expect there to be a cap on how much your clients can afford to pay. Your clients are likely not extremely wealthy (if they were, they would have a referral to a much more senior lawyer than you), and they are not very sophisticated (or they would have already engaged someone more senior than you).

Somewhere between $250-$350 per hour is reasonable – more if you practice in San Francisco or Seattle or Manhattan, probably a little less if you are in a rural area. You can adjust your hourly rate as you come to learn what the local bar is charging for similar work.  Set your hourly rate at the lower end of the market, but do not go below that. You might assume that if you go lower you will get even more clients. Wrong. No one wants to hire the cheap guy. They want the best they can afford. So charge a real rate.

Getting Paid - Practice saying no

There are a lot of people with sad stories who need free legal work. There are also scam artists who will peddle a sad tale and make promises of paying you “later”.  You cannot afford to help either group in the beginning, so practice saying no. You cannot survive on doing the work of the righteous and just alone. Become financially well-off first and then put on your cape and save the world. 

The practice of law is time-consuming. Charge a deposit retainer and keep a trust account rather than using “flat fee” billing (in some states like California, lawyers must use a trust account even with flat fee billing). Bill your hourly rate against your deposit retainer. Flat fee clients, in my experience, give you a check and then bring their tent and sleeping bag to your lobby in order to move in with you. After all, they have already paid for your time. Bill against retainer.

Believe in yourself

Chances are you will be embarrassed in court. The chance that the embarrassment you feel will be commensurate to the amount of laughter by your colleagues at your expense is really low. The reason? All lawyers were once new lawyers. Although there are clear jerks out there, most lawyers remember being a new lawyer and no matter what story you have to tell, they have a story that will be equally funny. 

Embarrassment on the job is part of the proving ground. It would be lying to say otherwise. However, how you receive it and recover from it establishes you as a person to be reckoned with by judges and lawyers alike. It is not a reason to never hang a shingle or never practice law on your own. Because you will know the law as well or better than anyone, you will be able to survive those first few shocks of embarrassment that come when you invariably get something wrong. 

I wrote a proposed order once taken directly from a treatise – I mean, I cut and pasted it directly from a treatise – except that I copied the wrong section of the treatise. In a full courtroom of lawyers, the judge bellowed, “Mr. Egan, if you are wondering why I didn’t sign this, it’s probably because the proposed order reads as follows…….” The whole group of lawyers in the courtroom laughed. I am sure I turned purple. They all shook my hand after court, introducing themselves, and a few of them even had stories that put mine to shame. 

It’s OK to get it wrong sometimes. Keep dusting yourself off and trying again. 

Ultimately, starting a law practice out of law school is a crisis of confidence and not a crisis of ability, which means the worries about graduating from law school with no job are unfounded.

New law grads are necessarily trained to be able to think about common law subjects--personal injury (torts), all manner of drafting and litigating contract disputes (contracts), all manner of property issues (real property), criminal prosecution or defense (criminal law), and on the rare occasion that the constitution makes it into a state case (constitutional law). In other words, recent law grads know a little bit about a lot of different areas of the law and in so learning, they have also learned how to handle the vast majority of client disputes. 

You have developed the analytical reasoning that drives the practice of law.  Use it to build yourself a successful and lucrative practice, not to enrich someone else’s.    


M. Jude Egan is a certified Family Law Specialist in California and certified by the State Bar of California, Board of Legal Specialization. He  has published internationally in peer reviewed legal, trade and academic journals. He has taught disaster law, business law and federal and state entitlements at the Louisiana State University, E.J. Ourso College of Business. His website is JudeEgan.com.


 

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