A significant amount has been written about the legal market for recent graduates of law school. The sobering truth is that the average private law school student carries a staggering $100,000 in loans, yet endures much lower employment rates than many other professions. While many traditional firms still cling to the path of 2nd summer clerking and an offer in the fall of the 3rd year, more students are finding themselves without a job at graduation day.
Hanging a Shingle
All this being said, there is one constant that continues to be present in both large and small markets: “Hanging a shingle”. While established lawyers may scoff and have doubts about a recent graduate starting their own firm, many young graduates are embracing and thriving in what can be argued as the best time to start a solo practice.
While statistics indicate a high saturation of attorneys in urban areas, the truth is that the overwhelming majority of Americans are challenged in finding readily available legal services. Public defense offices and legal aid services are stretched well beyond capacity, leaving exasperated attorneys working for these institutions in understaffed and unpleasant conditions. To the contrary, reports of more law students graduating without legal employment continue to dominate the headlines.
This dichotomy highlights the gap in legal services that many young attorneys are beginning to fill. By providing low overhead, lean operations and an emphasis on personal attention, these young attorneys are proving to be quite successful in a niche market where many senior attorneys would simply be too expensive.
When speaking to recent graduates from different law schools and different jurisdictions, (who formed their own practices), a number of common trends emerge. The struggles a newly minted lawyer faces are very similar to those of a senior attorney leaving a traditional firm for something different:
• Balancing and managing tasks essential for the efficient delivery of services
• Networking in order to gain and maintain market presence
• Delivering high quality representation to clients through due preparation
Studies show that newly established attorneys not only want to hit the ground running with clients from the beginning, but to also be rewarded for all their hard work. In an era where young professionals are criticized for a lack of loyalty to institutions and to favor freelancing instead, it is apparent that the real motivator behind a number of solo practitioners is not just market forces. It is also the desire to achieve the more aspirational goals that the practice of law strives for: justice, protection of rights, and maintaining high ethical standards.
The Era of Technology and Social Media
Advancements in technology and social media provide ample opportunity to maximize productivity. Unfortunately, they do come with their own challenges. Maintaining a significant presence on the various platforms and effectively using internet advertising can be daunting. This task is intensified when the attorney is cash-strapped and looking to minimize initial costs. As one practitioner noted, the process of trial and error with advertising vendors can frustrate client base development and lead to a waste of resources. However, well executed outsourcing and use of vendors and platforms can make for a cost-effective and worthwhile solution. Therefore, it is crucial to familiarize yourself with all options before choosing a service provider of any kind.
Narrow or Wide Lens
Defining one’s own practice is another issue facing young lawyers today. Is it better to specialize or generalize a practice? While narrowing the focus of a practice can lead to greater depth and competency, it also limits the number of clients in need of a specific service. A common trend among these attorneys is to offer unbundled services focusing on distinct common issues facing potential clients. For example, handling speeding tickets or setting up a corporation may be advertised at flat fee rates. This certainty provides comfort to those inexperienced with the legal process and also provides a benchmark on how to plan for the practice’s finances (another daunting task for a lawyer starting their own practice).
Hitting the Pavement
All agree that networking is essential to the development of a successful practice. Being active in the legal and broader community is a way to meet potential leads and provides a good source of constant advertising oneself. Traditional organizations such as bar associations and practice sections provide a sense of stability. Informal networks such as fellow attorneys and other professionals also provide a great resource and a good soundboard for ideas. However, networking and building a book of business remains a challenge for all levels of attorneys, but is especially hard for a newly established practitioner. While it seems to come easier for a thriving established practice, solos and micro-firms will grow with time and hard work.
Word of mouth is still the best way to get clients to trust you with the power to help solve their problems, as one interviewee noted. Often times, clients come through other attorneys who do not practice in the same area, but who refer work to someone they know and trust. Experience can provide a leg up on less established competition. But it also can motivate a young lawyer to give more personalized attention to clients so that a lasting impression can be made. In a world of automation and impersonal customer service, the new solo lawyer is served greatly by providing clients with due care and prompt responses.
Tomorrow is a New and Exciting Day
Finally, a consistent theme for the practitioners interviewed, is having a positive future outlook on their practice. Both new and seasoned attorneys believe the near future will be successful and profitable. Certainly this is a crucial factor in undertaking any endeavor, and solidifying the enthusiasm for the path they have chosen.
While these young attorneys represent those who chose to enter the profession as a solo, it also should serve as an example for those facing the prospective of “having to go it alone”. However, to think unfavorably of this term or characterization is entirely unfair. While as a solo, you are responsible for bringing in clients, billing, and maintaining the operations, you are not alone; you are the Boss. Bar associations and support groups for like-minded attorneys exist for a reason. The growth of alternative professional working environments for independent lawyers provides the ability to maintain connection and development along with other attorneys.
In a profession as important as law, it is paramount to remain focused and engaged. As a young lawyer, the process of launching your own practice may seem out of reach or too difficult. However, you can do it. With the right attitude, resources, and framework a successful practice can be launched. By surrounding yourself with peers and likeminded people, success will be yours. …And never underestimate one of the longest and most powerful tools a young lawyer could ever have by finding a good solid mentor. They may be professors from law school, senior practitioners from an internship or clerkship, or senior attorneys in the locale where you practice. Learn from their mistakes and learn from their journey.