Monday, March 18, 2013

A Tale Of Two Emails From Young Lawyers, And A Request

Today I saw an email sent to a young lawyer I know. The email was requesting to meet with the lawyer to discuss a job (a job that wasn't available). Lawyers get these all the time. New graduates send cover letters with resumes saying they want to work for the firm, not having a clue whether the firm is hiring. Most just hope for a response (which this guy got.) Most would love the ability to meet with a lawyer (which this guy turned down).

Yeah, the young lawyer responded that he had no job to offer, but sure, the young lawyer could come in and meet him and talk about a possible set up where Mr. Jobless could have his own practice, share space, get some work, etc... It wasn't a job, it was an opportunity (note: Mr. Jobless actually mentioned the word "opportunity" in his email, but as you'll learn from reading Mark Bennett's post on the email, his idea of an opportunity was a paycheck. He couldn't get that, so he said "thanks, but no thanks."

There was debate in the comment section to Bennett's post about whether this kid was just bat shit stupid or deserved understanding because he made it clear he wanted a "job" and not an opportunity to at least sponge off some lawyers for a while while trying to make a few bucks. Hell, it's the internet, everyones got an opinion and where ever you fall on this, I really couldn't give a crap.

Later in the day, I myself got an email. Here are the relevant portions:

Mr. Tannebaum,

Could I fire off some questions to you?  I would like very much to enjoy the practice of law, but am at something of a crossroads as to how to do so...  

Specifically, I'd like to go solo, and am not sure where I should, what I should practice (I studied criminal and IP in law school), or how to balance it all and still have a personal life.  I don't know. . . Because I know it sounds odd, I will say that part of my problem is that I left the state I went to law school and am in a whole new network. I won't hound you or anything. . . just thought I'd give it a shot.

Reading the tone of this email, I wonder what this kid would do if I invited him to come meet me at my office for a 5 minute conversation and no promises? Sure, he makes clear he wants to go solo, but he's not sure he can make it and would probably take a job if offered. He would at least jump at the "opportunity" for a meeting.

So while I'm going to respond to his email directly, I'm asking you to help him. Give him your best advice. I think he deserves it. I think he'd appreciate it.

Anonymous comments are welcome as long as they say something relevant and half-way intelligent and aren't a vehicle for a coward to attack someone. I trust you understand.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of  Defending The Lawyer Before The State Bar          



Josh King said...

Advice for the young 'un? That in the first few years of practice you don't know anything, and you've got to be an absolute sponge for experience and learning.

And that he's on the right track by wanting to pick the brain of/connect with more experienced lawyers like you. The more of that he gets, the more mentoring, the better.

Anonymous said...

Wanting to go solo but also to "...balance it all and still have a personal life." strikes me as contradictory. Growing a solo business that pays the rent means spending many, many hours in the early years networking, selling, and face-to-face marketing, and all in addition to serving active clients. 60 to 80 hours per week will be the norm for a few years.

Anonymous said...

Never eat alone

Anonymous said...

Bring a bottle of expensive wine.

Unknown said...

First of all, forget any concept of "balancing" anything other than your law firm escrow account. You're starting a law practice in the midst of a ton of other people who are doing the same, or who have already established a practice. Having said that, there's absolutely no substitution for hustle. If you don't have work in your office, find work elsewhere. I remember in my first few months of practice, I'd absolutely nothing at all to do. So I decided to go to Court and literally sit in and see how each judge handled the calendar call, the docket, their temperament, etc. It helped me tremendously going forward. I took per diem work for $40 per appearance and brought the clerks coffee to find out the ins and outs of a courtroom. To establish my Bankruptcy practice, I took on pro bono cases and learned what NOT to do on a particular case. For my real estate practice, I contacted attorneys I knew and asked to simply "sit in" on closings so I could learn everything I could.

People will tell you that you should market this way or that way. Forget them. Only you know what works for you. I have google ads up but that doesn't mean it will work for you. I hate going to Bar Association events but it works for so many other attorneys. You have to try each and every thing you possibly can.

The two most important things:
1. There is absolutely no guarantee this will work. In fact, there's a good chance you may think this is too much and move on. That's fine. But if you hustle like crazy, and do good legal work AND let the client know you care (this isn't bullshit, no matter how cliche it sounds), you've got a way, way, way better shot of making it.

2. Get mentors and use them. I can't tell you how badly this is overlooked these days. Mentors WANT to help you. You need to find 3-4 attorneys you can turn to. Take them out for lunch or dinner. Treat them. They will pay you back in spades.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

I have no idea what will work for you... but here's my $0.02:

1. Network. And I don't mean "LinkedIn" or Twitter. I mean, find your *local* bar association(s), join them. Join a committee and go to committee meetings. The ABA is worthless (I know others will argue with me on the ABA) but local contacts with experienced working attorneys is critical. Make friends with people who've been doing this longer than you have and who have built successful practices. They know *something*. They don't always know it all--and sometimes their advice isn't applicable to what you want to practice or who you are (we're all different) but listen and consider it all. Don't reject it out of hand and always be grateful they are taking the time to teach you anything.

2. Get used to hard work. The best thing about working for yourself is that you set your own hours--as long as they are all day, everyday. There's no "work life balance" that's code for "I don't want to work hard". There *is* take time out to go to your kids baseball game and read them a bedtime story... followed by stay up until 2am getting the work done you should have been doing then. In reality "work life balance" means doing what matters when it matters. If you have a brief due in two weeks, go to the kid's game and work on the brief after bedtime. But know damn well that if you have a brief due in two hours, you're gonna have to make it up to someone for missing the game. My wife, who was once accountable to a big firm for billable hours calls *me* a workaholic. 'Nuff said.

3. Hustle. Mr. Gershburg has some really good advice about hanging out in courtrooms--know the clerks, they should be your best friends. But they can smell bullshit a mile away, so be true to yourself.

Learn who the judges you will be practicing before are and what they are like (if you're going to be in a courtroom). Any "downtime" you have starting out shouldn't be spent crafting a "social media strategy". If you and another young attorney both start out from scratch, and you spend your downtime hanging out in court, getting to see how judges handle their calls, getting to know the clerks, etc. and the other guy spends his time on a Facebook page and Twitter Account, massing thousands of follower: You. Will. Eat. His. Lunch.

4. Don't think you have to take every client who walks in the door. There are such things as bad clients; they are clients who lie to you, who expect you to lie for them, who don't pay their bills on-time, and are just plain no good. Pass on them. Even if it hurts your pocket book. Trust your gut. And you don't have to practice every kind of law, either. The best bankruptcy attorney I know doesn't do divorces, and the best divorce attorney I know doesn't do bankruptcies. I refer people to both of them all the time, because I don't do either.

5. What comes around, goes around. That bankruptcy attorney and divorce lawyer I mentioned above? I refer people to them all the time because they are good. I never get a referral back from them... directly. So what? Their typical clients aren't usually looking for the services I do offer. But both of them know other attorneys. And they know I do what is right for the client or prospect, not what is right for lining my pocket. That's so much better (for business and your soul) than 1200 rigged "Likes" on a Facebook page, it's not even funny.

And finally, never stop learning. Never stop learning from your colleagues, never stop learning about your vocation. The day you think you know it all is the day you know nothing.

Anonymous said...

My advice for those considering solo practice?

"Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try." See Yoda, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980.

Anything else is pure dicta.

David Fuller said...

I graduated from law school, spent a year clerking for a bankruptcy judge (more like law school than practicing law), and then moved to a state where I didn't know a single person and hadn't gone to law school because my wife and I wanted to go to law school. I've been a solo for almost 5 years now.

Some observations from my own practice:
1. Work life balance is something that you earn. Starting a solo practice is an all in proposition. Until you grow to the point that you can hire staff, you are the managing partner, receptionist, paralegal, janitor, and IT guy. You will be amazed how little time you spend practicing law, because you are doing the 200 other things that it takes to keep the practice running. People that talk about their practice's "running themselves" are either on the verge of going broke or on the verge of finding out that their paralegal emptied the IOLTA account six months ago.
2. Take it slow. Don't take on too many fixed costs and don't take on too many clients. Until you figure out the rhythm of practicing law, simple tasks will take up a lot of time. Keep your fixed costs down; so that you can take fewer clients at first. If you are desperate for work, you will ignore your instincts and take on terrible clients who will never pay you a dime but will threaten you with malpractice claims and bar complaints.
3. Talk to as many lawyers as you can and listen to the ones who are worth listening to. Ignore the ones who want to rant about the state bar or who brag about the size of their practices. Find some colleagues who love the legal profession. They are the lawyers who love to talk about the intricacies of the law and who will tell you about what they wished they'd done and hadn't done when they were starting out.
4. Try to find another lawyer who will rent you office space. You can get a small office inside another firm for about $300 to $500 per month. I don't like space for services, because it's unclear what your relationship is to the other firm. A rent payment makes the relationship clear. You pay for your space. If you do work for your landlord, your landlord pays you. I did space for services for about six months. There were too many grey areas for it to work well.

Brian is a great resource. I respect him, even though I've never met him and don't always agree with him. I'd buy him a beer or two if we were ever in the same city. If you have questions about what it was like to start a practice - especially in a new geographic area - you can email me at david(at)dfullerlaw(dot)com.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had taken a job before starting my own practice. I needed someone to teach me.
I have a good thriving practice right now but it was years of hard work and my practice is very limited in scope.
I don't want to reinvent the wheel every time a new client comes in so I turn down/refer out a lot of business that I should be taking on but don't have a background in that area and don't have the time to devote to learn it.
Studying something in school is way different than practice.

Joe said...

Going out on your own w/o any experience sounds like a wonderful way to wreck your career before it begins.

There is some great advice above and on this blog. Please try to read and digest as much as you can. If you can't find anything that will give you some experience (job, volunteer, law clinic, internship, etc.) then read everything on this site twice :-)

In my humble experience the two facts you absolutely must take to heart are:

1). You may be a very bright guy & may grow to become a brilliant lawyer, but at this moment you are utterly and completely clueless.
2). Mentor, mentor, mentor. Think of learning law as a trade and a mentor as a journeyman and you as an apprentice. I don't want to stretch the comparison too far, but you need help.

Just a few quick thoughts while sitting around waiting for a opposing counsellor show for a cmc. Good luck and please, please be careful going forward.

Anonymous said...

As someone who is in the fourth year of this - "sponging off a more experienced lawyer's experience, second chairing big felonies" - and making a decent living at it:

1. There is no way you're going to balance a life with this. It takes a ton of time. If you go in thinking it's a job, you are going to fail. There is just too much competition.

2. The learning curve is extremely steep. Give yourself credit for partnering up with an experienced lawyer. The first year is brutal - both in income terms, and also in learning terms. Then the curve "seems" to even out until you realize that that first curve is just learning how to get stuff done, the second curve is learning all the stuff it takes to be a good lawyer. Then the curve gets steep again (if you have a moral compass and want to do good work for your clients).

3. If you're in criminal law, you need to be available as close to 24/7 as possible because if a client calls you in trouble, you need to help. Or if a prospective client paying calls you on the weekend, you need to take it (all the normal ethical concerns applying).

4. The sad thing is most criminal defense clients don't know how to hire a lawyer which means that, provided you display some competence, you will get hired. That means that you have an enormous moral obligation to refuse cases (or partner on cases) that are beyond your competence because no one will tell you (until you end up like Rakofsky).

5. When you get a fee, set aside money for taxes! All that money is not yours.

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to start my own practice ten years out of law school and with experience working for a small litigation firm (7 years) and the public defender (2years). I've been doing doc review for the past year.

Work life balance isn't the problem. Work is. Local courts here don't do per deim appointed work. Everything is contracted out on two years cycles to law firms with there being minimum staffing requirements.

I spend $500 a month on book and online advertising, but it doesn't bring anything in.

I go to networking events etc.

How are fresh out of school solos finding clients and making even the equivalent of minimum wage?

I'm grossing $200 a month if i'm lucky.