How soon can you go solo?
November 2nd, 2012 by Briana Cummings
How soon after graduating from law school can/should you start your own practice? I hear conflicting reports. On the one hand, I hear lawyers and entrepreneurs advising that you should not try to start a new business until you have worked in the field for several years, not only to build skills but also to build important contacts.
On the other hand, I have heard attorneys say that it is harder to start a new practice if you have first worked the grind in a D.A.’s office or large firm because you pick up too many bad habits that need to be undone and because the skills you learn as a bottom-level associate are not really all that transferable to — well, to anything. (See my post here.)
I don’t know which of these is “right” (perhaps both are true in some way), but I do know that I have personally spoken to attorneys who opened their own practice right after graduating from law school and are thriving, that there is a new movement afoot to prepare recent law school graduates to do the same, and that I really really want that for myself.
In an essay in a book recently published by the ABA, another lawyer who started her own practice right after graduation, Solo Practice University founder Susan Cartier Liebel, expresses many of my own motivations for wanting to go this route: a desire for independence, meaningful work, flexibility, responsiveness to real needs, control, and a well-balanced life. (For more on my motivations, see my posts here and here.) In this sense, Susan Cartier Liebel’s story is inspirational for the new grad (and not-so-new grad) aspiring to strike out on her own:
I had a desire to be an entrepreneur, the captain of my own ship, long before I went to law school 10 years after graduating college. . . . I saw law school as the ultimate entrepreneurial adventure . . . . . It had all the necessary ingredients: high portability, minimal overhead, one self-contained package — me. . . . Except, law school (and the profession itself) wanted to stop me. From the moment I entered law school, if I mentioned solo practice as the ultimate goal, the true measure of my success, the cherry on the sundae, the pinnacle of legal practice — I was mocked, disparaged, made to feel not only lesser than, but “insane.” I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. I was in an alternate universe where black was white and wrong was right.
. . . . What was my definition of success? The traditional journey on the cattle car to the Big Law dairy farm to be milked daily in my billable hour stall? Never. . . . I knew with every fiber of my being that working in a large law firm was simply not an option. . . .
Success defined by me is freedom to choose. Freedom of time and space. . . . I knew I wanted to one day be married, have children . . . . I wanted to contribute in a meaningful way to our financial comfort while contributing in my own unique way to the world. I absolutely knew in my heart I didn’t require an employer to provide a paycheck. . . .
While in law school I met two kindred spirits, and upon passing the bar we opened our practice. . . . We found mentors and challenged ourselves through each process, knowing in our hearts we could figure it out or find someone who would help. . . . Every new client, every new retainer agreement, every client victory was a testament to my ability to make our three-lawyer firm succeed. It felt so good. And then I knew . . . I had to teach others how to do it, how to believe in themselves, how to become a legal entrepreneur, the solo practitioner, because it was not only not fair, it was dishonest not to teach this very real and very viable option to law students. . . .
. . . . Your law license gives you the freedom to choose. . . . Your degree should not handcuff you to an image of what a lawyer should be. It should free you to redefine that image as well as how it is practiced. . . .
Source: The Road to Independence: 101 Women’s Journeys to Starting their Own Firms. Karen M. Lockwood, Ed. (American Bar Association: 2011)