Janet Rubel, Attorney, Northbrook
(847) 480-1020 | Email Janet Rubel
The employment opportunities for law school graduates are very bleak, especially for those students who have not attended top-tier law schools. Law review members from less prestigious schools might receive job offers, but there is no guarantee of employment from having been a member of the staff or a top student.
This is very unfair and short-sighted because I have observed in more than 30 years of practice that law school alma mater and grades matter very little in achieving success as an attorney. Temperament, people skills, empathy, creative thinking, hard work, and time management skills are all important factors in making a good lawyer. Most of us have encountered Ivy League graduates who could explain the arcane points of law but could never argue before a real judge. I remember one late Cook County judge who became exasperated when the big firm pedigreed lawyers lectured the judge instead of making their case. These lawyers persistently ignored the judge’s body language and demeanor in plodding ahead citing arcane points of law. They were so out of tune with the judge and his courtroom that they did not help their client’s cause.
The poor prospects for traditional routes to employment have caused some law schools to offer their graduates help in starting their own practices. I am speaking at one such event at the Illinois Institute of Technology/Chicago-Kent School of Law this month. This is aimed at alumni who have passed the Bar but cannot find jobs.
The same information applies to more seasoned lawyers who want to start their own firms.
I think it is best if you can narrow your focus to one area of law and carve out an expertise. It is very hard to keep abreast of all areas of law in a general practice as a sole practitioner. You may need to take any case that comes in with a paying client initially. This breadth will help you in whatever area you may choose to concentrate your practice.
One young attorney I know could not find a job upon graduation. She had served as a law student intern in the public defender’s office where she learned various skills. This attorney now concentrates her practice in a very specialized area of criminal law. She is doing very well, I am glad to report.
I started my own firm because I did not know better. Ignorance was bliss. I had a baby and needed flexibility. In addition, I come from a long line of family members who have had their own businesses, although not law practices. Thank heaven I took typing and shorthand in high school because I was my own secretary for years. When I did have a secretary, I found I typed faster and more accurately than she did. Now with computers, secretaries are not necessary if the budget is tight.
Starting a law practice is not recommended for the faint of heart. There will be no one else to blame if business is slow or the work is not completed satisfactorily. You may start out small, but you may prosper and have employees and partners to manage one day. You must pay the rent and all the bills in addition to practicing law.
Do you like courtrooms or run the other way when going to court is mentioned? The transactional practice of law is for you then.
If you choose trial work are you prepared to travel beyond your home county? Will you ride the circuits as Abraham Lincoln did? Lawyers who choose to practice beyond their home locale need very reliable transportation. If public transportation is not available, you must own or be able to borrow or rent a car.
The first thing an attorney wanting to hang out a shingle must know is that this process takes some money but not a lot is necessary. Today all you need as a bare minimum is a cell phone and a computer along with a printer/scanner. The fax machine is less used now, having been supplanted by the wireless four-in-one devices that scan, copy, fax, and print.
Lawyers today can work from home in their pajamas or sweats thanks to technology. The price is right. If you do work from home, then you need a quiet space where confidential client information is protected from prying eyes. Some attorneys work at the dining room table while others have the luxury of a spare room office. The late father of a college friend worked over the office in his small town, having living quarters over his law practice.
If you choose to work from home, you must be disciplined. You cannot watch television during the day (unless there is something really special to watch) or surf the Internet except for work. As tempting as it is to work in comfortable clothing, I recommend getting dressed in something beyond sweats to put you in a working mode. You don’t have to wear a suit and tie or hose and heels, but you should look professional.
When you work at home, you need to set boundaries. If you have family members living with you, tell them that they cannot raise their voices during the day because you could be on the telephone with a client. Explain that they cannot interrupt you without knocking on the door or otherwise asking for your permission, unless they are bleeding or the house is on fire. Establish parameters to limit your work time or you can look up hours into the afternoon to find out you have not had lunch or taken a break for hours. Get outside in nice weather and take a walk or some other form of exercise to clear your head.
Some fledgling practitioners decide to rent office space. This is expensive, but if you have deep pockets, it is an option. Some people like the camaraderie of the office. This can be a distraction if you have chatty tenants in the building.
Those on an extremely low budget can work from home and meet clients in a local coffee shop or library. Clients today don’t seem to mind the out-of-the-office setting. My young friend meets all her clients in a local Starbucks because she does not want the expense of renting a space. Also, she practices criminal law and does not want to meet alone with the clients.
A wonderful option is to rent a virtual office that provides a telephone service, address, and receptionist to answer the telephone and direct your call to your private voicemail. If you want to meet with a client, you can use an office or a conference room in the suite. Some attorneys choose to rent small offices in these suites to merge the best of both worlds.
A time-honored alternative is trading space for services with an established lawyer. The key is to agree on the duties to be performed and the number of hours necessary to earn the rent that would otherwise be charged. These arrangements can lead to referrals and perhaps an invitation to join the firm after a few years. It is a great advantage to be able to talk to a colleague if a question arises or another opinion is sought.
If you choose to dive into the sole practitioner pool, please join your local bar associations and attend the meetings. Avoid isolation if you work at home or in a small office. Meet your colleagues and get referrals and give referrals. There is no substitute for being known and respected by your fellow attorneys, particularly if you have a niche practice in which most lawyers have little expertise.
Please let me know if you are starting your own practice and have any questions. Or perhaps you have some advice for others. I would love to hear from you.