Hanging Our Shingles

Posted on May 26th, 2013 by John Hennan

7 years ago, I came to Austin to attend law school at the University of Texas. I came to UT, and law school in general, induced by a promise. The promise, which had been made to me by various persons, with different universities, different law firms, and in fact other professions and walks of life, was that I was getting an education that was going to make me marketable whether pursuing a career in law or not, and that with a law degree, especially from a competitively ranked university, I would be able, if I chose, to land a corporate firm job and start paying back all my debts, with a salary well over $100K the first year out.

At the close of my final year, I remember a moment, sitting around a table at some overpriced wine bar in Austin, with a number of my fellow, about-to-graduate law students, and realizing that every one of them had lost, prior to even really beginning, the big firm jobs they had lined up for after graduation. Feeling lucky, the feeling did not last long—I would soon follow in their fate.

Endless amounts of detail are being left out here. Nonetheless, the point is this—I was amongst the first group to experience a phenomenon that has remained pretty constant since—the crashing of the legal job market. There are too many lawyers, and the economy is too otherwise burdened, for us all to get the solid jobs we were promised, or to use our law degrees to land other kinds of desirable jobs based largely on the merit of having a law degree alone. For that reason, a couple of things are happening more and more. First, many young lawyers are seeking out whatever work they can find, and often settling for low-paying, no benefits contract work for more established law practices who can make huge profits on what they are billing hourly for the work being performed by these under-appreciated contractors. Second, more and more young lawyers are hanging their own shingle, setting up their own practice, as I did, and often start their “practices” out of the front room of their apartments (…as I did).

The truth is, there is some real wisdom and resourcefulness in this. At what goes for standard legal billing rates, or even somewhat discounted rates, a lawyer with a simple practice and low overhead can make a pretty swanky little profit. But, there is the problem of getting clients, and more than that, there is the problem of getting clients who can pay legal fees. Please do not let that sound too greedy—as a lawyer, I want to be able to help people who really need help, and sometimes, those people cannot pay the costs of continued and combative litigation. However, as a young and struggling, solo lawyer, sometimes you gotta make sure you know where the next meal is coming from—a question I faced with some very real fear more than once while trying to build a practice.

Actually, another problem with the young, solo lawyer is this—law school did not train us to be lawyers. The practical training for day-to-day lawyering is, well, not really there. The truth is, walking out of barber college, you can go cut hair. Leaving culinary school, you are probably, by layperson standards at least, a really good cook. Leaving law school, you do not even know what the practice of law smells like. You are truly, still, clueless.

I think this paradigm might start to change. Law schools, at some point soon enough, may have to realize, at least until the economy and other factors miraculously do a 180, that they need to train lawyers to go be actual lawyers, and not how to go sit in fancy offices, spend countless hours on minute research issues billed to oblivious corporate clients, etc.

While I have to admit that for people out there needing legal assistance, the prospect of young lawyers with little to no training standing for you in court is frightening, I think there is also something very promising to come out of this mess. With the vast number of new attorneys being produced each year, and the continued problems with the legal job market, the standard, and the old guard, will and must change. The population of attorneys, their common experiences, and their approach to lawyering and representation will, and must, to some degree, change. I welcome this greatly.

Great changes for society are not always immediately convenient. Strength, resilience and character are born out of true struggle. I believe a promise of innovation, compassion, and individualized & zealous advocacy is to come out of the struggle and forced independence faced by today’s young solo lawyers.

A culture of legal advocates who learned, the hard way (…the only way), what it means to struggle, will mean a culture of future advocates whose concept of lawyering and advocacy, as well as fair billing practices, will not be handed down to them from the boss or the old guard, but will come from themselves, forged amidst pain and struggle. The great change that this can mean for future clients, in terms of innovative legal practices (see my post on “Summary Judgment Practice” as an example), fairness in legal billing, a diminished sense of entitlement among attorneys which separates them from their clients, and for the compassion and ability to look a client in the eye and truly empathize, human to human, is immense and inevitable.

To my fellow young solos—my heart goes out to you, but I suggest we all remember this—our struggle is a difficult one, but we are a part of something that will have great purpose, and need to stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us, and use the force we have gained through independence and struggle to innovate beyond.