Small Law Firms, Solo Practitioners

Spurning Biglaw: Graduates Choose Starting a Small Firm Over Getting a Big Paycheck

America is often called the “Land of Opportunity.” To many, that means cashing in on one’s education, ideas and talent as soon as possible. The corollary is that we frequently assume that folks who aren’t rich are only so positioned because they failed at all their attempts to become rich. After all, actually turning down a guaranteed payday out of altruism (or at least perceived altruism) is a rare enough occurrence that it’s often deemed eminently newsworthy. See, e.g., Tim Tebow, Michael Bloomberg, and my personal favorite, Pat Tillman.

Here at Above the Law, life is frequently viewed through a similar lens. Discussions of small firms start with the presumption that non-Biglaw types are so situated because they didn’t have the chops to make it in Biglaw. See, e.g., almost every comment to any post I’ve written for this site. We assume that “going small” — especially right out of school — is the last resort of a destitute, loan-burdened graduate who B-minus-ed his or her way through three years of law school. Students “end up” in a solo practice; they don’t strive for it.

Thus, when a law student wrote to tell me that she and two of her friends are spurning Biglaw in favor of starting their own firm, I thought, “Now, there’s a story worth telling.” They’ve graciously agreed to let me tell their story here….

At this point the trio has requested anonymity. In their words: “[We] may not be risk-averse when it comes to loans and financial ruin, but the internet is another bag of worms.” Indeed.

As two of the three have yet to take the bar exam — they’ll do so in February, by a happenstance that doesn’t include failing at a previous try — that’s probably a wise choice. It’s best not to put the cart before the… well, it’s best not to put anything before the bar exam. That’s not a test you want to take twice.

So what do we know about this group?

They are graduates with options from two top-20 law schools choosing to turn their backs on the relative safety of Biglaw. They will be opening their practice in a quintessential small town described by my contact as “one of the most beautiful places on earth.” I haven’t been there, but I’ve heard good things — it’s usually listed in “best small towns”-type lists.

I asked my contact how the idea of starting a firm originated. She explained:

Over beers two years ago… [but] it didn’t become a reality until the beginning of our final semester. I realized that [Quintessential Small Town X] would be a wonderful place to live, [J] has been itching to get back up there, and [E] wanted to stay in [State X] if he could do something he loved. We started talking to people and, much to our surprise, everyone loved the idea.

Did you catch that? This idea is already two years in the making, not some knee-jerk reaction after being shut out of OCI.

Okay, so they’ve been thinking about it for a while — but I think about a lot of stuff over beers that (thankfully) doesn’t end up happening. What’s their current mindset?

We WANT to open our own firm. Each of us has employment prospects in other areas, whether it be firms or public interest organizations. We have three attorneys with different backgrounds, all interested in taking a risk and being the masters of our own domain. We are willing to work our asses off to make this happen and know that we will be hurting for the first couple of years. But honestly, what attorneys aren’t hurting right now? I’d rather do it on my own terms instead of working my way into a “cozy” fifth year associate position where I am still not allowed to call the client.

I think Biglaw firms actually start giving you client phone numbers in the third year, but her point is well-taken. After jumping from my relatively cozy fourth-year associate position into the cold and unpredictable waters of temporary employment and freelance writing, this kind of idealism and courage speaks to me. Of course, idealism and courage won’t get clients in the door.

Those of you who read Monday’s post will remember that I honed in on the idea that law school graduates are ill-prepared to actually practice law upon graduation. In that light, I asked the group’s spokesperson about whether or not they had any experience to bring to the table.

I was a financial software contractor at the State Department and DOJ for 3 years prior to law school. Because I was implementing proprietary software and received a top secret security clearance early on, I was able to climb ranks quickly and was leading an implementation team when I left. [E] spent a year as a juvenile probation officer before returning to school… [and] will graduate with a dual law/social work [degree]. [J] owned a small business in [Quintessential Small Town X] for 10 years before returning to law school.

Not too shabby. Of course this business experience will come in handy, but none of that helps with the root problem of graduates not understanding how to practice law. Well, they have an answer for that too:

We’ve had many attorneys tell us we need to spend a couple years in a firm before doing this. They cite examples such as: you need to know how to draft a complaint, or you need to know how to file with the clerk. I’ve spent three semesters in [the law school’s] clinical law program (as has [E]), and I’ve done those things many times. I’ve argued a criminal case in trial court, litigated cases in both state and federal court, and drafted a petition for rehearing en banc and supplemental brief for a case we just won in the 6th Circuit en banc. [E] is a certified mediator and has worked in our child advocacy and mediation clinics, as well as taking several semesters with a local judge doing trial practicum work. [J] has also had significant clinical [experience in addition to having run a small business].

To sum up, we have three graduates from top law schools, with some highly relevant business and legal experience, who actually want to open their own practice rather than rely on the shelter of an existing firm. In my humble opinion, this is a good start. But they would like to know: “Do we ignore the warnings of practicing attorneys in the region and follow our hearts, or does that take crazy and turn it into masochistic?”

Well? What do you think? Are they crazy? I’ll be giving updates on their story here as events warrant, with no pressure on my subjects — they have plenty already.

Email me or catch up with me on Twitter.

Earlier: Prior ATL coverage of small law firms

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