BY RYAN ALEXANDER
I might hold a record for on-campus interviews at HLS, with an estimated ninety interviews over three years of OCI. I ate hundreds of chocolate pretzels and tried to get an associate position with BigLaw like most students. However, it took a long time to come to grips with my own personality and preferences and choose what I really wanted, to not suppress my feelings and take the $160,000 a year. Ultimately, my decision to start my own small firm came down to a “non-corporate” personality, desire for control and the income potential of being in business for myself.
Despite my attempts to fit in, it showed through that I was not made to be a corporate law associate. I don’t do well in hierarchy under the control of others. I bore quickly with repetition and routines. I am lighthearted and talkative. I like interacting with clients directly, so I didn’t want to be buried away, never to meet the names on the motions. I wanted to both argue in court and make business deals. A partner who took me out for a dinner interview suggested that I should be a “country lawyer” like her husband, doing what I want in a small firm, and not working in her white-shoe firm.
Why solo? No billable hour targets! Sure, you’re going to have to bill some hours to pay your expenses and employees, but it’s income for your business. No one will review your monthly billing and crack a whip. No working all day, every day for seven to ten years for the chance to be considered for “non-voting junior income partner.” If I don’t like a client I don’t have to take the case. When I have an idea for marketing or advertising, such as a blog, MySpace page, podcast or Craigslist posting, I just do it – no need to plead with a boss who doesn’t trust internet marketing or refutes its value.
One thing many law students overlook is that there is decent money to be made in small firms or solo practice. Lawyers with private jets tend to be in small plaintiff-side litigation boutiques. The catch is that you have to bring in your own clients – it is the purest form of “eat what you kill.” However, legal services are in enough demand that it is unlikely that you will starve, especially with an HLS degree to market. One solid intellectual property litigation or tort case can provide more income than a year at BigLaw. While some think such cases may take years to get, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that once you start advertising and networking at social events that you get some decent cases, even right out of school. Not many people have access to Harvard-trained lawyers and from my experience they value it.
I tried BigLaw-style litigation in Dallas, Texas, my first summer and didn’t like it. I spent my second summer at a twelve-lawyer firm in Las Vegas, Nevada, doing intellectual property and entertainment law. They gave me client contact and several dozen matters I handled from start to finish, but the firm lacked adequate staff and resources. To try and figure out how to help improve their operations I bought several law practice books including the seminal How to Start and Build a Law Practice by Jay Foonberg. After proposing changes to the firm with little success, over lunches I began to talk with the associate I was working with about how we would do things if it were our own firm. I returned to HLS and we kept in touch; after I graduated we decided to start our own practice, joined by another litigator from their firm.
I would never have had the confidence and experience to start a law firm right out of school without the clinical programs at HLS. I participated both in the transactional Recording Artists’ Project / Community Enterprise Project (“CEP”) at the Hale Dorr Center and the Criminal Justice Institute (“CJI”). CEP taught me how to file business entities and draft hefty music industry contracts, while CJI taught me courtroom advocacy, motions practice and how to build up a case. I strongly recommend that you do as much clinical work as possible. Two semesters of supervised HLS clinics are worth much more than a year or two in BigLaw as an associate. Get a copy of How to Start and Build a Law Practice and Jay Conrad Levinson’s Guerilla Marketing. Join SOLOSEZ, the ABA listserv for solos and small firms and get to know a thriving community of nearly 3,000 lawyers who offer forms, guidance and support.
In my opinion, BigLaw is not the best way to prepare for solo or small firm practice, unless you want to serve large corporations as a solo. BigLaw won’t teach you how to choose commercial office space, how to write and manage a website, run an advertising campaign, or set up and manage your own trust accounts. You won’t hire your own assistants, put together a computer network or pick out furniture. When you start your own practice you learn these by doing them.
You don’t need to know everything. When you start your own practice, you will use the Magic Words of Lawyering a lot. They are the powerful, “Well, I have not seen this particular issue before, I am going to have to do some research and get you an answer by _________.” Perhaps you’re amazed that clients accept this while you’re in the Law School World where professors demand instant responses. I think that some clients feel validated when their issue stumps you, because you’re supposed to be smart and if you can’t get it either, then they are doing okay. You will learn more law as you research your clients’ cases and the law will have real meaning.
Find mentors in your city and in your practice areas. They will be a sounding board and a source of referrals. You should not be surprised to know that being a Harvard Law grad striking out on their own right out of school will bring you positive attention in the legal community and you will find mentors easily. Other lawyers will be astonished by your panache and want to meet you. We have made friends with attorneys who have come to our office and given us private CLE training in practice areas. These mentors more than offset any lost coaching from BigLaw.
I wish more students considered “hanging a shingle.” I hope HLS will eventually offer a seminar in running your own practice to open up students’ eyes to the possibility. HLS students are too risk averse for their own good – there is a lot of demand for services that you can provide for people. Many students go to BigLaw against their conscience or interests and hate lawyering, because they are not true to themselves. There is another path. It is exciting, liberating and uniquely fulfilling to have your own practice. You can prepare for it and be ready.
Ryan Alexander (’07) is a partner in Alexander, Odunze & Kang in Las Vegas, NV. He invites questions about starting a practice at email@example.com.