A law degree is no longer a guarantee of great wealth, or even financial security. Many people are finding themselves with a diploma in one hand, a stack of student loans in the other and no real prospects for a job. The news is rampant with stories of recent law school grads moving back in with their parents and foaming lattes at the local coffee shop.
Don’t be discouraged. As someone who has worked as a solo practioner in several different locations, I propose that you start your own practice.
It’s a bold and somewhat intimidating idea. Below are some possible objections to this suggestion along with my responses.
I don’t have an office.
It’s no longer necessary to have office space in order to practice law. With a cell phone, computer and printer, you’ve got an office anywhere. If you have voicemail and minimal typing skills, you can do without a secretary as well. Most courthouses have conference rooms attorneys can use to meet with clients. You could meet with clients in a local coffee shop, which is much more interesting than being the barista. Caution: If you do meet in a public location, make sure that you take into account confidentiality issues.
Another option is an office sharing situation with other attorneys. In these arrangements, several attorneys, who are not partners, rent a suite of offices and divide the cost of shared space (like conference rooms and kitchenettes) and equipment or staff. Your overhead will be greater than in the option discussed above, but you’ll also have the opportunity to learn from your suite mates as well as a real office to go to on a daily basis.
Where Will I Find Clients?
I can’t speak for every situation in every county in every state, but in Ohio, most counties do not have salaried public defenders so cases involving indigent defendants are assigned to local attorneys who are then paid by the county. Check with local judges to find out their requirements to be placed on their court appointed attorney list. Some judges require that you have a local phone number or office space in the county. Others might require you to have a certain level of experience before they will appoint you to more serious cases. Also check with the juvenile court. They are always in need of attorneys for cases involving juvenile offenders or abuse, neglect and dependency cases where the court will need attorneys to represent the parents and also Guardians Ad Litem to represent the interests of the children. The domestic relations court is also often in need of attorneys to act as Guardians Ad Litem in child custody cases.
But, I Don’t Want to Handle Those Kinds of Cases.
Did you think that the partners at the big law firm where you planned to work were going to give you your choice of cases and clients? I can assure you, from personal experience, most criminals are not the demanding prima donnas that corporate clients might be. Sure, they probably won’t invite you to hang out in their private box at the US Open, but since you’re currently unemployed that’s not really an option for you. Plus, you might be pleasantly surprised to find that you do like handling criminal cases. They don’t drag on and on the way other cases do, they are usually interesting and you’ll get valuable trial experience that your classmates at big firms won’t get for years.
Will I Be Able to Pay My Student Loans?
Not at first, and maybe not for a couple of years, but the potential is there that over time you will build up a practice which will provide a nice living. Criminals tend to hang out together, so the chance for referrals and repeat clients is great. At one point, I was representing three members of the same extended family. Not all criminals are indigent, so once you’ve established yourself you’ll get other clients who pay real money for your services. I’ve also had court appointed clients recommend me to people who have high dollar civil cases. Provide quality representation to each client and word will spread.
I’ll Admit It— I Don’t Know How To Practice Law
No one really knows how to practice law when they get out of law school. That’s why you have to actually do it to learn. Instead of sitting around in your parents’ basement, go down to the local courthouse and observe the proceedings. Nearly all courtrooms are open to the public. Between hearings, strike up a conversation with the attorneys who are waiting for their cases to be called. Most attorneys are glad to share advice and may even send some clients your way.
Buying lunch for a couple of experienced attorneys will provide you with more practical advice than all three years of law school.
Before you head out to start your practice, check your state’s rules of professional responsibility and make sure you comply with the requirements for liability insurance. I am also not advocating that you go out and take on major felony clients or complicated contract disputes. Start small and move on to more complicated matters as your confidence and knowledge increase.
This isn’t a miracle cure. Chances are you’ll need to continue working some other part time job until your practice takes off. If you continue to look for a job with a big firm, you are going to be much more appealing with some actual courtroom experience and maybe a few clients to bring to the table.
Getting out there and being part of the profession is the best way to move your career along. Which is why you went to law school in the first place, right?