Is Starting Your Own Law Practice the Answer for Law Grads Still Looking for Work?

Is Starting Your Own Law Practice the Answer for Law Grads Still Looking for Work?

For years after her law school graduation, my attorney worked with large and mid-size firms in New York City and Philadelphia. Finally, she recognized for various reasons the desire to leave "Big Law" and go off on her own. At the same time she leased space with two other attorneys whom she knew, sharing office and administrative/overhead expenses. Whether you call it "going solo" or a collaborative practice, when she retired 30 years later she never regretted leaving the formality and rigidity of larger firms - even with the possibility of becoming a firm partner.

After many years with a well-known career counseling firm many years ago, I took the plunge into private practice. Looking back at the time, with two young sons, the flexibility, determination, energy/enthusiasm and the opportunity to thrive outweighed any increased potential financial rewards of staying.

Ultimately, I determined my own destiny, having an entrepreneurial spirit and plan. Hence, Career Planning Services for Lawyers was established 20 years ago and fortunately grew from a practice that serves the general Pennsylvania region to a national one through the American Bar Association's Office of Lawyer Assistance Programs. For young lawyers - from recent grads in their late 20s to those touching 40 - leaving that "comfort zone," even if unhappy, bored or angry, can override any thought of leaving. In my practice with Young Lawyers Division attorneys I have heard, "I can't afford to leave, even if I'm miserable here."

We all know, even more so than before the 2007 legal recession started, becoming an equity partner in

many firms is like playing the state lottery: Odds are not stacked in your favor, even if you think you are the

"golden child," to be welcomed into the elite club of compensation partners.

Although much attention is given to "Big Law," a large percentage of lawyers in the commonwealth

work for small firms or partnerships. Others may be in a corporate environment that is stifling, their upward

mobility constrained, while other young lawyers may have a passion to enter public service, representing

the underserved in the country. Finally some lawyers I have counseled have been with state, county and

city government and found diminishing returns in the job.

For those of you who are exploring or even dreaming of starting your own firm, solo or with a few colleagues,

a number of factors come into play - from dream into reality!

Are you leaving that comfort zone even if disenchanted? Many lawyers are not willing to "risk change"

even if they know it's in their best interest. A number of clients I counsel now become what I call "lifers." But

that formula doesn't always provide the internal gratification and satisfaction, much less freedom, to alter

their career and move on to ACT II or III in a 35-plus-year career span.

When thinking about going into a solo or very small private practice, one needs to be honest and ask:

  • Can I thrive with some uncertainty?
  • Do I enjoy making decisions myself or with partner/colleague, or would I prefer to let others in a larger culture or environment make them? Will that impact my enthusiasm and energy over the next five to 10 years?
  • Do I wish to control my own destiny or have it controlled by others who are higher up the legal chain ladder?
  • What aspects of the practice of law do I really enjoy, and can I make a reasonable living from it? What "value" do I offer clients, at what costs and, ultimately, what distinguishes me as a practitioner, whether 28 or 38? Can I develop or have I developed a niche business model - as I have been fortunate to do by counseling and guiding lawyers in their careers?
  • Do I have a sense of entrepreneurship and business plan to make to it a go over time? If you need to-tal structure and are honestly afraid of a risk period, then would it be best to try and stay where you are- even if painful?
  • Are you willing to market your firm, not just advertising, but by building alliances with people who can be of mutual assistance to you in the start-up years?

Money magazine did a recent study this spring of 1,000 young people asking the question, "Do you ever dream of running your own business some day?"

Here were their answers:

Thirty-one percent said, "Sometimes, but too scary."

Twenty-five percent said, "Definitely one day."

Eighteen percent said, "I already run my own business."

Forty-three percent believe that "being in an environment where I can function most effectively might be running their own enterprise-firm/business."

Think about it for moment: Assuming you don't hit the state lottery or inherit a million dollars, a larger number of young lawyers will probably work for 40 years until Social Security - assuming it is still with us. With that in mind the question is: What really gets you up in the morning when there is a foot of snow on the ground, or it's 90 degrees outside - besides financial remuneration?

In my practice I ask clients about their undergrad area of study, and is there any relationship between that degree and the practice of law, or was the BA/BS just a station on the train to your final destination - law school?

Those who may have an undergraduate degree(s) that can or have interfaced with their practice of law may have leg up in pursuit of starting a solo or small group practice! Areas might include finance, accounting, marketing, economics, international relations, film study, nursing/healthcare, foreign languages, criminal justice, science and technology, engineering, environmental /natural resources, religion, social work, computer technology, music and the arts.

Some lawyers decide to stay in a long-term employment situation with a firm and its work culture and still sustain the energy and enthusiasm, finding the practice interesting and challenging. I feel that way about my own practice after two decades. Unfortunately, many young lawyers may not always feel that way at all.

In my practice with lawyers both in office and telephone career consultations, I have a successful formula that you may also find helpful - the Behrend gratification index. I believe that the daily work itself you perform should probably be around 75 percent gratifying. If it is 90 percent, it's unlikely unless you control your own destiny, work culture and clientele. Those who state their work gratification around 65 percent remind me of my grades in math and science - barely passing! If the gratification index has dropped to 50 percent or has never even reached that percentage, than a move of some substance might well provide the sunshine needed to brighten up your work life.

F. Scott Fitzgerald noted "there are no second acts in life," meaning little room for transitions - stay with the same firm, company, government position, etc., until you retire. But we know in this changing legal environment and looking through the rest of the decade, people are becoming more conscious of ACT II in their careers, both electively as well as reluctantly.

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder and CEO of LinkedIn, has a new book, The Start Up Of You. Hoffman notes that one needs to apply an entrepreneurial strategy, building and developing your own enhanced capabilities and opportunities: Identify and work on your strengths and what are the transferable skills both within and outside your field. We do know that at the 20- or 25-year law school reunions, a significant portion of graduates may not be practicing law per se but are using those skills learned in law school in a different venue!

In conclusion, ultimately, adaptability is going to be required in your lengthy career, and starting your own or multi-functional firm may be the correct career landscape for you in 2012 and looking ahead.

David E. Behrend, M.ED., Director, Career Planning Services For Lawyers has been successfully counseling attorneys going through a career or employment transition for over 18 years. He has written and spoken prolifically on career development issues for lawyers going through changes. He can be reached at:;  or 610-658-9838