A few weeks back, a reader, discouraged after having failed the bar exam yet again, asked whether he should give up on his dream of starting his own practice. Of the advice that I offered, what resonated most with the reader was my reminder that no matter how many times he passed the bar, once he passed, he’d be a full fledged lawyer, no different from me or any other solo or even the Justices on the Supreme Court. Moreover, clients would never have to know how long he needed to become a lawyer, only that he was a duly licensed member of the bar.
Starting your own law firm means that you have a chance to cast aside a less than successful past and reinvent yourself. If you’ve been laid off from your firm, no one ever needs to know. When I started my practice in the wake of my own termination, I told colleagues that I’d left the firm (true) because I wanted to more courtroom experience (true) and an opportunities to advance (true). Soon, what I considered a “cover” story became my official story instead, so much so I often forgot that I’d left my firm under less than voluntary circumstances. And in fact, the only reason that I mention my layoff today is to reassure other lawyers that they too can forge a new life for themselves in the law.
Failures, whether not passing the bar or getting laid off can have a lasting psychological toll, long after the the event becomes a distance memory. This recent New York Magazine piece talks about the personal effects of unemployment, noting that they’re more devastating than other adverse experiences:
Andrew Oswald, an economist at the University of Warwick, has collected happiness data from hundreds of thousands of people both here and in the United Kingdom, and what he’s consistently seen is that people recover more quickly from becoming disabled, even widowed, than from the long-term loss of a job. “People may draw their benefits from the government,” he says, “but they don’t seem to psychologically acclimate.” Everyone tends to have a natural hedonic set-point, a zone within which their internal mood-thermostat tends to hover, just like their weight. Sustained unemployment is one of life’s few upsets that seems to permanently depress it.
Call me irrationally optimistic, but I don’t think unemployment or multiple bar failures or negative feedback from past employwers or other career-related adversities have to have a lasting effect if we don’t allow them to. Solo practice provides a second chance for us to recreate ourselves; it gives us a fresh start – that is, if we let it. To paraphrase that cringe-inducing line from Love Story (video at 3:38), going solo means never having to say you were fired and in time, you forget that you ever were.