This post is part of the MyShingle Solos summer series which was scheduled to run between June 17 and July 3, 2014 and was extended one more day to include some additional guest posts.
This post is written by MyShingle Guest Blogger Liz Araguás
If you are a law student considering going solo after graduation, there’s no time like the present to get your practice started. Of course, you can’t actually practice law until you’ve earned your license, but there are many things you can do now to decrease lag time and increase earnings as you transition into your next chapter. During my own 3L year, I decided to look into starting a mediation practice. Although I wasn’t planning on becoming a solo practice attorney at that point, the steps I took to prepare for self-employment as a mediator really helped me as I started my law and mediation practice. I’ve compiled a list of tips, both those I followed and those I wish I had known about, to get your practice off the ground before you don your cap and gown (or quit your current job).
- Use your remaining schooling to your advantage
For me, 3L year earned its reputation as the most boring year of law school. My GPA was pretty much set, I had completed most of my required core courses, and recognized that few of the electives taught much in the way of practical law. Once I decided to commit to pursuing self-employment, however, I discovered many ways to use my remaining months of the 3L doldrums to my advantage.
First, I squeezed every bit of practical skill-building out of my remaining courses. I was fortunate that my law school (the University of Iowa College of Law) allowed me to take a couple of courses outside of the law school. I took an advanced Spanish course to bolster my second language skills, as well as a business class in brand management, to hone my marketing abilities. I was also able to bend my law school coursework towards my new interests; I signed up for a medical law tutorial, where I wrote a research paper on healthcare and elder mediation. After law school, the knowledge I gained researching that paper was not only invaluable for my work as a mediator, but also as an icebreaker at bar association events and other professional functions.
Another benefit of planning for self-employment while still in school is all of the perks of the student lifestyle. If you attend law school at a large university, like I did, now is the time to rake in all of your student benefits, before you’re in money-saving startup mode. Some of these benefits may include…
- Entrepreneurship centers, which may have access to business mentors and free services
- Student health services (get a physical to prevent costly surprises later on, or even have a costly elective procedure or a child while you still have access to cheap health insurance)
- Access to a financial planner
- Reduced-cost software
- Student prices on CLEs or other training
- Regular access to speakers, seminars, and a library of print and online resources, and the daytime availability to actually take advantage of these opportunities
- Put the WORK in Networking
There is an incredible amount of advice out there on effective networking, and I am not purporting to be an expert on the topic. That said, as a young solo attorney, my network is my livelihood; the other professionals I’ve formed relationships with provide me with clients, emotional support, and advice that I would not be able to function without. I only wish that I had started to build this network sooner.
The easiest way to start building your network is to attend the events held by your law school, the local bar association, and other fraternal groups. As a student, few groups will expect you to provide a financial contribution, so you get a chance to shop around with minimal commitment. My advice is to try anything that sounds like an affordable and fun way to meet people, whether or not it’s aimed at legal professionals; I have attended events ranging from Inn of Court meetings (where I am now a member) to an open house at the local NPR station.
Once you’ve found an attorney or group that you like, it’s imperative that you make a second contact to cement the relationship. This is an area where I’ve seen a lot of young attorneys stumble. You need to find ways to nurture your network and give back to your contacts in order to create lasting relationships. Some creative tactics include: helping a tech-challenged attorney install a new technology in her office, offering to help set up at a CLE or other seminar, hiring your new contact to assist you with a legal need you can’t handle yourself, or passing along interesting articles (especially if you wrote them yourself!).
- Practice practicing law
Fellow MyShingle guest blogger Pamela Williams Kelly wrote a great post last week about the many benefits of pro bono work, and I could not agree with her more. Pro bono work has been a wonderful starting point for me as I have transitioned into solo practice. The key for those law students looking to plan for life as a solo is to use this free work to their advantage.
Whether you are working at your law school clinic or volunteering for a legal aid organization, there are some easy ways to help others while building your own future practice. First, be up front with your supervisor about your goals. Most volunteer coordinators will be happy to accommodate your desired focus areas, so be specific on the types of cases you would like to handle.
Second, go above and beyond for your pro bono clients. You will not only help someone who really needs you, but you will also build examples of your own work ethic to use later on when selling yourself to clients or prospective employers. One of my early cases as a legal extern in a legal aid office was a Medicaid denial. I researched that case as if it was an appeal to SCOTUS, even though it was just a little administrative phone hearing. I won the case, my client was thrilled, and it built both my confidence as an attorney and my résumé.
Third, build relationships with the clinic professors or staff attorneys at the organization where you’re volunteering. As an Americorps Member Attorney, I forged strong bonds with the staff attorneys who mentored me at the organization where I served. Although I’ve been solo for a few months, I feel like I still have colleagues in those attorneys. We share personal stories, forms, referrals, and advice. They are an invaluable part of my professional network.
Fourth, SAVE YOUR WORK. Every motion, memo, intake list, everything you’ve worked on—if you even remotely think it will help you in your future practice, save it to your personal files. Of course, be mindful of client confidentiality and respectful of other attorneys’ work product.
- Get administrative tasks out of the way
This is a boring way to end what I hope was an otherwise useful post, but here it goes—starting a practice, like any business, entails a lot of un-fun decisionmaking. 3L year is a great time to start making these decisions, so you can hit the ground running (and when I say running, I mean earning money) once the bar exam is over. Some of these administrative tasks include…
- Business/marketing plans
o Check out the MyShingle archives for ideas, or general business trend resources like the Fast Company website
- Malpractice insurance
o While you shouldn’t purchase until you’re in business, you can ask other solos for recommendations, and have your application ready
- Office space, or preparing your home office
o Again, reap the benefits of student discounts on hardware and software
- Incorporation forms
- Website design
- Business cards
- Headshots and other promotional materials
I hope this post sparked some ideas for those of you out there considering solo practice right out of law school. It’s scary to strike out on your own, but very rewarding (or so I’m told). Even if you eventually decide that going solo is not for you, following the tips above will make you a more marketable hire, and hopefully a more confident professional overall.
Liz Araguás is an attorney and mediator based in Iowa City, Iowa. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa College of Law. You can reach Liz at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her online at www.araguaslaw.com.