Should I Turn Down A $50k Bonus Clerkship Bonus To Start My Own Practice?

Here’s a question from a reader of this site and Solo by Choice:

I spent two years at a large law firm and now clerk for a federal district court judge.  I want to start my own practice after my clerkship concludes, but if I do, I’ll be turning down the $50k starting bonuses that firms routinely offer to law clerks.  Should I go to a firm and take advantage of the bonus and get some more experience or give up the money and start my firm when the clerkship ends, relying on the 6 months or so of expenses that I’ll have available?

Thanks for your question.  As many of my readers know, I’m not the throw-all-caution to the wind, settle-for-nothing less than starting a practice type of person.  I do believe that in  some situations, it may make more sense to accept a good job offer after law school, even for a year or two to start building contacts and to keep options open down the line.  However, your situation is not one of those.   Based on your letter, you are ready to start your firm now.  And in fact, in the long run, you may hurt your career more if you return to a job that you don’t want instead of starting your firm.

Consider this – even after two years at a firm and a year at a clerkship, you still crave starting a law firm.  There’s a voice, a spark inside you that isn’t going to rest until you give it a try.  You can go back to your former firm or try a new one, but that voice will haunt you.  And as you toil over documents or try to get your fix of working with a client directly through the firm’s pro bono program, you’ll begin to feel resentful and perhaps even start to sabotage yourself with an uninspired performance.

I realize that the $50,000 ups the ante quite a bit.  But let’s face it – if you take that money, realistically, you are committing to at least another two, possibly three years at a firm.  If you jump ship any sooner to start your own practice, your firm is going to figure, rightly, that you took the job to to build up a nest egg to start your own firm.  And suddenly, any of your accomplishments at the firm become suspect.  Take a client and the firm’s going to assume that you were angling for it all along.  Why risk your reputation, your most important asset in your career, for a clerkship bonus and a bit more short term security?

Let me clarify, however, that your first year out will likely be rough.  Though I’m fairly certain that  with your contacts, that you’ll start covering your expenses in a couple of months, your first or second year income may barely match your clerkship salary.  And you will have days, probably more than most of us solos care to admit, when a judge yells at you or when a client stiffs you or threatens to grieve you that you will wish that you’d taken that payout and gone back to a law firm.   But every job, even starting a firm, has its ups and downs.  And realize that those bad days will be balanced out by the client who thanks you for the job that you’ve done, the big firm opposing counsel who begrudgingly admits that you beat him fair and square, and most of all, by the realization that you had the guts to follow your heart and the ability to create something tangible – a law firm – out of nothing but your law degree and your own two hands.   Over time, with work and careful planning, you can grow your firm into anything you want it to be –  and even if you don’t, you’ll be a far, far better lawyer for having tried.

So let’s get practical now….what can you do to hit the ground running?  Here are some ideas:

1)  If you’re planning on staying in your community, start scouting out CLE and pro bono training programs where you can learn any skills that you may need in your practice.

2) Get yourself registered or claim your profile at sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, Avvo and other networking sites and start educating yourself on blogs and websites so that you can get one up and running when you open for business (as an aside, while you’re still clerking, I would refrain from blogging unless you clear it with your judge).  And while you’re at it, take yourself over to a Sears or JC Penney and for $60, get a professional looking digital photo that you can start uploading to these sites and use at your website.

3) If your state bar has a practice management office, pay a visit so that you can familiarize yourself with some of the nitty, gritty state specific details like setting up a trust account, getting any business licenses or registrations that may be required.  If your bar doesn’t have a practice management expert, join a practice management bar committee or a comparable bar group for assistance.  And if there’s a course on how to start a practice, sign up even if you’ve read some of the books or follow the blogs.  The state specific “how to start a practice” courses will help you out with the details of running a firm in your jurisdiction and can answer state specific questions that even well known experts may not be able to assist you with.

4) In addition to reading the solo blogs, start looking at books and blogs on small business and marketing.  These will give you ideas that you can transfer to your practice and put you ahead of the curve.

5)   If you’ve not been doing this already, and if your judge will allow it, start making a point of introducing yourself to every lawyer handling a case in your courtroom.   About a year ago, in one of my federal court cases, the judge’s clerk came out during a break to introduce himself and briefly chat with the parties.  I was impressed by his initiative (this is the first time I’d ever seen this happen) and if he ever started a practice and gave me a call, I’d make a point to refer him cases or try to help him make additional contacts.

6) Take stock of what you can multi-purpose to start a firm and what you may need.  For example, do you have a computer (preferably a laptop) and a smart phone?  What about programs like one for word processing, Adobe Pro (for court filings), a scanner and a computer printer?  Also, start evaluating office options – think about whether you can work from home in you anticipated practice area, whether a virtual office arrangement might work or whether you think you may need full time space.

Readers, if you have any other ideas on what a lawyer in this situation can do to move forward, please send your advice in the comments below.

Good luck!


  1. Greg Gordillo on May 26, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    Carolyn has offered a not surprisingly terrific response. Having said that, I am not sure I agree with the premise that the bonus should be rejected. The key is in the phrase Carolyn wrote: “Why risk your reputation, your most important asset in your career, for a clerkship bonus and a bit more short term security?” What if the firm were apprised of the intention to leave, and still continued to make the offer of a bonus? In that case, it would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to gain additional training, expand a legal network, enhance a resume, and sock away more cash.
    Before rejecting the offer, I would at least discuss the issue with the big firm. As an alumni of a big firm who waited a very long time before realizing my law school dream of a solo practice, I can say I have no regrets. The training, acquaintances, and experience I gained were invaluable to me as a solo. The key was that I left on good terms, and my old firm connections remain a great asset.
    While the bonus offering firm is more likely to say “go on your way” before continuing to extend the offer to one who has already expressed the desire to leave, I see no downside in being forthright with the firm about long term intentions. If the offer remains, I would take it. If withdrawn, the decision to go solo is a little easier.

  2. Carolyn Elefant on May 26, 2008 at 10:19 pm

    Thank you for offering another possibility. I do agree that working at a large firm can be beneficial, which is why I don’t frequently advise those who receive an offer at a large firm to turn it down. At the same time, this reader has already spent 2 years at a firm, plus this one at the clerkship.
    Still – you are right that discussing the intentions with the firm can’t hurt. It may be that there is a possibility to do short term contract work for the firm or that the firm can help in other ways. Transparency is always the best way to go and often has significant benefits.

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  5. Ron Miller on June 12, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    I have two thoughts. First, I don’t think any large firm that hires you requires you to lock in on a long term plan. I really think 95% of the people who come to a large firm are keeping their options open for (1) another firm, (2) their own job, or (3) Plan C. Do you really have to go to them and tell them you might not stay long? If that were the ethical obligation, there would be a long line. But, believe me, many lawyers go it with that thought and then life happens. Gold handcuffs we used to call it. And they can be tight.
    Second, I think large firm provide a lot of experience young lawyers. For many practice areas, you are better awful learning from smart lawyers – learning how they think and how they approach things. And the reality is there are a lot of smart lawyers at big firms. So even if you long term goal is a small practice, a large firm can do you a lot of good.

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