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Solo & Small Law Firms

If You Just Started a Law Firm, Hire A Summer Associate

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OK, so I realize that my headline sounds crazy.   After all, you just started a law firm four or six or eight months ago.  You’re barely covering your expenses, you still have no idea what you’re doing, you’ve chosen – by design or necessity – to work from home so you don’t have an office and you’re constantly scrambling to networking events or lunchtime meetings to market your practice.   And now I’m suggesting that you hire a summer associate?!   Sheer lunacy, right?  Well hear me out.

Few things will make you feel more like a real law firm owner or convince you of your abilities than hiring a summer associate, a law clerk or even a college student.  Clueless and bumbling as you may feel, in a student’s eyes, you’re regarded as a successful professional.  Moreover,  overseeing a student will make you realize how much you really know.   When you edit the student’s memo or explain to him how to file a document at the court house, you’ll immediately see how far you’ve come.

Hiring a student offers practical advantages as well.  Students have full access to LEXIS and Westlaw for educational purposes.  In my interpretation, any assignment that gives students hands on learning constitutes education, so I’ve always felt comfortable when students used their accounts to research projects for me.  In addition, when you take a student associate or clerk to court or to a networking function, you ‘ll impress your colleagues by showing that you’re already doing well enough to sustain and train a part time hire.  Finally, if you ever decide to leave solo practice to apply for a job, or if you compete for work in an RFP, you can claim managerial experience since you supervised a law student.

So what’s a summer associate going to cost?  Chances are, with law students avid to gain experience and in light of the present depressed job market, you could probably hire someone for a non-paying internship.  However, I don’t recommend that approach because the student may leave if he finds a better paying job and you may hesitate to demand top quality if you’re not paying the student.

Instead, I suggest that you pay between $10 and $20 an hour, depending upon what you can afford, your location and whether you choose a college student or law student.  And you can limit the number of hours worked to 8-12 hours a week if that’s all you can afford.

In terms of work assignments, feel free to hand off administrative tasks.  But try to give the student a good learning experience and opportunity for professional accomplishment.  For example, you could ask the student to research and co-author an article for you, help write a newsletter, handle a pro bono matter or assist with your blog.  These skills will help the student with his or her career long after the summer is over.

In my own case, I started my law firm in the fall and hired a college student from my alma mater to work for me during that first summer.  I remember overhearing my clerk on a phone call, telling a friend, “I have to get off, my boss is coming.”  What boss, I wondered — and then I realized that the “boss” was me!    I’d never thought of myself as “the boss” until then, and that realization alone was worth the cost of my summer clerk.

  • I am a recent law school graduate. We were always told that the use of Westlaw/Lexis outside of school was in direct violation of the law school’s user license. Hence, using the student’s Westlaw/Lexis account at work was strongly frowned upon. I suppose that as long as you’re not billing clients for the usage, an argument could be made for your point of view.

  • WL

    To clarify Chris’ point, use of law student Westlaw/Lexis is only a violation of the user license if the student uses it as part of paid employment (summer fellowship/scholarship money exempted). This is made clear when students have to register for summer access by checking from a list of allowable uses, which also include research for faculty, law review editing, etc.
    More to Carolyn’s original point, are there any consortia of small/solo firms out there that pool together for the purpose of hiring summers? It would give students the ability to “one shot” their resume and it would consolidate the cost and time demands of interviewing. Probably an idea for a local bar association? Even if solos don’t want to go as far as coordinating and pooling interviews, something like a NALP directory of small/solo firms in a county or region would be extremely helpful to students, and can help raise the profile of the solo.

  • RustyJones
  • Alex

    This is awesome advice. Did you have an office space at the time?

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