My clients are often broke, my defendants can be ex-felons, con artists, or lenders, my car is old enough to be paid off, and I’m writing this article on Thursday because on Wednesday I stay home with my children.
I am a solo consumer lawyer and I love my job.
Consumer lawyers represent consumers victimized by fraudulent, abusive, and predatory business practices. We act like private attorneys general, filing lawsuits to enforce statutes such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), and lemon laws.
Most consumer law claims come from federal statutes, but clients in my home state of California are fortunate to have strong state laws supplementing the federal laws. Successful consumer lawyers work in all 50 states, but if you are mobile, check into a state’s laws if you are considering relocating to start a consumer law practice.
Money comes in slowly at first for a consumer lawyer because you do not get paid until you settle or win cases. I work on a contingency basis, but the defendant often pays my fees—there are fee-shifting provisions in many consumer statutes. Consumer lawyer jobs can also be found with nonprofit organizations, which enables attorneys to take on clients without as much worry about income.
In my experience, clients are plentiful but case selection is key. All lawyers need at least one mentor. If you are going to use federal statutes such as the FDCPA and the FCRA, then find a local federal litigator to shadow. Local customs vary, and the inside knowledge you get from colleagues can shave hours off your workday and help you avoid costly mistakes.
When starting your practice, pick one area of consumer law to learn and to market. Debt collection harassment is a good place to start—the rules are comparatively straightforward. Ideally, you would master that area before adding new ones, but probably you will pick up clients that do not fit into a strict area of law, so purchase the entire library of the NCLC (National Consumer Law Center) manuals. Purchasing the manuals at least for your chosen field is mandatory for any budding consumer lawyer.
Joining the National Association of Consumer Advocates (NACA) is vital because you need the wisdom of others. The NCLC-NACA-sponsored conventions teach as well as give you new energy. Trust me, when you are fighting for justice, you sometimes need infusions of energy.
Joining other groups, such as associations of bankruptcy or trial lawyers or the ABA Litigation Section, will result in both referrals and a lot of cross-pollination of ideas. Consumer law is a growing area, but consumer lawyers can learn a lot from our fellow litigators in how best to fight our battles, be they at the demand, law and motion, or trial stage.
What type of infrastructure do you need to get started in consumer law? Besides the mandatory—a computer, office supplies, and those NCLC manuals—you need very little. I heard some advice about a start-up business: If you have $500, spend $480 on your chair and $20 on your desk. An expensive desk is not going to do anything for you a cheap table can’t, so why give it your nest egg? Spend money on what works for you.
Word processing software is important, but I know attorneys using OpenOffice or AbiWord, and they are free. Practice management software and scheduling software are also luxuries you do not need when starting out—there are many free calendaring programs that will work for you as you start your business. I love Google Calendar because it is visible in a window on the side of my Gmail, as is Google Tasks, so I can cut-and-paste information from e-mails and they are web-accessible.
The field of consumer law continues to grow as more people learn about their rights. I love my work because I get to give dignity back to my clients after the abuses from a debt collector, predatory lender, or credit-reporting agency have made them feel like second-class citizens.
Amy Clark Kleinpeter operates a solo practice in Pasadena, California, focusing on consumer law, litigation, and bankruptcy. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.