GPSOLO January/February 2010
How Did I Get Here?
My name is Duke. That was my name when I worked as a cowboy, a carpenter, a bricklayer, a bouncer, an over-the-road truck driver, and at several other jobs. Now I am a lawyer; same person, different job. Clients, judges, bailiffs, and other attorneys just call me Duke.
I have been asked how these experiences have influenced my approach to the practice of law.
I believe the practice of law is as much about how you interact with other people as it is about understanding the law—perhaps more so. Many of these people skills are already developed before you reach law school. In my case, I had 49 years to work on interpersonal skills before I reached law school.
After passing the bar, I immediately started my own practice. I decided to practice estate planning, elder law, and real estate law. Estate planning uses the same thought process as I had used as a software engineer. Elder law seemed to be a natural adjunct to estate planning, and I expected both practice areas to grow as baby boomers entered their retirement years. Real estate law related to my experience as a real estate broker several years ago.
I began networking to develop a client base. People seemed to like me and wanted to send me business, but it wasn’t a consistent stream of business, and it often involved an area of law I did not practice. I toyed with the idea of adding more practice areas, but I decided against it. Instead, I referred those cases to other lawyers whom I believed would offer quality representation and personal service.
My practice was growing, just not fast enough to keep up with expenses. I decided to do some court-appointed work to help pay the bills. My first few appointments were in juvenile court. I bought a book written by a local practitioner regarding juvenile court practice and studied it thoroughly. At first, I didn’t like juvenile court and was looking for other options to try. In the meantime, several more appointments came in, and I began to get busy doing court-appointed work. As I began to understand what I was doing better, I discovered I liked what I was doing.
I dropped my expensive memberships and moved my office downtown nearer the courthouse, cutting my overhead by more than half in the process. The courthouse is just two blocks away and a short five-minute walk from my office. Now I was both busy and making money. I began to constantly revise how I worked and how I billed the court for my time. I developed the habit of opening each file every week to see what I could do for that client. Sometimes, there would be nothing the client needed that week; but overall, it did help me maximize the service I provided each client, and my billings went up. The judges appreciated the level of service I was giving each client and began sending more appointments. Now I bill about 20 hours a week to the court, which provides me with a base income of about $60K and leaves me with 20 hours free for private cases.
Back to where we started: How did my life experience before law school prepare me for the practice of law? My construction experience taught me to always start with a plan. Driving a truck taught me to be flexible and flow with the traffic; detours will always be a part of life. Being a bouncer taught me to deal with confrontation and how to de-escalate hot tempers.
Having so many jobs has helped me to look at things from different points of view and never be afraid to learn something new. My 56 years of life experience have taught me that there are very few bad people in life. People sometimes make poor choices. They then have fewer opportunities to make good choices, which leads them to make more poor choices, until they seem to be hopelessly entangled in a web they have created themselves. I help people get free of those tangled webs and start over with whatever they have left. It is a great way to make a living, and it provides me with a high degree of personal satisfaction.