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March 01, 2018 GPSolo

A Nontraditional Lawyer’s Story: Spinning Plates

By Ruth Carter

It’s two o’clock in the morning. My alarm went off ten minutes ago. As I sip my much-needed coffee, my brain tries to focus on the day ahead: early-morning flight to Las Vegas to do a photoshoot with one of my photographer friends and then speak at an Internet conference on “The Nightmare of Getting Content Removed from the Internet” before catching a mid-afternoon flight back home to Phoenix to give my basset hound ( her glaucoma medication and dinner by six.

I strive to live a “Renaissance life”—lawyer, speaker, writer, and artist. I love what I do, but it is not without challenge.

Law School Blogger to Social Media Attorney

When I started law school (, I initially had aspirations about working in a firm, wearing a suit, and going to court. I should have known that I was not meant to pursue a traditional legal career. I’ve never been described as “traditional.” Despite my efforts to conform, law school would never change that.

To be honest, I went to law school on a whim. After working in the mental health field for nine years, I wanted a different career, but I didn’t know what. I knew I liked helping people, solving problems, being creative, and not being trapped in an office all day. Going to law school bought me three years to resolve my career crisis.

During law school, I found my professional niche in social media law, and it came from the most unlikely of places: the flash mob community. I participated in my first flash mob during winter break of my first year and fell in love with them. I’ve since participated in and/or organized more than 20 flash mobs, including a living “Where’s Waldo?” game and the annual “No Pants Light Rail Ride” in Phoenix.

Everyone I met through organizing flash mobs was involved in marketing, social media, blogging, podcasting, photography, or other creative ventures. As a flash mob organizer (, I became more active on Facebook and Twitter ( A fellow organizer suggested I start a blog because she said I had a unique voice. With the help of a friend, I launched The Undeniable Ruth ( in January 2010. While other blogs have a distinct theme or message, my personal blog is whatever turns me on or ticks me off that week. Becasuse I was a law student at the time the blog launched, most of my posts were about my law school experience or the law itself.

As an outspoken person with friends who are even more outspoken than me, I realized I needed to learn how far we could push the envelope regarding what we posted online without crossing the line. This inspired me to use the last half of my law school career to focus on intellectual property, cyberspace law, and media law. This was where I wanted to establish myself.

I knew I wanted a career that would allow me to write, speak, and explore developments in Internet law. I couldn’t imagine that a conventional law firm would afford a new associate that much freedom. During spring semester of my third year, I remember glancing over at my classmate and saying, “I don’t want to be a traditional lawyer.” She looked back at me with a look that screamed, “Duh.” (For more, see my blog post at

Admitting to myself that I wanted something different than the usual legal career was freeing and frightening. While it was liberating to reject the traditional path, it was daunting to seek a career where there was no model to follow.

Joining the Legal Ranks

By the time I graduated and passed the Arizona bar exam in 2011, between my blog posts and flash mob shenanigans, I was unemployable. A family friend offered to be my business mentor, and I launched Carter Law Firm ( in January 2012. For the first two years of my business I ran a lean operation: I worked from my dining room table and used a mailbox at the UPS Store for my address. When I had to meet with clients, I used a conference room at the State Bar office.

Having a business mentor was essential to becoming an entrepreneur. For the first 18 months of my business, I met with her every six weeks. She taught me about networking, managing the bank accounts, and building a business from the ground up. I learned two important lessons from her:

  1. When you’re not working in your business, you should be working on your business.
  2. Schedule regular meetings with yourself where you review progress on your goals: what’s working/what’s not, the financial status of the business (including where your money is coming from), and planning ahead for at least the next 30 days.

Being an entrepreneur is two jobs in one: being a lawyer and operating a law firm. That’s enough work for anyone. I often had more jobs than that because I was also researching and applying for speaking opportunities, preparing for talks, and writing books. From the beginning, I felt like I was perpetually spinning plates.

Although Carter Law Firm always pulled a profit, after about two years in practice I wanted more stability. Unsure if I would ever fit into a firm, I started looking at local lawyer job openings. At that time, Venjuris (, a business and intellectual property boutique firm, was looking to add a lawyer with his or her own book of business. “That’s me!” I thought when I read their ad. I sent them my cover letter, and three interviews later, they invited me to join the firm.

Truth be told, when they offered me the position, my first thought was, “Did you not Google me?” I was completely forthcoming about blogging, flash mobs, and speaking, and they were (and are) completely fine with all of it. They even let me add a provision to my contract that said my dog can come to the office. It would have been a deal breaker if they said she wasn’t welcome.

I’m lucky to be an Of Counsel lawyer at a firm where I set my own hours and rates, I handpick clients, I wear whatever I want, and I still have the freedom and flexibility to speak, write, and take on outside projects.

No Linear Path to Success

One of the many lessons I’ve learned about entrepreneurship is there is no if-this-then-that formula for success. Much of my success has come from being willing to ask for help, being available when someone needs my help, showing up, and maintaining relationships.

For example, I write a monthly column for Attorney at Work ( called “Nothing But the Ruth.” The story behind how I got that job follows a winding path. Legal author Ari Kaplan ( spoke at my law school when I was a 1L and he was promoting his book The Opportunity Maker. He encouraged us to embrace what makes us different and stand out from the pack. I kept in touch with him, and over my 1L summer I asked him for his thoughts about my developing a niche in flash mob law. He said it was brilliant, and as he was writing an article for Law Practice magazine about creating a niche, he asked if he could use me as an example. As part of Ari’s article, I was put in contact with Mark Feldman, who was the editor of the magazine at the time. Two years later, when he and his wife, Joan Feldman, started Attorney at Work, they reached out to me again and asked me to be one of their “experts.” I’ve written for them ever since.

Maintaining relationships with people has been an integral part of my professional achievements. It’s something I enjoy doing—meeting up for meals, sending postcards, and attending selective events—but it’s also a substantial amount of work. It is a challenge to make these activities a priority when I have a full calendar of client work, but it’s part of what keeps client work coming in the door.

Never Know Where the Next Opportunity Will Come From

Between attending and speaking at conferences and events, being in the Shankminds business mastermind group (, writing blog posts, creating YouTube videos (, being active on various social media platforms, and having hobbies, I never know where the next opportunity will come from. Many times, opportunities find me. Currently about half of my new clients are people I’ve never met before. They find me by doing an Internet search regarding their problem and stumble on a blog post or video I created. I also get a fair number of requests from people whose problems are outside the limits of my law license, like the person in Ghana who wanted my help with a revenge porn situation.

The benefit of regularly connecting with people in the industries I serve is they tell me what issues are on the horizon for them. When I attended and spoke at Content Marketing World in September 2017 (; one of the best social media marketing conferences on the planet), Robert Rose, who is a world-renowned authority on content marketing, asked about the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) going into effect in May 2018. I had not heard of this European law yet, but thanks to Robert, I’ve learned how impactful this law will be on American businesses, and as a result, I’m shifting tremendous energy and resources to creating content and speaking about this law in 2018.

Of course, with entrepreneurship, nothing is certain, and work often feels like “feast or famine.” I have no steady income or guarantee of future work; I’m strictly in an eat-what-you-kill environment. Managing that anxiety is an ongoing process. I have consecutive days when I have absolutely zero client work to do, and I worry that I’ll have to live on ramen or go broke. Often, just as the panic is starting to set in, I will get three e-mails from prospective clients and a request for a paid speaking engagement.

It’s always ebb and flow, and I feel like I’m constantly surfing the waves—reacting to whatever comes my way.

The Wall of Pain

Keeping all the plates in my life spinning is too taxing to manage with merely a calendar or to-do lists. I have charts (yes, plural) in my home that help me remember and check off that I did my exercises, took my medications, and gave glaucoma dog her medications. Almost every day, I have reminders written on the back of my hand with a Sharpie pen.

Because I am easily overwhelmed by the too many things I’ve taken on (yeah, I should work on that—put it on my list), I created what the Shankminds call the “Wall of Pain.” I took an entire wall in my office and turned it into a color-coded to-do list using 4” x 6” scratch-pad paper, flip-chart markers, and painter’s tape. All my professional tasks and sub-tasks go on the wall—one task per sheet of paper. When I finish a task, I rip that sheet off the wall. I add and remove tasks almost daily. I’ll admit it’s a bit insane, but at a glance, I know where I am with all my projects, and it is a visual reminder to focus on one thing at a time. I also have a scaled-down version of the Wall of Pain at home for personal tasks, such as chores and paying bills using sticky notes and ballpoint pen. Yes, I know I’m a bit of a control freak.

Even with all these tools, I still find myself regularly muttering, “Who am I? What’s going on? Where am I going?”

Dealing with the Entrepreneur Blues

When I talk with law students about my nontraditional career, many of them remark that I have the coolest job—and it is, but it also comes with a darker side. Many people don’t talk about how lonely it is to be an entrepreneur. Ultimately, everything is on me to be successful, and that’s a lot of pressure some days, especially when I have overlapping deadlines or the opposing counsel makes an unexpected filing that hijacks my schedule because I must rearrange other tasks to deal with it. Few things upset me more than when I have my whole day planned and something throws a wrench in it.

Along with the day-to-day stress of being my own boss, I’m also part of the substantial minority of lawyers who deal with mental health issues. A 2016 study by the American Bar Association Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation ( found that 28 percent of lawyers have mild to severe depression—including me. Of the lawyers who experience depression, 60 percent also have anxiety—including me, too.

This doesn’t make me unique. Forty-six percent of lawyers reported concerns about depression sometime during their legal career. But it is something I have to be mindful of and manage on a daily basis. Whether I like it or not, self-care is a necessity for me. Otherwise, I’ll find myself so upset that I’ll sweat through my shirt, lose my appetite, or want to crawl back into bed.

Thankfully, being my own boss often gives me the flexibility to step back when I’m overwhelmed by the whirlwind of my self-created life. When I’m too distracted or stressed to work effectively in the office, I can leave early, work from home, or take a day off if I don’t have client meetings or court deadlines. I won’t sugarcoat the challenges that I face; some days are arduous and tiring. On those days, I look to the Wall of Pain and focus on only those things that must get done that day and leave the rest for tomorrow.

Coming Home from Vegas

It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. I’m on my flight home to end my fast-paced day trip to Las Vegas. My sunrise photo shoot went well. The preliminary images look fantastic. My talk at the conference was a success. The audience was engaged, and the organizers already asked if I’m available for their next event in London.

It’s been a long day. I walked directly off the conference stage, out of the hotel, and caught my Lyft back to the airport. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I’m an introvert, so I am exhausted from all the excitement. I might catch a quick cat nap on the flight before heading home to walk my dog and check the e-mail I missed while I was away.

Ruth Carter

Ruth Carter is a lawyer in Phoenix, Arizona. Ruth’s practice focuses on intellectual property, Internet and social media law, business law, and flash mob law. Ruth was selected as an American Bar Association Legal Rebel, a Phoenix Business Journal 40 Under 40, and a Super Lawyers Southwest Rising Star. Ruth has written three best-selling books on guerrilla marketing and social media law including The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to Get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. Ruth also maintains a personal blog: The Undeniable Ruth.