August 01, 2017

Building a Practice: From Law School to Lawyer

Gary P. Bauer

I hope you have two takeaways from this article, and they are contained in the following quotes:

Forget past mistakes. Forget failures. Forget everything except what you’re going to do now and do it. — Will Durant

If people concentrated on the really important things in life, there’d be a shortage of fishing poles. — Doug Larson

As I tell my students, if I teach you the underlying principle of a law and what drives it, you will be a much better lawyer than if I only tell you the law. So, I am going to give you two principles to guide you as you exit law school and build a practice.

Be Your Dog

The best illustration of how these two quotes apply, as you build a practice with the least amount of stress and greatest likelihood of success, is your dog. That’s right, your dog! Your dog lives in the moment. Every day, when you come through the door, he is on that imaginary fishing trip. He is so excited to see you that whatever happened during the day, good or bad, is no longer in his mind. He only seeks to greet you with uncontrollable tail wagging and panting. The fact that, earlier that day, three fleas had bitten him and escaped his maw is of no consequence when you arrive. The fact that those same three fleas may bite him again is nothing to worry about. He carries no worry about his future prospects, no regrets about what has transpired in the past. He has learned how to address the fleas from past experience. And the fact that he was unsuccessful does not mean that he carries regrets. He just tries harder the next time. He learned from his experiences, good and bad. He doesn’t worry about future bites, which may or may not occur. Instead, he lives in the moment.

A dog could be starved by its owner, chained to a doghouse in the back yard, and neglected. But when the owner approaches, that dog looks with wide eyes and no regret with attention and concern for the owner. Dogs and animals live in the moment: BE THE DOG!

Abandon Fear

If you are thinking about starting and building a practice right out of law school, your greatest barrier will be your fear of failure in the future. This is normal. What do you fear? You can’t fall off the floor! Many of you have student debt that you will need to service, and some of you have family responsibilities that you cannot ignore. As many solos have expressed in the past, “marry someone with benefits”

I am not suggesting you get married to start a practice. But I also know many students I have counseled as a mentor through the past 20 years who found it all too easy to step away from the challenge and say, “It is impossible for me to make it without working for someone else to get experience.” Success as a solo out of law school is possible for anyone—that is, anyone who plans ahead, anyone who is motivated and who is not afraid to put in a lot of time and effort to succeed. Success is there for those who don’t dwell on past mistakes or worry unnecessarily about future problems that may or may not occur.

Plan Your Attack

There are a lot of books out there to give you guidance. Jay Foonberg is one on the original authors who saw opportunities for solo practice. His book How to Start and Build a Law Practice has been through many iterations and multiple authors. Read it, or read one of the other books on the subject. They are full of very good advice and will help you develop a practical and realistic business plan. None of them are perfect. Your circumstances and plans will, and should, be different from everyone else’s experience and advice.

How do you create a unique plan? Go out and interview solos in the area where you hope to practice, talk to judges and court clerks (not law clerks, but the clerks at the desk where papers are filed), and talk to solos in the field to find out how they did it (with varying degrees of success). If you want a very good read, download the audiobook The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People by Stephen R. Covey. Listen to it as you commute or instead of watching reality TV in the evenings. That is a book of principles and not directives. It is not the formula for success, it is a formula for success. Go to local bar association meetings and introduce yourself. Make contact with attorneys who are of all ages and levels of experience. Pick their brains, learn from their stories of success and failure. Take the good ideas and avoid the pitfalls of bad ideas that didn’t work for others. Lawyers love to talk about themselves. Let them do the talking. Ask them to talk about themselves and don’t be afraid to ask the hard follow-up questions (e.g., “Why do you have files stacked all over this office—how do you keep track of everything with this apparent chaos?”).

Narrow Your Focus

You cannot be everything to everyone. The popular term is a “niche practice.” I prefer to say, “Find a niche and narrow it further.” It is what I call a “micro-niche.” If you have decided to do estate planning, do estate planning with a focus on same-sex couples and their unique concerns. Focus on estate planning for people who need gun trusts, cottage trusts, or people who are blind. Pick an area of particular interest to you and pursue it. This is especially true if this area of practice is one that you experience personally. Learn everything you can about your craft and specialty. Write about it in publications of common circulation and speak to groups about those things you are passionate about. What brought you to law school in the first place? Many law students are here because of past experiences with legal matters and they want to set things straight.

Decide If It’s Not for You

As much as I try to push students to consider solo practice right out of law school, there are many whom I counsel against it. If you are in law school only because someone told you to go to law school and you are not motivated, solo practice is a bad idea. Get an 8-to-5 job with someone else who wants to manage the details of running a business and will pay you to do discrete tasks where you can leave your work in the office. As a solo, you need to be committed and willing to work a lot of extra hours to succeed. Your success will be measured not by your intelligence but by your willingness to work harder than everyone else. Some of the greatest successes I have seen are those who did not do well taking exams but were so hungry for success and autonomy that they thrived as solos. Answer the phone, pay attention to your clients, and when they call or visit, wag your tail and be the dog. If you do, I predict you will succeed.

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Gary P. Bauer

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Gary P. Bauer is a professor of law with Western Michigan University Cooley Law School, where he has taught for more than 20 years and coached many students in the principles of successful solo practice. He is the author of Solo Lawyer by Design: A Plan for Success in Any Practice (ABA, 2017) and was recently awarded the Solo and Small Firm Trainer Award by the ABA GPSolo Division and also the Outstanding Achievement Award by the State Bar of Michigan’s Solo and Small Firm Section for his contributions and services to solo practitioners in many official and unofficial capacities. He also has an active blog, sololawyerbydesign.com, which has many stories and words of wisdom for those interested in going solo. He may be reached at (bauerg@cooley.ed).