October 17, 2019 Feature

Going Solo: The Best Decision of My Legal Career

How and why to start your own practice.

Carla Sanderson

Download a printable PDF of this article.

There could be no better beach day in New York. It was a sultry Labor Day, summer’s last hurrah before balmy fall days and a long, dreary winter. My friends were all at the beach. Meanwhile, I was drafting a motion to overturn a conviction in a federal white-collar case alleging defects in the grand jury. A high-paying client had retained the firm and wanted a quick turnaround on the motion. I was the firm’s sole associate. My Labor Day went from relaxing at the beach to scrambling to get a solid draft to a demanding client as quickly as possible. As I worked in my overly air-conditioned office, I sat in a warm stream of sun, desperate to convince myself that I was not missing the last of summer.

I have never regretted my decision to become a lawyer or the work that came with it. In fact, as someone who graduated from law school in 2010, I knew how lucky I was to have a job in law, let alone one that offered extraordinary learning opportunities. I was working for two career criminal defense trial attorneys and was thrown directly into the trenches, visiting clients in prisons, writing motions in complex federal and state cases, negotiating with prosecutors, and arguing in court to keep people out of jail. I had little to complain about (missed days at the beach notwithstanding).

It was exhilarating at times and exhausting at others; oftentimes it felt like I needed to be in two places at once. The partners simultaneously assigned me work that was complex and pressing and always competed for my time. “I’m only one person” was my refrain. The work was rewarding but the arrangement unsustainable, and it did not offer the flexibility and autonomy that I desired.

There were the trade-offs that anyone who has worked at a law firm can relate to. When a high school friend invited me to her wedding in Cancun, I declined because the firm had a trial scheduled for the same time. Ultimately, our client pleaded out, but I still missed the wedding. Then there was the time I did go to an out-of-town wedding and was reprimanded for not answering my phone early on the morning right after the ceremony (a Sunday).

If a new arrest came in or a case demanded weekend work, as the associate, I would have to make sure it got done. I was expected to be free and available at all waking hours, and when I had important after-hours or weekend commitments, I would need to make sure the partners were aware of them well in advance.

It was not the nature or amount of work that ultimately led me to leave. It was the lack of freedom over my schedule; it was having to show up at the office every day even if I could be as efficient from home; it was knowing that I could run my own cases but having to assist on someone else’s. After four years as an associate, I was ready to grow. I had state and federal criminal trial experience and had branched out into civil litigation by handling some employment discrimination and civil rights matters.

Premium Content For:
  • Litigation Section
Join - Now