You recently took your bar exam, but the results may seem secondary to student loan repayments and the glaring absence of an attorney position waiting on the other side. Your mind is frantically pondering a host of questions: Are there are any other job posting boards? Is it too early for a career change? Should I open my own practice? How can I better utilize my network? Should I shift my focus to non-attorney positions? Can I please have the last three years back? Finally, as you tread dangerously close to an aneurism, you hear the good news: You passed. Congratulations, your new full-time job is to make people hire you.
When I was faced with this reality, I concluded that there are two primary options available: find a job (single big client) or start your own practice (many smaller clients).
Regardless of the option you choose, it is important to understand and embrace the fact that you are your own business and that you, as an attorney, are a marketable product. As with any business, you will need a business plan, a marketing/PR strategy, a research and development department, an exacting eye for accounting, and some business advisors, if possible. I hope that the following advice, based on my own experiences, will provide some empowerment in your seemingly powerless search for employment.
Business Plan and Marketing Strategy
Your business plan should include goals, guiding principles, and a plan for increasing your marketability in your chosen field. Initially, you will need to establish your preferences for a geographic region, areas of work/practice, employment setting, and the central focus of your business identity. As an example, I decided to open a practice in an office-sharing environment that would attract clients within a 50-mile radius of my office, with a focus on real estate and general litigation. I focused on developing a general practice that provided individualized services to clients at competitive prices.
Once you determine your course, you will need to position your business to achieve the stated objectives. As with any business, your first job is to educate your consumers on what you do, how you can help, and why they should support your business instead of the hundreds of equally ambitious competitors. Depending on your budget, your marketing options may be limited, but through due diligence, you can identify targeted networking and volunteer opportunities that will provide access to your desired audience(s). Business referral groups, legal clinics, charity events, bar associations, social media, political fund-raisers, chambers of commerce, and civic organizations can be extremely beneficial for résumé circulation or client generation once you become a regular. The bottom line is that until you have 40-plus hours of billable work every week, you have plenty of time to network, get involved, and make a difference, so have fun with it.
Accounting and R&D
A limited budget heightens the need for a solid return on investment (ROI). While additional loans may be accessible, young attorneys have more time than billable work, so it is important to maximize the effectiveness of volunteering your time as a means of compensating for your lack of expendable funds. If you are starting your own firm, it may require you to reduce your fees to obtain the clients you want or to work pro bono to gain the experience your prospective clients are looking for. If you are searching for a job, your best ROI could be in conducting industry research, attending trade association meetings, or profiling potential employers. The end goal is that your daily expenditure of time and money should be examined for efficiency and effectiveness in furthering your business plan.
The R&D department is the laboring oar of your business and must be nourished even in the absence of billable work. Whether you are seeking clients or a traditional boss, you will need to do your homework and demonstrate preparedness, competency, and confidence in your interactions. Allocate time each day to read relevant newspapers or recent case opinions, listen to podcasts, attend CLEs, write articles or blog posts, or foster relationships with your personal and professional networks. Learning about an industry, your ideal consumer, the competition, or your region is the first step in identifying and capitalizing on opportunities.
Mentors and Advisors
Since becoming a lawyer, I have been fortunate to have several trusted mentors (some lawyers, some not) who provide invaluable insight into my professional development. These individuals are sources of advice, encouragement, cautionary tales, and even humor when times are bleak. Whether you decide to open a practice or join a firm/organization, it is imperative to have a network of lawyers, professionals, friends, and relatives who are aware of your goals and who can provide objective advice for accomplishing them. Your personal and professional networks have the potential to introduce you to new clients or potential job opportunities, but they will only be effective if you actively nurture your relationships and your reputation.
Ultimately, your decision to find a job or open a practice is a matter of semantics. Either way, you will need to convince the person across the table that you can generate quality work product, meet deadlines, and deliver value that is competitive in the marketplace. I implore you to ask yourself each day “what can I do today to get hired by my ideal client tomorrow?” If you act based on your calculated response, you will be in a position to affect your trajectory.
This is an abridged and edited version of an article entitled “Newbie Blues,” which originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of GPSolo magazine, volume 30, number 1, published by the American Bar Association Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. Membership in the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division is now complimentary. Join now.