Ace the bar? Now for the hard part ...

By the time you read this, the bar exam will be over, and another class of graduates is lying in a puddle somewhere, shivering. Yes, it's over. But what are they going to do now?

More importantly for those of us who have (hopefully) taken our last bar exam ever, what are we going to do when, having passed the mental blockade of the summer quiz, they turn to lawyers they know to ask about what they should do now.

Many new graduates have jobs. Many more do not, and the latter group is going to come knocking on your door soon. Maybe for a job. More likely for advice. And especially for small firm and solo practitioners, they will ask about your experience starting your own firm. They will ask how you found clients, or whether you need to have an office, or how you financed it. They will have lots of questions - I certainly did, and often still do - the questions law students don't think to ask are often the ones that might help most.

"Where do you find clients" is a fair question, but not a good one. Clients are everywhere; the sheer number of unrepresented parties who would like a lawyer is staggering. In family law or landlord/tenant law or debtor/creditor cases, there are huge numbers of unrepresented parties. In other words: clients. Many more are people who call asking lawyers to take cases on contingency. The clients are out there. The question is where do you find paying clients, or where do you find out how to evaluate the cost and risk-analysis of a contingency case.

"Do you need to have an office" is also a fair question, but also not a good one. What they're asking about is presentation and work space. They think it's a yes or no question, but really it's more about the practice area and personal habits. Answering the question about whether to have an office is one thing, but it's probably more important to get potential solo lawyers thinking about the issues in a larger context. Are their clients going to care whether they have an office? If they ask about how they need to present themselves to their clients, the question of whether to have an office also answers questions about whether they need business cards, or how much to spend on their website. Do you have a dog that jumps all over you when you try to work from home? If they found that when they needed to study for finals they had to get out of the house to get away from distractions, answering the question about having an office becomes a question of their work habits, and how they can maximize work efficiency.

"How did you finance starting your firm" is both a fair question and a good one, but one that lends itself to over-interpretation. How did you finance your firm is a factual question with a factual answer, but your answer might not be the best answer for them. Did you get a bank loan? Loan from relatives? How about a line of credit? Did you lean on your spouse's income? Did you simply start small and use your first fees to work your way up? Did you have a second (or first) job while you started? Did you rob a bank and use the proceeds to open your office?

Unfortunately, while all the ways to finance opening your practice give you flexibility in how you do it (although I'd recommend against the bank-robbing one), whether it's appropriate for a particular person is probably not a question you can answer for them. Maybe you opened your business with a loan but their spouse is concerned about the extra debt. Taking a second job to supplement your income until the business heats up might be a good option for someone who is single but not great for a single parent. A line of credit might be important if you do personal injury work but unnecessary if you are planning to do wills and trusts.

The point is, when graduates come to small-firm lawyers asking about how to open a practice, they often come from a zero knowledge base about the business aspects of the law, and have a tendency to copy someone else's successful plan without asking how that plan should be adapted for their own situation.

And that's really the problem. Many law students (myself included) came out of law school with a good legal education and no idea how to be a business owner. But solos are business owners in many ways no different than the family restaurateur or the guy who starts a landscaping company; we are simply business owners whose product happens to be legal services. So we have to do what we can to make sure that those graduates who come to us for advice not only get their questions answered, but understand when they are asking the wrong questions.

Hopefully, practicing lawyers are willing to donate their time and experience to new lawyers to help them evaluate whether they should open their own office, or in which areas they should practice, as well as to be a sounding board for questions they think are too dumb to ask. By steering new lawyers towards the right issues, we can do more than just answer questions. We can help new lawyers understand small-firm practice in ways that will help them once they have decided to open their own shop - that, or help them make an educated decision not to do so.

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Contact Michael Kemp at mkemp@metlawmn.com.

Published: Thu, Aug 07, 2014

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