The first order of business for Alexandria Goff was to give herself a $1,000 loan. It was 2013, and she was fresh out of law school at UC Davis. She had a few connections in the legal field. But in the wake of the recession, jobs at big law firms were scarce. Goff decided to invest her savings in her own firm. She had absolutely no idea how to run a business.
“I’m kind of glad I didn’t know how scary it would be,” she says.
Traditionally, the path from law student to full-fledged lawyer has been fairly straight-forward: A student starts out with a summer internship at a law firm, graduates and passes the bar exam, then gets hired at a law firm. In a secure and supportive work environment, law graduates can make good money, meet professional mentors and learn the skills required to be a real lawyer. This is the standard route, the one most students embark on every year. But more graduates like Goff are choosing to buck tradition in the name of independence.
“The big law firms didn’t have the type of mentality and structure I was looking for,” Goff says. “They paid well but didn’t allow me to have the lifestyle I wanted, which included time with my husband, family and for vacations. And I wanted a job that did estate planning in Placer County where I grew up. There were none. The only option I could see was to hang up my own shingle. I had no idea what I was doing.”
The scary part was the entrepreneurial piece. What type of business license should you get? How does accounting work? How do you market yourself and find clients? Do you need a website, a blog or both? These were all questions Goff had to figure out as she went along (an ongoing process, she says). Law school hadn’t trained her for this.
A Select FewAt the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, recent numbers show an upward trend for law graduates going solo: 2.7 percent of 2014 graduates started their own practice after graduation, compared to 1.3 percent of the 2013 class. At UC Davis, about three law school graduates every year decide to start their own practices immediately. Nationally, the number drops slightly with 2.1 percent of 2014 graduates starting their own solo practices, compared to 2.3 percent in 2013, according to the American Bar Association. A 2014 report from the National Association for Law Placement observed recent solo practitioner trends: “Although the number of graduates setting up their own solo law practice after law school has declined somewhat in recent years, they accounted for 4.4 percent of law firm jobs and 2.2 percent of all jobs, still high in comparison to 2007 and 2008.”
A 2014 report from the National Association for Law Placement observed recent solo practitioner trends: “Although the number of graduates setting up their own solo law practice after law school has declined somewhat in recent years, they accounted for 4.4 percent of law firm jobs and 2.2 percent of all jobs, still high in comparison to 2007 and 2008.
These days, law grads venturing into solo practices or breaking from big firms to start smaller ones need to be just as business savvy as any other type of entrepreneur. And law schools are finally catching up to the 21st century by teaching students necessary skills such as business and financial management, networking, branding and marketing. With new courses tailored to solo practitioners, the region’s law schools aim to equip tomorrow’s lawyers with the tools and tactics to navigate the shifting legal market.
The old-school, 20th century lawyers have a reputation for being risk-averse. They avoid change and some steer clear of technology, but they have a deep legal knowledge. These lawyers are “I-shaped.” But according to R. Amani Smathers, a licensed Michigan attorney, 21st-century lawyers need to be “T-shaped.”
“A T-shaped lawyer still has deep legal expertise but also has the ability to collaborate across many disciplines, such as technology, business, analytics and data security,” she writes in Law Practice Magazine, published by the American Bar Association. “Changes in the legal market, lawyer ethics and new jobs for lawyers demonstrate the need and demand for T-shaped lawyers in this century.”
Learning entrepreneurial skills would benefit lawyers at big law firms, small firms as well as solo practitioners. But, especially for those going solo, a broad range of diverse skills can be the difference between success and failure. The top of the “T” may be different for each lawyer, but the reality is, solo practitioners without business skills will be less valuable to clients.
“A common complaint levied by corporate clients is that their lawyers do not understand their businesses,” Smathers writes. “Law firms have also been slow to embrace the work practices that their clients have used to cut costs and boost productivity, including outsourcing, project management and process improvement techniques.”
For the past few years, the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law has offered a course called The Business of Lawyering, which explores the business side of law firms. Molly Stafford, McGeorge’s director of career development, says the school launched two new courses this year that respond to these very shifts in the legal market. The Statutes and Regulations course introduces students to strategies for interpreting and applying statutes and regulations in the modern administrative arena. The second course, The Legal Profession, introduces students to the practicalities and business of lawyering, emerging technologies and the role of the lawyer in the new normal.
The university’s Career Development Office has also created programs, such as a half-day solo practice seminar for students and alumni. Taught by solo practitioners, this session covers the business aspects of a solo practice, from goal-setting and follow-through to building wealth. The office also brings in speakers to address changes in the legal market, management, marketing and how to use tools like LinkedIn. This fall, McGeorge is also offering a new Master of Business Administration degree.
UC Davis is also offering a new course focused on the business of lawyering, which aims to teach students how to set up and maintain a solo practice. Craig Compton, assistant dean for career services at the UC Davis School of Law, says most law students still go the traditional route. But he noted an uptick in the number of those with a more entrepreneurial spirit and says the school wants to educate them to be as prepared as possible.
“A whole different set of skills are necessary to run a business,” Compton says. “In response to the changing market, that’s why we’re adding these offerings, to get students exposure.”
AUTONOMY VS. SECURITY
This spring, Michael Schaps will be teaching a new solo-practice course at UC Davis with the goal to “make solo practice something that’s not terrifying in people’s minds,” he says. For the 1-unit class, Schaps plans to bring in several solo practitioners as guest speakers. He’ll address the detailed logistics of running one’s own firm: How do you keep track of billable hours? How do you file something with the court? How many copies do you need? Where do you punch the holes?
He brings with him real experience as a solo practitioner. After five years at big firms, he started his own civil litigation practice where he deals with cases ranging from business disputes to car wrecks and trust challenges. He would not trade his autonomy for anything.
“I’ve had good bosses and learned a lot, but being off on my own is by far the best,” Schaps says one afternoon, having just come from a game of basketball. “That’s not something you hear from lawyers, that they love their jobs.”
Still, he understands going the solo route is relatively rare for students. Given the unstable economy, a job at a big firm gives most a sense of security — a safety net of other professionals willing to show them the ropes.
“I don’t think most law students even consider solo practice because it seems so daunting,” says Schaps. “They wouldn’t know where to start. They look for someone to give them a job and cut them a paycheck.”
But Schaps values the time he spent at a big firm because he had mentors he could learn from. That is not the case for those who go solo straight out of school. They cannot walk down the hall to ask a senior lawyer a question. But thanks to the Internet, networking has become easier than ever for the modern lawyer. Unlike 30 years ago, today young lawyers can find mentors by joining online communities.
Take the Bar Association of San Francisco’s listserv, for example. Started in 2013 and now with around 450 participants, it enables recent graduates to connect with senior mentors in a few keystrokes. Such a community is a critical resource for solo practitioners with questions, says Kallie Donahoe, barristers club director for the Bar Association of San Francisco.
“They throw out a question in the listserv; we might never see a response, but I’ve been told that there’s so much that happens behind the scenes,” Donahoe says. “Mentorships can be formed from one simple question. They might not be comfortable in a networking setting, but they feel it’s a safe space because everybody’s in the same boat.”
But offline networking is not without merit, Goff says. Early on she got in the habit of meeting with other lawyers for drinks or lunch, picking the brains of anyone she could find in her field of interest. Connections she made years ago helped her grow her client base all over California.
Still, success didn’t happen overnight, and Goff had to learn how to delegate. It was just her at first, doing everything alone, from answering phones and sending out bills to designing her website. For the first six months, she couldn’t even pay herself because she reinvested any income back into the business’ growth. Eventually, she smartened up, hired an assistant and got set up in a small office in Rocklin. She has no regrets.
“I am exactly who I am and that’s one of the reasons my practice works,” Goff says. “I don’t have the most expensive office because I try to keep my costs low. I’ve been here since I was 3 years old. That longevity is likely part of why my clients trust me, because I am part of this community.”