The National Association for Law Placement reported in August that “New law school graduates from the Class of 2015 secured fewer private practice jobs than any class since 1996.” NALP reports a drop in employment rates to 86.7% from the high point of 91.9% in 2007, with a steep dropoff since 2013. While these numbers are discouraging, in some part they are a reflection of a paradigm shift in the legal industry, rather than a comment on the state of the economy. Big and mid-size firms simply aren’t hiring like they used to. Fortunately, new technologies and modes of working make it increasingly viable for new graduates to start their own practices.
New and recent graduates who don’t have jobs have a choice. The conventional choice is to continue to send out resumes, in the hopes of securing a job. There are several problems with this approach. First, the industry has changed, and there is a structural mismatch between the number of law students and graduates, on the one hand, and the number of jobs, on the other hand. Second, the longer the job search goes on, the more likely it is that unemployed graduates will be competing against 3rd year law students and more recent graduates. Even law school graduates have a sell-by date. Third, while the graduate is working at Starbucks and sending out resumes, she isn’t learning anything about the practice of law or developing her skills as a lawyer.
The less conventional approach is to stop looking for a job, and take control of your own career. You can build your own practice, instead of trying to be an employee of someone else. You also can take on clients and projects to develop your skills and make yourself more attractive to law firms that might be hiring. Either way, you are putting your education to use, developing skills and experience, and making money. The primary objection to doing this is that as a recent graduate, you don’t know anything about practicing law (although hopefully you took a clinical program while in school). This may be true, but since you will have more time than clients at first, use that time to learn. It may take you three times longer to draft a complaint or contract than it would take an experienced attorney, but at least you are learning how to do it, and you have the time to devote to it. You just can’t charge a client for the extra time required to get up to speed. This approach, while not easy, is also better for your self-esteem than being unemployed or waiting tables. There’s no shame in waiting tables, but you’ve trained to be a lawyer, so be a lawyer.
Changes in how we work in 2016 make starting your own practice quite viable, despite any financial limitations you may have. Coworking spaces, virtual offices, and office-sharing arrangements are low-cost ways to work outside the home, or to meet with clients when necessary. A work-dedicated cellphone or voice-over-internet phone service can free you from needing a fixed office space. There are plenty of free legal research tools available over the internet, although they have their limitations. When you need more robust research tools, your law school library or county law library may be available. Going paperless will save you from needing file cabinets, offsite storage, and will reduce your space needs. That pays off in lower rent. There are several good cloud storage services available for free or for a reasonable amount, and they provide the added benefit of backing up your files.
You will need email, but don’t use the generic yahoo.com or gmail.com domain. For under $50/year, you can get a gmail account that allows you to use your own domain name. You also will need a website (and that is equally true of you attorneys who have been practicing for 30 years!), and you can build a good-looking website yourself for a minimal amount of money, using services like Wix or Weebly. The ability to take credit cards is a must, but make sure that you use a merchant processor that is familiar with trust accounting requirements. There are good cloud-based invoicing and time-keeping services available, such as Freshbooks. Many of these services offer limited services for free, and then as your practice grows, you are able to pay for the enhanced offerings. Once you’ve developed some clients, consider transitioning to a cloud-based legal practice management system. These will integrate secure file storage and document sharing, timekeeping, invoicing, and trust accounting, often for less than $50/month. You will eventually find, as I did, that the practice management system is a very cost-effective and integrated replacement for disparate services.
The essential services that I’ve just described will cost you less than $150 per month, not including office space. Depending on where you live, office space could range from $200 to $600. I started my practice with coworking space that cost $200/month, and then transitioned after a year to an office-sharing environment that costs me $500/month, including internet, conference rooms, a scanner, and a collegial environment of other solo practitioners and small firm attorneys. That means that your monthly overhead will be between $150 and $700. You can be operating in the black by the end of the first week of every month, and then everything else that you earn goes right into your pocket.
As you develop your rainmaking skills and your reputation in the community, your client base will grow, too. Eventually, you may get an offer from a law firm to join them, but think hard about it. Will you be joining as an associate or a partner? What happens to the billings you generate from your own clients – will you have to share those with the other lawyers? Will you have to wear a suit and tie every day? Fulfill a billable hours requirement of 2000 hours/year? Work evenings and weekends? You might enjoy the freedom and fulfillment that comes from running your own business, serving the kind of clients you want to work with, and doing it all on your own terms.