How I Used Law School to Prepare to Open a Successful Solo Law Firm
This is the third post in my blog series about how to start and build a solo law practice. Before jumping into the nuts and bolts that every lawyer who wants to have a successful solo firm should know, I am starting the series by telling my own solo practice story, as doing so may provide helpful context. In my previous post in this series I briefly introduced my story, covered my evolving goals through law school and my years as a lawyer, and gave some background about my pre-law years. Today I’m going to talk about law school and how I optimized my law school years to result in the opportunity to open a solo practice after passing the bar exam.
As I mentioned in my last post, my goals in the law have evolved over time. When I entered law I saw my future law degree as a door opener, regardless of whether I ended up practicing law.
Why I chose the University of Arizona College of Law over USC and University of California Schools
I grew up in the Seattle area, went to college in Seattle, and had never lived anywhere else. When applying to law schools I had two physical requirements:
1. Somewhere sunny; and
2. In the western part of the United States.
I wanted to be able to wear shorts to school throughout the year, and I wanted to be able to easily fly home.
I applied, and was admitted to several California law schools, as well as to the University of Arizona College of Law. I ultimately narrowed my choices to between USC and University of Arizona. Both were top 30 schools at the time, with USC ranked around 15, and Arizona around 30. After visiting both schools, as well some UC schools I had been admitted to as well as Pepperdine, the choice was easy. I would study law in Tucson at the U of A.
Here are the law school decision factors that were relevant to me at the time, and that ultimately helped in my preparation to open my own law firm:
• Affordability. At the time, the tuition, room and board at the University of Arizona College of Law was significantly less expensive than USC. I was offered financial incentives to attend each school, but the incentives were not guaranteed beyond my 1L year, and renewal was contingent on grades. USC would have posed a significant financial risk, and added a tremendous amount of academic pressure. In this category, Arizona Law was the clear winner for me.
• Strength of trial advocacy program. Further conversations with my grandfather about recession/depression-proofing my career led me to the conclusion that, if I decided to practice law, the most recession-proof skills that I could develop would be courtroom and litigation skills. The University of Arizona had, in my opinion, the leading trial advocacy program in the country, led by Thomas Mauet. At The University of Arizona, I would have the opportunity to take evidence and trial advocacy from the leading expert in the field.
• Strength of torts education. I knew that the most lucrative path in law would be plaintiffs’ tort representation. Although I wasn’t sure that I would ultimately practice torts law, at the University of Arizona College of Law, I would have the unique opportunity to study under Dan Dobbs, the leading torts scholar, and prolific author (and I may be dating myself by saying this, but the long-time co-author of Prosser and Keeton on Torts).
• Strength of legal technology offerings. I have always loved working with computers and technology. I envisioned tech being a big part of my legal education and my future career. In 1995 when I was choosing my law school, the technology was primitive by today’s standards. The University of Arizona College of Law was far ahead of the curve in this regard. Their lecture halls were already equipped to accommodate student laptop computers, and when I visited and sat in on lectures, I noticed some students taking notes on their laptops. Arizona also had a “Courtroom of the Future” which was a cross between a traditional courtroom, with a bench, jury box, counsel tables and hard wooden gallery seats, and a multimedia theater. Counsel tables were wired to plug computers directly into multimedia displays where evidence could be presented to the jury. And the administration and faculty seemed dedicated to creating lawyers who would be on the forefront of the intersection of law and technology.
• Strength of practical experience opportunities. I knew that if I wanted to find out whether I could be a courtroom lawyer I would need to actually get myself into a courtroom as quickly as possible. While all of the schools I visited spoke about the availability of practical experiences, the balance of the equities here tilted heavily in favor of the U of A College of Law. The college had a robust externship program where students could practice law in the prosecutor’s and public defenders offices and argue real cases in court. Tucson is in Pima County, which had a population of less than 1 million people at the time, and a single county attorney’s office, and consolidated Justice (misdemeanor) Court location across the street. Compared the legal jungle that is Los Angeles, Tucson seemed like a much more probable place to be able to assert myself and gain practical experience. Ultimately, it would be this experience that would empower me to survive and thrive in court as a solo practitioner shortly after law school (more on my experiences as a practicing intern at the Pima County Attorney’s Office below).
• Famous teachers. In addition to the opportunity to study under Tom Mauet and Dan Dobbs, the U of A had one additional ace up its sleeve. The opportunity to take a class from the sitting Chief Justice of SCOTUS, William Rehnquist, who visited each spring and taught a class on the Supreme Court. I thought it sounded really cool, and not all attorneys can say that they studied under a Supreme Court Chief Justice. This particular factor disappointed, and I found the class excruciating. I think this may be the first time I’ve mentioned it since law school.
So, while the difference between 15th ranked USC and 30th ranked U of A on paper would indicate a no-brainer in USC’s favor for many 1Ls with both options on the table, for me, Arizona Law was a much better match. It also bears mentioning that there were factors that were not important to me, that, if they had been, I may have picked USC over U of A. The factors that weren’t important to me in my law school selection were:
• The local legal market associated with the school. At the time I believed that, wherever I attended law school, I would be there for three years and then return home to Seattle. It is important to note that, had I intended to practice law in geographic proximity to the law school, it would have been a much smarter investment, and worth the financial risk, to attend USC Law.
• Published employment rates for graduates. There is no doubt that USC has a world-class network of Alums, and that they take care of their own. There is mystique surrounding its door-opening powers, which has been amplified recently by the admissions cheating scandals and the lengths that some parents allegedly go to have their children admitted. Had I known that I wanted to go the “traditional” route and get a job in a law firm, or had I wanted to pick an alternative career that would benefit from the USC network, I might have chosen differently.
As an aside, based on the strength of the faculty, programming and resources at the University of Arizona College of Law, I believe that, but for it being located in Tucson (which does not have, and never has had a booming economy and which is not a career destination for most young people), U of A Law would have ranked much higher than its then 30. In fact, transplanted into Southern California, I believe that it would have given USC a run for its money for a spot in the top-15 law schools.
So, at age 22, with my newly minted BA in English, I headed down to Tucson to start my legal education.
My 1L Year: Laying the Foundation for Opening My First Solo Law Practice
Like most law-school-bound students in the mid 1990s, I had gorged myself on “The Paper Chase” and on Scott Turow’s “One L” and was ready for the academic challenge of my life. Back then, “Above The Law” was just a rad Steven Segal movie, and Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian (the eventual founders of Reddit) were pre-teens, as was Mark Zuckerberg. And many of today’s law school bloggers were yet to be born. So there were comparatively few sources of information about being a law student.
I had breezed through high school and college, and had never been seriously academically challenged when I arrived for my first day of my 1L year. I would soon decide that, for me, there was something far more valuable to gained in law school, and that academics were a relatively minor part of the whole picture. But on day 1, as I entered the hallowed halls where I would, in two short years, listen to Chief Justice Rehnquist drone on while I tried to stay awake by counting how many times his security detail blinked, I was ready for the academic adventure of a lifetime.
Law School Orientation and First Semester: Pivotal Events and Realizations That Set in Motion My Solo Practice Career
As I met my new classmates, I realized that I was in the company of seriously accomplished and intelligent people.
There were recent Ivy League grads. There were CPAs. There was a dude that killed the LSAT dead. There were medical doctors. There was a PhD chemist. There were engineers. There were single moms with young children. There were seriously smart people living with serious physical limitations and disabilities. Most of my classmates had backgrounds that were more impressive than mine. Many were older, had accomplished a lot in life, and had returned to law school with a sense of purpose (and often with the knowledge that their supportive families were sacrificing so they could pursue their legal dreams).
As I met my new law school classmates, I noticed a strange cocktail of intelligence and neurosis. We were sizing each other up. We were insecure. We would be friends, colleagues, and fierce competitors.
I later came to understand that success as a solo practitioner or small law firm owner is at least 90% attitude, persuasion and sales, and that a lawyer skilled in the art of influence will regularly beat an opponent who has on her side both the facts and the law. Conversely, a perfect academic or technical argument rarely carries the day if it’s not delivered persuasively.
Orientation was part intellectual screed, and part psychological warfare. With the entire 1L class assembled, a classmate in his early 30s called the group to attention and announced that he had already read all of the 1L textbooks, that he was going to be number one in the class, and we should disavow ourselves of the illusion that we could compete with him. I turned to the person next to me and asked “Who the fuck is this guy?” I was intrigued and impressed by the audacity, especially since I wasn’t sure I could even read fast enough to keep up with the assignments, let alone pre-read the entire curriculum. Although he would not fulfill his prophesy of graduating at the top of our class, several years later he would briefly become my law partner (more on this in a later post).
Orientation began and a prominent figure (some appellate or Arizona Supreme Court Judge, I think) spoke about what it means to be a lawyer. He waxed on about the difference between being an “attorney” and being a “lawyer.” Although some of my classmates may have disagreed, I found the speech excruciating, and wondered how much of law school would end up being this dull. What had I gotten myself into?
At the time the OJ Simpson murder trial was nearing its conclusion, and the nation, myself included, had watched days worth of a much more compelling breed of legal education. The trial was still about a month away from going to the jury, and Johnny Cochran and Barry Scheck hadn’t yet delivered their master classes on closing arguments, but I had seen some great lawyering and some really bad lawyering.
A couple of weeks into the year, in Contracts class (which was our small section sized to fit around a large conference table), one of my classmates said “incentivize” in a lively discussion. The professor immediately shamed him, declaring that “incentivize” is not a real word.
Then a scary thing happened. My classmate, along with the rest of the class (myself included) seemed to instantly (if temporarily) believe that “incentivize” was, in fact, not a real word. My classmate’s point, which was presumably otherwise valid, was lost. This was 1995, so nobody was connected to the internet during class.
After class I looked it up. “Incentivize” is, in fact a word. The professor was wrong. It was not alarming that he made a mistake. But the experience was chilling and would change my approach to law school going forward because:
1) Most if not all of our class believed the professor because of his position of authority and the level of confidence with which he tore into the student; and
2) That same professor would have 100% power and discretion to subjectively grade the essay contracts exam which would be the sole factor in my contracts grade and would comprise a large portion of my first-semester 1L grades. These grades (for better or worse) would position me relative to my classmates and dictate the traditional opportunities (law review, summer associateships, and post-grad job opportunities) that would be available to me. The grades would open doors to a traditionally successful legal career (judicial clerkships, mid-size and large firm associate jobs, academic positions), or slam those doors in my face.
I didn’t resent the system. I knew what I had signed up for. But having witnessed the “incentivize” incident I now thought it absurd that I should provide this, or any other professor, with the power to decide my future.
Despite the perception by some that law professors are cloistered academics with no real power outside of academia, in reality law profs have a profound impact on the legal profession. They select which law students will go on to work at medium and large law firms or get appellate clerkships. This, in turn, shapes the entire legal profession. It determines who gets money, power, influence, professorships, judgeships, and often who is positioned for elected offices ranging from county attorney to President of the United States.
As I see it, there are three critical players in this law school power structure.
1. The law school, including the professors and faculty.
2. The employers, who are frequently donors.
3. The law students.
If one of the three players decides to withdraw from participating in this game, then the power structure cannot function. Of the three, law students are the only group that benefits from withdrawal. Since only some law students would benefit from withdrawal, and other students benefit from the structure (and would also benefit from the withdrawal of their peers), a system-wide student withdrawal is never going to happen. But on an individual level, a law student can self-liberate from the power structure. Such a student could then use law school to create an alternative set of opportunities of their own choosing.
That’s what I decided to do.
So, with the first semester of my 1L year at the University of Arizona College of Law underway, I made the decision to leverage my time and investment in law school to prepare me to open a successful solo practice upon passing the bar exam. I kept this decision mostly to myself, as I still had doubts about whether I could pull it off, and also about whether I would change my mind. And, I didn’t want to say anything that I would later have to walk back.
So what really changed about my approach to law school?
The biggest shift was mental. I no longer cared about my grades, nor the grades of my classmates. Did that make my academic neurosis (common to most law students) disappear completely? Not even close. All of the 1L courses that were graded came down to a single final exam for each subject. So at that point I had no way of calibrating how much effort was enough to pass the classes. I was not particularly concerned about failing out of law school if I tried my hardest in all of my courses, but I didn’t yet understand how to optimize for simultaneously:
1. Passing my classes with a minimum of effort.
2. While getting the information and knowledge I would need to pass the bar exam and become a competent lawyer.
3. While maximizing my non-academic free-time to focus on other things.
I continued attending classes, and actually started to enjoy them more. I read the materials, but didn’t sweat the class prep. I realized that the worst thing that could happen in class was harmless embarrassment. If I got called on and I didn’t know the answer, I would say so honestly and confidently. After a couple of repetitions of this, I realized that as long as I didn’t show signs of being rattled, the professor would accept my honest non-answer and move on.
My focus had shifted from jumping through hoops, to creating my own path while playing within the rules (at least that’s what I told myself). I came to appreciate my classmates (whom I spent more time observing and interacting with) as a group of extraordinary people who would be more important than my law professors in my future career. And I came to appreciate the professors as people that I could learn from and enjoy interacting with, but who were individuals as flawed as me who had chosen a different path than I would choose for myself.
Before finals, I spent a significant amount of time applying for jobs to create summer experience opportunities in Seattle. This included writing letters to every sitting King County Superior Court Judge asking for summer clerkships, and to small Seattle law firms, looking for summer associate work. The summer between my 1L and 2L years I would end up balancing two judicial clerkships and an associateship at a small firm. More on this in a bit.
By the time I got to my first semester 1L finals, I had spent as much time watching Court TV and lifting weights as I had attending and reading for class, and, in retrospect, I consider both activities time well spent.
First semester 1L finals was more stressful than taking the LSAT. Fueled by a combination of last-minute self-doubt about my lax approach to my classes, peer pressure, and coffee, I crammed with my fellow students. Although it didn’t do a bit of good in terms of the outcome (my grades that semester were average), in retrospect I believe that the elevated stress levels to which law school exams subject students are useful building blocks to leading up to the bar exam and ultimately to working under the gun as a lawyer in trial or against a significant deal deadline.
Finals brought out some bizarre behavior in the 1L class. Emotions were raw. Students were exhausted. Some were quick to snap. Some were slap-happy. And some were, frankly, assholes. When our civ pro professor (who was a first year prof) forgot to show up for our final causing the class to wait while he was summoned from home, one student took to walking around the large lecture hall on top of the desks. He graduated but never practiced law. Another student, took so many smoke breaks during one exam that his odor became nauseating, and I made a mental note to sit as far away from him as possible for future law school exams. He later got disbarred for allegedly mishandling client funds, allegedly taking fees and failing to perform work, and then obstructing disciplinary proceedings. There were mumblers. There were nervous feet and pencil tappers. There was a (previously undiagnosed) nose picker.
I mention this because I believe that law school exams, especially 1L exams, tend to reveal how you, and your future attorney colleagues, will act under stress. As I observed my classmates and future colleagues, I realized that I could not control how Professor Incentivize would grade my exam, nor how my grade would position me in my class. What I could control was my emotions, and the attitude with which I approached a manufactured stressful situation. I told myself that as long as I controlled myself, I would win. In the coming years, this would serve me well as a law firm owner in some unexpected and stressful situations.
1L Winter Break and the Flight from Seattle to Tucson
With first semester exams behind me, I went home to Seattle to spend the holidays with family, and to see what I could put together for the upcoming summer. During the break I also completed the write-on application for the Law Journal.
I ended up securing three offers for summer positions:
• The first was as a summer associate for a small law firm, Sternberg, Thomson, Okrent & Scher in Seattle. Later, they would also give me my start as a young solo by allowing me to squat in a closet-sized office in exchange for fifteen hours a month of work. Over the summer I would do research and drafting for them, and also have the opportunity to work with others lawyers in the large shared office suite.
• The second was a summer clerkship for King County Superior Court Judge Charles Mertel. He would become a mentor and a friend, and would eventually swear me into the bar in a private ceremony. I would also get exposure to a juicy case that would inspire my Journal Note (it was never published), and help solidify my interest in criminal law.
• The third was a summer clerkship for King County Superior Court Chief Juvenile Court Judge Bobbi Bridge — who would later serve as a justice on the Washington State Supreme Court and found the Center for Children & Youth Justice — an agency which advocates for greater system reforms to benefit young people across Washington State.
With three offers in hand, I made a mistake that I would make several more times in my career as a lawyer and law firm owner; I bit off more than I should have and said yes to all three.
Flying back for my second semester in January of 1996 I was seated next to a medical student who had a previous career as a lawyer. Our conversation focused around satisfaction and self-actualization in the law, and in life as a lawyer. Although he seemed old to me at the time, looking back I’d guess he was in his 30s during that flight. He chose to transition to medicine because he thought as a lawyer he would be able to help people, but he realized that, at the end of the day, he was just moving money and blame around. I wondered if his grandfather has given him the same “be a doctor or a lawyer” talk as mine had given me? He described starting out as an optimistic young law student, and watching his joy and sense of purpose dissolve into his work over the years.
That medical student had followed the pre-prescribed path through law school and employment as a young lawyer. He had not paused to reflect while working towards the prizes the system was engineered to have him believe he desired.
That flight got me thinking deeper about career direction. That medical student had extricated himself from a life of misery in the law through a force of will. What if there was a way to engineer a law career that I would not want to leave? What if I could stay in control of my destiny while making great money, earning respect, and enjoying myself along the way?
My options, and perhaps decades of my life, were to be decided by the choices I would make during the remainder of law school and shortly thereafter. I had one major choice to make on the brink of the second semester of 1L. Jump back in, play the law school game and try to compete, or permanently withdraw my participation and make my own rules. If I ever wanted back in the game, it would have to be now. My grades were still salvageable. But another showing like the first semester, and the best I would be able to accomplish grades-wise would be the middle to high-middle of the pack.
I talked with a mentor who ran a thriving personal injury solo practice shortly after my return to Tucson. He assured me that grades, or really anything that I would learn in my substantive law school courses, had zero correlation to the ability to do, or likelihood to succeed in any of the following:
• The business of running a law firm.
• The selling to, and management of clients.
• Prepping and trying cases.
He said that the most successful trial lawyers rarely graduated at the top of their law school class. In the two decades since, I have found my mentor’s information to be accurate with a few exceptions. Keep in mind that I’m merely one point of data, but in my legal career I have:
• Graduated near the bottom of my law school class.
• Passed two bar exams on the first try, and been a member in good standing in Arizona and Washington State for two decades without any disciplinary record.
• Built and sold two highly successful law practices in two highly competitive major metro areas (Seattle and Phoenix).
• Tried over 100 cases, won some “impossible” ones, and successfully negotiated hundreds more.
• Founded a legal tech company while practicing law that was acquired in a 7-figure deal by a large tech company.
• Founded and built LawLytics from an idea into the leading website platform for solos and small law firms, and in the process employed dozens of staff members, dozens more independent contractors, and helped attorneys in nearly every state and in many countries around the world create livings for themselves and jobs for others in their law firms.
If you want to play the law school game and strive for grades, more power to you. But understand that the grades themselves will not ensure your success or happiness, just as a lack of grades won’t preclude either.
Entering the second semester of my 1L year, I made the decision to permanently opt out of the race for grades, and instead focus on preparing myself to have the option to open my own law firm right out of law school. The rest of this blog post will outline what I did during the rest of law school that enabled me to succeed as a young solo practitioner. In future posts, I’ll go into greater (and more modern detail) about how law students in 2020 and beyond can engineer their law school experience so that they come out prepared to open a solo practice and are instantly able to generate business from day one.
2nd Semester of my 1L Year
When I returned to school, I sensed that a lot of other students were reassessing their places in law school and in the world. Before we entered law school, we had all been top students. Most of us were used to testing very well. For some of us, B grades were rare, and C’s unheard of.
Starting in January 1996, I formally redefined my law school goals as follows:
• Graduate. To exert the minimum possible effort and time needed to pass law school classes while avoiding anything that would not directly contribute to my future potential of being an outstanding lawyer and law firm owner.
• Position Myself. To position myself as a future lawyer who would not be subject to commoditization (although at the time I only had a vague notion of how the legal system breeds and herds attorneys). Years later, I would better understand the toll that commoditization takes on lawyers, and I have written about it extensively (see this piece on the commoditization of lawyers, and this piece about lawyer happiness). I’ll cover practical ways that lawyers can avoid being commoditized and future-proof their value in future posts in this series.
• Become Financially Literate. At that point in my life, I knew very little about money or business. I didn’t take any business classes in college. And, as a 23 year old entering my second semester of law school, I had little experience beyond balancing a very low balance check book. My mentors had consistently told me that, if I wanted to succeed as a law firm owner, I would need financial discipline in my personal life. I’ll cover financial literacy for lawyers in later posts, including how much money you should have saved up before you start a law practice. It’s also worth noting that most of the lawyers that I have known who have gotten themselves in trouble with the bar (and/or gone to prison), were financially ignorant, undisciplined, and in most cases greedy.
• Make the Right Connections. Success as a law firm owner does not happen in a vacuum. Solo practitioners with strong peer support and referral networks are usually better lawyers, more successful financially, less stressed, and generally more fulfilled with their career choice. I was in Tucson, AZ, and was pretty sure that I would move back home to Seattle after law school. This made networking for future practice connections more challenging. Over the summers I would have limited time to meet with people and network. And, efforts that I might make in Tucson would only go so far in helping me get my practice going in Seattle. Still, I resolved to do what I could, and meet who I could, while cultivating the habit of making friends in the law.
• Get the Right Experience. There are severe limitations as to how well the academic law school environment can prepare a new lawyer to become a competent practitioner, or a successful small firm owner. The more solo lawyers I spoke with, the more obvious it was that I would need to direct my law school experience in a way that would enable me to earn money out of the gates practicing law without getting a traditional law job. I resolved to experience what I would need before graduating from law school, even if it meant ditching class and skimping on course readings. Ironically, it was the University of Arizona College of Law that afforded me the key experiences I would need, even though they were outside of the traditional academic path. More on that below during my discussions of my 3L year.
• Pace Myself. This would be a long journey, and I realized that I would need to conserve energy so that I’d not only have enough in the tank to get through law school and the bar exam, but to pick up the pace once I became a licensed attorney.
Second semester of my 1L year felt immediately different. I had a plan, and I kept my objectives largely to myself. My plan gave me a sense of detachment from the law school game that continued to be played around me by colleagues who would one day be Big Law partners, judicial clerks, small firm owners, prosecutors, judges and disbarred former lawyers.
In retrospect I suspect that most of the stress and anxiety of being a 1L is caused by the unknown. Not the things a law student doesn’t know about being a law student, or about civ pro, contracts or con law, but rather the things the student doesn’t know about themselves. Once I positioned myself relative to the law school game, the rules changed (at least as they applied to me).
I was now free of the restraints of academic competition. I had my own curriculum with its own grading system. I was on a different track, and was speeding rapidly towards to point of no return where the traditional law school success formula would no longer be an option. The decision likely meant that I would be sacrificing my future grades and with them any opportunity to teach law school, get an appellate clerkship or become a Big Law associate. I understood the implications, and, with a sense of relief, accepted the limitations my decisions would impose on future me.
I was on my way to creating a career in (and adjacent to) the law that I would love and that would reward me in ways that I could never have anticipated. The semester went by slowly as I waited for the summer when I could return to Seattle and start what I hoped would be my “real” legal education in my summer jobs.
I breezed through second semester finals with a sense of purposeful detachment, and then drove from Tucson to Seattle to start my summer adventure.
Summer between my 1L and 2L years
I started my three summer law jobs with a lot of enthusiasm, and worked roughly eighty hours a week. While there are a lot of details that might be worth sharing in a future post, since this post is about my law school experience, I’ll sum up my summer experience with the highlights of lessons learned. By the end of the summer I packed up to return to my 2L year with the following lessons:
• Burnout is real. And it’s stupid. As a young lawyer in your 20s, you can push yourself in furtherance of your career by putting in 2x or more the hours a normal human being clocks in an average work week. Law students and young lawyers tell themselves that they are doing so to get ahead. After experiencing burnout over a roughly two-month period, I realized that its really not getting ahead. It’s simply borrowing from your future self, and that debt comes with a high interest rate and balloon payment.
• Trial skills are not related to the academics of law school, and I needed to learn them. One of my judicial clerkships exposed me to several Superior Court trials. The lawyers who did well with juries, and who came away victorious, used legalese sparingly. They made emotional connections with the juries. They made legally “dumb” objections that were brilliant strategic theater. They were understandable. They were likable. And they were usually victorious. And I realized that the best trial lawyers seemed to control the courtroom by saying very little and using non-verbal cues. Which brings me to the next point.
• Reputation matters. Some lawyers were trusted by the clerks and judges, others were not. The clerks and bailiffs held the keys to the kingdom. If a lawyer was known as respectful and honest, they were afforded a wide latitude. The ones who were not were often thwarted and frustrated. Even in a big city like Seattle, reputation travels fast through the halls and stairwells of courts, and a bad reputation is a disadvantage that is hard to overcome. Cultivating reputation in and out of court would be essential.
• Relationships matter. In my summer associateship I got to witness a group of highly accomplished and ethical lawyers relating to each other and to their clients. The job exposed me to lawyers beyond the firm that I worked directly for, and gave me an opportunity to work on a wide variety of practice areas. Across a range of practice areas from personal injury, to corporate bankruptcy, to business, to family, the common denominator amongst the attorneys was the relationships that they formed and nurtured with fellow lawyers. The lawyers on the floor that I worked on were constantly helping each other out, covering for each other, bouncing ideas off one another, and perhaps most importantly, supporting each other through the peaks and valleys that are an unavoidable part of owning a solo practice or small law firm.
While there were other micro lessons that I learned (for example, family law is not for me), the above four points would prove enduring and accurate for the rest of my legal career.
2L Year – The doldrums.
My 2L year was a slow burn of apathetic academic effort, lifting weights, and “pacing myself.” It was the doldrums, and the academic year seemed especially long. I had a few “run-ins” with professors who became frustrated with my lack of preparedness for class and apathy towards their typical powers of embarrassment via the Socratic Method. And, I proved out my thesis that it was nearly impossible to get a failing grade in a law school class at my law school as long as you showed up for class (which I did).
I decided to remain in Tucson over the summer between 2L and 3L and rest up for what was to come. I didn’t do anything law related that summer, and went into my 3L year energized and ready to get the remaining tools I would need.
3L Year – Getting the practical experience I felt I needed to open my own firm after law school.
My third year of law school at the University of Arizona is where my future as a practicing attorney really came together. What happened that year made the first two years worth it, and is one of the reasons that I remain a huge fan of the law school to this day.
First semester I took a beginning trial advocacy course taught by a practicing prosecutor from the Pima County Attorney’s Office. The course met in our model courtroom, and gave us the opportunity to do mock trials, as well as trial segments. I was hooked. I loved the trial work, and found that I had a natural ability. I was intrigued by the instructor’s stories from the trenches of criminal prosecution. He explained that the best way to get trial experience is to start in the prosecutor or public defender’s office out of law school, and try as many cases as possible. I was intrigued.
The law school had an externship program, and had an arrangement with the County Attorney’s office where students could practice law under the supervision of a licensed attorney. Students lucky enough to get that externship could try a range of misdemeanor bench trials, as well as try DUI cases to juries.
I registered for the externship, and, when 2nd semester class assignments were posted, I was disappointed to see that I didn’t get selected. A friend and classmate worked in the office responsible for class assignments, and I went to talk with him to see what might be done. Shortly after that conversation I ended up in the first position on the wait list, and within days after that I had secured a spot. He denied exerting any influence over the random process, but I thanked him anyways.
My last semester of law school was the best period not only of my law school career, but of my entire academic career. Two things made it so:
1. My externship with the Pima County Attorney’s office; and
2. An advanced trial advocacy course, taught by famous (later to become infamous) prosecutor Ken Peasley.
The two things worked in concert to solidify my love of trial work and my confidence that I could walk into a courtroom right out of law school and competently try a case. Aside from minimally attending my other classes to ensure enough face time that I would pass the classes, I spent the vast majority of my waking hours working at the County Attorney’s office.
At the time the Pima County Attorney’s Office had six misdemeanor attorneys. Each attorney carried a crushing load of cases and administrative work. It was not abnormal for the attorneys to spend their whole day in court and then work well into the evening prepping cases, closing files, and doing an array of tasks that could have easily been done by an entry level paralegal. Their crushing work load worked to my advantage. I showed up ready to get involved, and made it clear that I would take any and every case that they were willing to assign to me.
My supervisor was a law school friend who had been a year ahead of me in school and was now a first-year prosecutor. After going through some training and observing several days worth of trials, I was confident that I could handle much of the typical misdemeanor calendar, which consisted of an array of procedural hearings, plea bargains and bench trials. I would show up and make myself available to my supervisor and to the other five attorneys, who also often needed coverage.
Within weeks I was traversing the streets between the prosecutor’s office (where I didn’t have an office of my own) and the Justice Court, which is where the county misdemeanor business took place. There were days where I did several bench trials in one day. I got to know the court staff, the judges, and the police officers who were regularly my witnesses. I learned how to prep a witness on the fly, and how to “dance” with a police officer on the stand to make sure that all of the relevant facts were introduced. I learned how defense lawyers tried to erode the officers’ credibility on cross, and how to rehabilitate officers on redirect. I learned how to make and meet objections, and found that I was quickly able to hold my own with the defense attorneys, some of whom had decades of experience. It was so much fun, and it validated the choices that I had made in law school up to that point.
I also saw the some of the underbelly of the justice system. As a practicing law student I was a foot soldier. I didn’t have authority to dismiss cases because they lacked merit or because mitigating factors came to light. I saw that many of the defendants that were herded through Justice Court on a daily basis were drug or alcohol addicted, had mental health issues, had come from tough circumstances, or were simply down on their luck. I heard heartstrings pitches from defense attorneys. Some resonated, and some were complete rubbish. I was harassed, sworn at, and threatened by defendants. I had my integrity questioned by parents of defendants. I was an observer and participant in the law at the same time, and at no period in my education did I learn as much as I did during that externship.
I was also able to first chair a misdemeanor DUI jury trial, and participate in others as second chair. Thanks to that opportunity, before I had even graduated from law school I had conducted hundreds of hearings, many dozens of bench trials, had picked a jury and had delivered opening and closing arguments, and had likely represented the State of Arizona at more than 100 sentencings.
The advanced trial advocacy course, which was conducted like a hands-on clinic, was also a revelation. The instructor was Kenneth Peasley. He was a gruff, chain-smoking prosecutor (who ignored no-smoking rules in his own office at the county attorney’s office) who had successfully prosecuted many high profile murder cases and was later disbarred for unethical conduct in securing convictions. Jeffrey Toobin wrote an article about him for The New Yorker in 2005 entitled “Killer Instincts” which paints a more complete picture of Ken than we have room to cover in this piece.
I got to know Ken a bit through the class, and would often see him in the halls at the prosecutor’s office. I vividly remember, as a 25 year old 3L, talking with him in the men’s room while we were at adjacent urinals. He was on his way to court, and was talking about the murder trial that he was starting of a defendant that he referred to as a young assassin. I asked him what his strategy was going to be, and as he casually dried his hands he said “the plan is to give him a fair trial and then kill the sonofabitch.”
From Ken I learned how to control a courtroom. I learned how to be aggressive, and how to appear so sure of something that my confidence in my convictions would tip the scales in my favor with juries in close cases. Something didn’t quite feel right about the methods, but at the time Ken was a superstar in the legal community and I was a law student trying to learn how to practice law.
When I wasn’t in court I was either working on my trial advocacy skills, reading about business, or sleeping with my eyes open through my academic classes. I read to try to teach myself what I would need to know to open up a law practice of my own. I devoured Jay Foonberg’s book on starting and building a law practice. I read materials on small business accounting and marketing.
And then it was over.
Graduation from Law School
I graduated law school in May of 1998. After the ceremony and brief goodbyes to friends and classmates, my girlfriend and I drove to Seattle. My girlfriend, who I had met and started dating during the first month of our 1L year, was scheduled to start the LLM in Taxation program at the University of Washington. I was headed into the unknown. But first things first:
There’s a saying for medical doctors that goes something like this: “What do you call the student that graduates at the bottom of her medical school class? Doctor!” You don’t hear similar anecdotes about law students because the reality is that many law school graduates are never able to become lawyers. While this has become increasingly true in the era of scam law schools that will take any student’s financial aid money in exchange for a dream and a piece of paper that says “JD,” I graduated before the proliferation of predatory law schools.
I was now a law school graduate, and had a JD from a top-30 law school. I had graduated in the bottom 10 (not 10%) of my class when measured by grades. It was a situation of my own engineering. While I have no reason to believe that I would have been at or near the top of my class had I prioritized grades, I knew I would have done better than my final grades indicated. I had created my situation by (I hoped strategically) burning bridges. Would my theory that law school academics didn’t matter for the future I wanted for myself hold water? The first test was to see if I could become a lawyer, which meant passing the Bar Exam.
In my next post in this series I’ll talk about passing both the Washington State and Arizona bar exams on the first attempts, as well as a brief job I took as a law clerk at the County Attorney’s office before opening my first solo practice. And in future posts I will outline how I built and ultimately sold two highly successful law firms, and how I became a successful criminal trial attorney and won many legally and scientifically complicated jury trials for my clients in two states, and how I ultimately made the transition to legal tech entrepreneur and then CEO of LawLytics.
My advice to law students about law school grades, class rankings, and preparing for careers
Getting good or great grades in law school is not a bad thing, and it can open a lot of doors. It’s all a matter of what you value and how you prioritize your limited time over three school years.
As an attorney and law firm owner, and later as the CEO of two legal tech companies, I have hired many law students, law school grads and lawyers over the past 20+ years. As hypocritical as this may sound, I do look at grades, quality of school and relative class ranking for some positions. For me, the employer, grades indicate a willingness to play by the rules, a solid work ethic, and a solid grasp of legal analysis and critical thinking. Grades usually, but not always, indicate that the applicant has the ability to see things in black and white, and to execute competently on directives that come from me or my leadership team. Grades sometimes indicate a thinner skinned personality who recoils from criticism or correction because they draw their self-esteem from jumping through the right hoops, at the right times, to please the right people.
On the other hand, grades don’t indicate anything about an employee’s ability to try cases, to think on their feet under pressure, to sell to clients or juries, to negotiate, and to find creative solutions to practical problems. In business, grades typically don’t indicate an ability to think in shades of gray, or to parse the nuance of edge cases and apply creative exceptions to the rules on a case-by-case basis without going down the rabbit hole of changing the rules based on the exceptions, or to invent rules that account for all possible edge cases. And grades don’t indicate the quality that, as a business leader, I value above all else in the leaders I choose to hire and to promote — the ability to think differently, to be introspective about criticism without retreating, to own mistakes and move on and make additional (but different) mistakes without a chilling effect, or to defend their choices by engaging in constructive conflict, even with people higher up in the company. Healthy businesses have to have healthy conflict to grow.
No law school is perfect, just as no law firm or business is perfect. If you’re in law school, or are about to start, the best advice I can give you is to think for yourself. If you’re sure that you want to start your own law practice after law school, then grades don’t matter. Period. If you’re sure that you want to be an employee when you graduate, grades matter a lot, so do your best rank as high in your class as possible. But understand that grades alone will not guarantee you a job (especially during economic down cycles), and that job that you think you want will not guarantee you happiness (in fact, most of the lawyers I went to law school with who got big firm jobs are now owners of small law firms, even after they climbed the big law partnership ladders).
The most important thing to do in law school is to get to know yourself and what you really want. And if you already know who you are and what you want going into law school, don’t let the law school system change you. A law school education from an accredited law school and a law degree are both highly valuable and worthwhile pursuits that can be useful for the rest of your career whether you practice law, whether you own your own firm, or whether you do something completely different. The important thing is to understand that that the system, and the school, is there for you, and not the other way around.
If you want to start your own law practice right out of law school, you can absolutely do it, and it can absolutely give you a lucrative and highly fulfilling career. Whether you’re pre-law, a 1L or a 3L wondering when you’ll get the chance to take the bar exam (I’m writing this in the thick of the COVID-19 crisis lockdown), now is the time to embark on that solo practice journey, or start exploring whether it’s right for you. I hope my story, which outlines one of infinite possible paths, is helpful, and that the subsequent posts in this series will give you the tools and inspiration to successfully make that choice and that leap.
Solo Practice Series:
- Starting a Solo Law Practice - Series Intro
- My Story -Intro To My Solo Law Practice Story
- My Story - How I Used Law School to Prepare to Open a Successful Solo Law Firm
- My Story - The Time Between Law School Graduation and Opening My First Law Firm
- My Story – Starting My First Law Firm
- My Story: Surviving Until I Got My First Clients
- My Story: Discovering Online Legal Marketing
Other resources for lawyers starting their own law firms:
Attorney & LawLytics CEO