My Story – The Time Between Law School Graduation and Opening My First Law Firm

This is the fourth post in my blog series about how to start and build a solo law practice. In between the last post and this post, I also wrote a “series adjacent” post on the things that, in addition to owning a law firm, I believe that lawyers need to control to truly be in command of their destinies in light of the COVID-19 layoffs that are happening as I write this in April of 2020.

In these early posts in this series I’m taking the time to tell my story, which I started in this post on April 10, 2020, and which I hope will frame the advice and opinions that I give in future posts. In the previous post I described my law school experience and how I choose a deviation to the typical approach to law school.

In this post, I’m going to talk about the period immediately following graduation until I opened my first law practice, which covers a little less than 12 months.

My Experience Taking My First Bar Exam: Washington State Bar Exam

Upon return to Seattle immediately following law school graduation, I had a short period of downtime before starting to study for the bar. My girlfriend, who had also just graduated from law school, and I studied together and took the BarBri course offered at Seattle University.

The first BarBri course provided instant relief from the question of “did I do the right thing by not taking law school academics seriously?” The materials were well organized and made learning what I would need to know to pass the bar exam easy. The professors were entertaining. It was, in my opinion, much better and more engaging than law school academics. This might be because there was a direct and obvious application of the materials, and an obvious consequence (failing the bar exam) of not learning the materials.

In the mornings we would attend the lectures, and then spend the afternoons and evenings studying. In those sessions I felt in control of my destiny. But I was also on edge. And I went to a bad headspace a few times when well-meaning family members and friends would try to take the pressure off by telling me things like, “you know that JFK Jr. failed the New York bar exam twice and passed on his third try.”

When I heard stuff like that, I freaked the fuck out. Maybe I was delusional? I was a 25 year old who graduated in the bottom 10 students from the University of Arizona College of Law. Sure, it was one of the higher ranked state law schools at the time notwithstanding its undergraduate reputation at the time as a party school. But in choosing to ignore academics in law school, had I overlooked something important? Did my academically fastidious classmates develop learning skills, or test taking skills that I missed and was now blissfully oblivious to? What if my girlfriend, who did very well academically and was excited about even more law school academics and about to start a LLM in Taxation, passed the bar exam and I couldn’t? This would prove that she was either much smarter than me (which I would have been fine with), or that I had badly squandered the opportunity that law school presented — and if that happened, would I ever know the true cause? And, if I couldn’t pass the bar exam, none of my other preparations for opening my own law firm would matter.

That time between graduating from law school and the Washington State Bar Exam was the most difficult for me to handle as it was time for the rubber to meet the road, and I was in a highly modified vehicle that I wasn’t sure would hold up.

By the day of the bar exam, I was a wreck. I had slept very little for several nights leading up to the exam. I felt chilled to the bone. When I walked into the Meydenbauer convention center in Bellevue, WA, to check in, it felt like the room was refrigerated. I felt like I was watching a husk of myself go through the motions of checking in, finding my table, making sure that my pencils were sharpened and ready. I ran into several friends from high school and college that I hadn’t seen since and didn’t know they had gone to law school. I could barely muster a few words of small talk, and quickly decided to keep my head down and try to avoid eye contact with the crowd that seemed to walk the lobby like random particles. I decided to find my seat as quickly as possible in the large hall where the test would be held.

The large convention hall was eerily quiet, and the sounds of shuffling papers and nearby nervous gulps from other test takers echoed. I wore several layers, including a winter coat.

The Summer of 1998 Washington Bar Exam consisted of two and a half days of essay questions. In 1998 Washington did not use standardized multi-state testing. Instead, there were a series of topics to which the applicants responded in written format. The first two days covered substantive and procedural topics, and the last day was a half-day of ethics questions.

After turning in the last essay on the third day, I shuffled out of the convention hall. I was numb. I was exhausted. My girlfriend and I did postmortems on as many of the questions as we could remember. Where we both identified the same issues and came to the same conclusions my confidence soared. And when we didn’t, well, fuck. I was sure she was right.

The outside of my right pinky finger had paper burn from the days of furious writing. Aside from the slight burning, and my inability to stop touching it, I might have mistaken those test days, and the weeks leading up to them for a bad dream.

Now the waiting game began, and with it the game of second guessing. For the first time since making my 1L mental pivot towards optimizing my legal education to open my own law firm, I felt out of control and at a loss for what to do next. It would be many weeks before we would know the results. While I typically did well on essay exams, the memory of Professor Incentivize from first semester 1L still lingered. Who would be grading my exam? How much subjectivity would be brought to bear? Was my handwriting legible? Did I remember to properly identify myself on each of the test booklets? There was nothing productive I could do, and I was quickly driving myself crazy.

Law School Is Not Real Life — Post-Bar Exam Life Changes

In order to unwind and put some distance between ourselves and the exam, my girlfriend and I took a trip to the Fitzsimmons Range in Canada and did some hiking. We returned a few days later. With downtime for the first time in a long time, we watched Oprah one afternoon. The show was about couples that were great friends but should not have been married. Without the activity of law school and an impending bar exam to give us a shared sense of purpose, we realized that Oprah was talking about us. We broke up that day. There was no fighting and no imbalance of opinions. In fact, looking back on it 22 years later, my recollection is that it was a simple and mutual acknowledgment that law school was our time, and now it was over.

Law school and the bar exam are a crucible of sorts. In experiencing and surviving a stressful and transformational experience, lifelong bonds are created with people with whom, prior to law school, the law student may have had little to nothing in common. There are several classmates that, had we met in the real world without the context of law school, we would have never become friends. Nevertheless, because of the law school experience, we’re friends for life. I keep in contact with many of my classmates, and a good many of them have become LawLytics customers. Although I have not kept in contact with my law school girlfriend, she passed the bar exam, earned her LLM, and I understand that she’s gone on to have a very successful career in law and business.

After the breakup, I then spent some time reconnecting with friends and family members I hadn’t seen or spent much time with since starting law school. I also spent some time downtown observing court and doing some light networking with lawyers and other court friends I made the summer after my 1L year. I was cautious about discussing my plan to open my own solo practice because I was not confident that I had passed the bar exam.

One of the friends that I reconnected with was Atasha, a woman I had gone on a blind date with when we were both teenagers and she was visiting family in Seattle (she lived in Arizona). After our teenage date we did not become romantically involved but remained friends and kept in touch periodically since. She happened to be in Seattle at that time completing her certification in Pilates, and had reached out and left a message at my parent’s house looking for me. We started hanging out.

Roughly 6 weeks later, two things happened.

1. The bar results came in. I had passed!

2. Atasha completed her Pilates certification course and had to move to Tucson (where her dad lived) for financial reasons.

The bar swearing in ceremony was still a few weeks in the future. That would have been too long for me. I went to the King County Superior Court, and asked Judge Charles Martel, whom I had clerked for the summer after my 1L year, to swear me in. I was now a fully-licensed attorney in Washington.

But my priorities had temporarily shifted.

The next morning I packed my car and started driving to Tucson to, as Robin Williams said in Good Will Hunting, “see about a girl.”

Atasha and I married since 2002.

But before I started my first law practice, I was delayed by a bit of a slog.

Clerkship In the Pima County Prosecutor’s Office and The Arizona Bar Exam

My return to Tucson was unexpected. But I was sure about Atasha, and was going to do what I had to do. When Atasha left Seattle, I called a friend (my former supervisor during my practical externship) at the prosecutor’s office in Tucson.

Within a couple of days I had secured a job offer at the Pima County Attorney’s Office as a law clerk. As a law school graduate I was no longer allowed to appear in court until I was admitted to the Arizona Bar. So now I was a licensed Washington State Attorney clerking in Arizona.

Unsure of whether I would be able to convince Atasha to return to Washington State with me, I registered to take the next Arizona Bar Exam, which was scheduled in February 1999. I couldn’t afford another BarBri course, so I borrowed the Arizona BarBri study books from a law school friend who had taken and passed the summer exam.

The clerkship consisted of forty hours a week of legal research and drafting. The job turned out to be a blessing because it exposed me to motions practice, which I had overlooked during law school. I read and responded to hundreds of motions and briefs. The topics ranged from pretrial motions to suppress to motions for post conviction relief, from misdemeanors to serious felonies. I came to respect the craft of motions practice, and realized how important it would be when I opened my own law firm. I saw first hand that well drafted and thought out motions earned the lawyers respect and credibility with the judges and opposing counsel, while shoddy ones fomented disrespect that reverberated well beyond losing the motion.

I started studying for the bar exam about a month out. I should have started sooner, but, after three years of law school and a summer of studying for the Washington State Bar Exam, studying while already reading and writing about the law for eight hours a day at work proved to be a challenge in motivation. Perhaps if I had studied during law school I would have built up more endurance for it? So I started working on Plan B, which was returning to Seattle.

At the time I took it, the Arizona Bar Exam used the Multi-State multiple choice format, and the MPRE for ethics. I think there was also a half day of short essay questions. The test-taking skills for the Arizona Bar Exam would be different from what I had learned from the Washington BarBri course.

The day of the test rolled around. Unlike sitting for the Washington exam, despite the lack of preparation, I was cool and calm. By then I had persuaded Atasha to move to Seattle with me after the exam, so the results of the test didn’t really matter. I had paid the application fee for the Arizona Bar, so I figured I’d still take the test and see what happened.

I came away from the test feeling great about the essays, and completely unsure about the multiple test questions, as there were many questions that, for me, came down to a guess between two possible answers. I would later learn that I passed the exam, which would ultimately pave the way for opening my second law firm in Arizona. But that’s a story for a future post.

Return To Seattle To Open My First Solo Law Practice

With the Arizona Bar Exam behind me we were back on the road to Seattle. We moved into a small apartment. Atasha opened a small Pilates studio. And I got to work preparing to hang my first shingle in Seattle, which will be the subject of the next post in this series.

About The Author

Attorney Dan Jaffe previously built successful small law practices in WA and AZ. He currently serves as the CEO of LawLytics.

Other posts by Dan.