I want to thank HP for letting me hijack this very instructive blog to present a different perspective on employment. I did not enter the big firm route for my career path. When I graduated from a Top 25 law school and subsequently passed the bar exam, I was facing an economy in deep recession where a major law firm in the biggest city proximate to my home collapsed and thereby put 200+ experienced attorneys on the street. Having grades in the top 1/3 of my class weren't enough to garner employment at the big firms in said big city, and I did not want to seek another market. I sought out small- and medium-size firms, but the salary offers were so low on pay and benefits that I could not accept a couple of offers that were made to me. So began a different track:
Job 1 - Solo Practice: In an act of extreme arrogance and potentially deep mental illness, I set out to establish a solo practice. I had to make a decision as to where to locate. I chose an office where a sitting state representative and the incumbent counsel for the city were located. I realized the importance that these connections may provide in both my current, new lawyer status and the value of these connections later in my career development. Elected officials and municipal officers are great sources for client referrals and eventual job recommendations as their connections run deep. Be selective where and, more importantly, with whom you locate.
I had to furnish my office. I bought a basic PC (today a laptop would make most sense), printer, and bought my desk, chairs and bookcase from an automobile dealership that was closing due to the then sour economy. The furniture was from the dealership president's office and looked very professional with my diplomas professionally framed in the background. Do not skimp on office decor and on framing. Much like HP discussing clothing, I need to state the obvious in that how your office looks (in a situation where you actually meet people in your office versus conference rooms at large firms) makes a lasting impression on new clients.
I had to decide the areas of law in which to practice. The counsel for the city connection proved fruitful immediately as he offered me work as a per diem assistant to him and he convinced the Mayor to provide me with a steady stream of income performing municipal tax matters for the City. Immediately, I could meet all of my overhead! My grandparents who were then living provided the inspiration for my other practice area. They were both senior citizens living in an elderly building housing hundreds of seniors. I immediately decided to learn everything about elder law. Next, after learning this area after many cram sessions and CLE classes, I found myself speaking to the elderly building's association on the topic and a significant practice area was opened to me. So be open to the business that your colleagues offer to you, be aware of your own community's demographic opportunities, and be willing to leverage your own family if it will help you build your practice.
So for the next few years, I was doing ok. I had steady municipal work and I was building my elder law practice. I was not getting wealthy, but I could afford to buy a house on my own which wasn't that bad for a single, 27 year old guy at the time.
Job 2 - Agency Counsel: One day, I was reading the primary state lawyers' newspaper and saw an ad where a state agency was seeking an attorney with knowledge of estate planning and elder law concepts to join its legal department. The pay grade was strong for public service, and I immediately applied. I was torn as to whether to leverage my relationship with the State Representative and made the decision that I would only mention him if I got to the stage where a list of references was required. I interviewed and was offered a second interview a week later where I was told to bring with me the names of two references. I brought the names of the counsel for the city and the State Representative. I believe, to this day, that my expertise in the desired area of law gave me an edge over any other applicant, but I am not oblivious to the fact that providing the State Representative as a reference surely didn't hurt. And, it should go without saying, even if you're happy in what you're doing, keep an eye on the want ads. You never know when a great opportunity may be there for you.
For the next six years I practiced law for that state agency and found the road to be predictable with steady salary increases, but it did provide not a whole lot of intellectual challenge or promotional opportunity. My work was primarily centered on estate work with more than a dabbling of fraud issues. And to add to the fun, I was able to maintain my solo practice of law after hours so long as my practice areas did not conflict with my state job and I have done so to this day.
Job 3 - Manager at the Agency: After six years as agency counsel, my internal agency client offered me a managerial position in its department where I would have the opportunity to manage about 20 staff and begin to impact agency policy. I now had to make the decision of whether to continue to be a full-time lawyer or advance my career in public service taking an alternative career path. For me, it was an easy choice because I knew that the legal career path in public service would require years for me to advance as I would have to wait out a few baby boomers (and turnover was negligible in this agency). I took the managerial job and served in that capacity for a few years.
Job 4 - Jumping Ship to Another Agency: Three years ago, I saw an ad on the state jobs web site where a different state agency was seeking a higher level manager with fraud and legal experience. I applied, interviewed, and was offered the job in short order without a second interview being required. I served in that capacity for two years, and I was considered an effective change agent by the agency's senior management. Now, after only three years at the agency, I am leading an entirely new department, and I am serving as a member of the agency's most senior staff. My salary has increased approximately 30% in the past three years which is no small achievement in this economy, but it was reflective of merit-based pay increases and a significant promotion.
So where does this admittedly long story lead you? I'm hoping that it will make you recall Frost's great poem where he mentions that famous road that diverged in the wood. HP's blog does a wonderful job of preparing you for the road most traveled. But there is another, less traveled road where, if you believe in yourself, you can establish and maintain a solo practice of law that can, at minimum, meet your expenses while having an opportunity to buy a home and begin to live the traditional American dream. And even more importantly, you can direct your career toward public service and potentially inform policy decisions for a state agency impacting tens of thousands of lives.
I know that this biographical post was very long. Thank you for indulging me in telling my story. I could offer many more anecdotes, tips, and advice to anyone interesting in solo practice or public service and will be glad to do so at HP's request. Good luck to all of you in your careers. The law is a noble profession where you can use your education for so much good. Be sure to find a way to do so.