1. Why should students, while in law school at TJSL, familiarize themselves with the requirements for solo and small firm practice?
National statistics demonstrate that the largest segment of the bar works as solo practitioners; this is not a new trend. The most recent figures released by the American Bar Foundation (which are still based on figures from the year 2000) show that 48% of all attorneys in private practice (which account for 2/3 of all attorneys) work as solo practitioners. If you consider lawyers working in law firms of 5 attorneys or less, the figure rises to 73% of all attorneys in private practice. Given lay-offs and hiring freezes by government agencies, large law firms, and public interest organizations, I suspect that these figures will be higher for 2010. Whether you get a job right after you pass the bar or not, solo practice may be in the cards for you.
2. What activities and programs can students join in order to explore solo and small firm practice to determine if they have the personality traits necessary for the role?
Externships with solo and small firm practitioners and in-house clinical programs are great ways to learn about law practice. You want to find work environments that give you responsibility for and exposure to clients. You also need to see how the implementation of ethics rules that govern the profession work in real-world situations. Pay particular attention to retainer agreements and how the attorneys you work for deal with client money, conflicts, and all other areas of law practice management. As a student intern working in a solo or a small firm or in a clinical setting, you more often have the opportunity to get experience not just in the practice of law--but in the business of law. Both are equally important in solo practice.
3. What classes should students register for in order to best prepare them for solo and small firm practice?
There is at least one class on law practice management and solo practice offered each semester. The faculty is working to develop more options for students, but the classes currently offered are important. I also recommend that you take my PR class and other classes that ask you to interview clients, look at retainer agreements, create law firms, and think about the business of law.
4. In your opinion, what are some characteristics that are possessed by successful solo and small firm practitioners and why?
Students who are entrepreneurial and are able to take responsibility for their education and their career should fare well as solo practitioners. Solo practitioners need to be able to handle stress, multi-task, and be flexible and competent because there are many more ethical pitfalls for folks who do not have a larger infrastructure for checks and balances.
The most successful solo and small firm practitioners have strong personal or professional support systems that keep the accountable and healthy. Be careful that the stress of the profession doesn’t begin to interfere with your ability to provide competent legal services or alienate you from your personal relationships. Depression, alcohol abuse and other chemical substances are huge pitfalls that can cost you your license. Be careful!
5. Do you have any general advice for TJSL students who are searching for jobs, trying to narrow down their intended area of practice, or deciding whether “going solo” is right for them?
Whether you came to law school to hang up your own shingle or not, it is important to think about your career as something you build and create--not something that someone is going to hand you just for passing the bar. The economy and the history of hiring in the legal profession both scream for you to make your own job instead of just waiting for it to come to you. The best way to search for a job is to network and volunteer, particularly for organizations that provide legal services to the poor and those who cannot afford lawyers. By networking and volunteering you begin to develop relationships and find individuals who are willing to mentor and guide you. If you are professional and your work product is strong, the job will come. Sometimes the only way to prove what you can do is by offering your time for free. There are a number of former students and mentees reporting that volunteering has ultimately landed a job or a client base that they now make a living representing.
Luz E. Herrera is an assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California where she recently launched the Small Business Law Center. Prof. Herrera is also the co-founder of Community Lawyers, Inc., a non-profit organization that provides low and moderate-income people access to affordable legal services and develops innovative opportunities for attorneys and law students in underserved communities.