Is it a mistake to start a law firm right out of law school?

I recently came across another article on Lawyerist.com that really bothers me. Entitled “Don’t go to law school – not now”, the author, Matthew Willens talks at length about why hanging a shingle is such a terrible idea for recent law school graduates. Mr. Willens, who himself worked for a law firm for 12 years before starting his own law firm, talks about why this “apprenticeship” period is absolute crucial, no – necessary, before any lawyer should even think of starting their own law firm.

Mr. Willens writes:

Starting a law practice is one of the worst decisions an inexperienced lawyer can make. Becoming a good lawyer requires years of post-law school training and real-world experience.

Many new lawyers do hang up shingles, and while I admire their courage (although it’s more likely desperation) I wish they would stop and think about it. By launching into the profession without getting proper training from successful, experienced lawyers, they are doing their clients a disservice and the entire legal profession takes a hit on credibility.

Mr. Willens goes on to write:

I have met other lawyers who choose to go it alone and they [are] incompetent in the practice of law. I mean no disrespect; they are simply inexperienced. These fresh-out-of-law school shingle-hangers can be a black mark on the legal profession. I cringe when I hear that people fresh out of law school have started their own practices. I didn’t hang my own shingle until after I had a good dozen years of experience and, more importantly, extensive training and mentoring. Even with all that experience, it was still a challenge to open and operate my own law practice.

This article bothers me so much because I see a lot of great young lawyers coming out of law school that really want to do the right thing with their law practice. They want to help people. They want to make life better for their clients. You don’t need 12 years of experience at a firm to learn that.

There is a great book that addresses the flaws in Mr. Willens argument in a fantastic fashion – Winning Through Intimidation, by Robert Ringer. Here are a couple takeaways from that book that are relevant here.

Leapfrog Theory

According to Mr. Ringer, the “leapfrog theory” says that:

A person has no legal or moral obligation or, for that matter, logical reason to “work his way up through the ranks” … The quickest way to the top is not by fighting your way through the pack; the quickest way is to leapfrog over the pack and simply … proclaim that you’re above it. However, you must be prepared to be above it, or the realities of the business world will knock you right back into the pack.

When you start a solo practice straight out of law school, you need to be prepared to silence the critics. You can be a successful lawyer and run a successful law practice, but you need to start with the end in mind and know how you are going to get there.

Here’s the second little nugget from Mr. Ringer’s book, and it’s call the “three type theory”.

Three Type Theory

Mr. Ringer proclaims, and I think accurately, that there are three types of people in the business world.

  • Type 1 – This person lets you know that he is going to try and get all of your chips, then he goes out and tries to do that.
  • Type 2 – This person assures you that he is not interested in getting your chips. But then he tries to get them anyway.
  • Type 3 – This person assures you that he honestly does not want to take your chips, and he or she may actually mean it. However, at the end of the day, this person is still going to try and take your chips.

What’s the lesson from this? In the world of business, no one ever does anything for anyone without expecting something in return. This is especially true when we are talking about lawyers.

Back to Mr. Willens and his article about why it is a mistake to start a law firm right out of law school

Where does Mr. Willens stand on this three part spectrum? Well, he has taken the time to write an article for Lawyerist.com, and it was accepted by them, which means he gets a couple things. First, he gets a link back from Lawyerist to his law firm’s website. That’s good. Second, he get’s $100. I suppose that is also good, but he probably would have written the article for free. Finally, he gets a sounding board to tell all you young, inexperienced lawyers that you have no right starting a law firm in the first place. In his own words, “These fresh-out-of-law school shingle-hangers can be a black mark on the legal profession. I cringe when I hear that people fresh out of law school have started their own practices.” Let’s call a spade a spade – he detests the idea that a lawyer could come straight out of law school, start their own law firm, and actually be successful.

In the comments to the article, the Mr. Willens says that he helps young lawyers by speaking at bar association meetings on trial advocacy, and that he spends “a considerable amount of [his] professional time with law students and young lawyers, usually because they have found themselves in a jam at their client’s expense.” Again, while I applaud Mr. Willens for his assistance to young lawyers, he is also making a jab at young lawyers for messing up their client’s case as a result of their “inexperience”.

I’m going to give Mr. Willens the benefit of the doubt here and call him a Type-3 person (according to Mr. Ringer’s rating system). Mr. Willens has all the good intentions (presumably) in the world, but what he appears to be doing is finding a different way to market his law firm, by letting young lawyers pick up the clients and then come to him for his “experience and expertise”. He is speaking to young lawyers and telling them that they don’t know enough to handle their own cases. He is probably also telling them that when they get stuck, give him a call so he can mentor them. Now whether or not he is now coming on as “co-counsel” on these cases or just guiding the young lawyer to where they need to go with the case would be indicative of how genuine he is with his idea of “mentoring” young lawyers.

I suspect they are coming to him and he is somehow getting involved in the case such that he will, at the end of the day, generate a legal fee for himself and his firm. (For the record, I don’t whether or not this is accurate, although I did post a comment to the original article asking Mr. Willens for more information – I’ll update this post if I receive a response.)

And Mr. Willens, if all you are doing is mentoring these young attorneys and staying out of the case, or letting them keep the entire fee, I very much applaud you for your efforts. More attorneys should act that way.

UPDATE: Since drafting this blog post, I did receive a response from Mr. Willens about this.  He says: “When young lawyers come to me with problems after they have run into trouble in a personal injury case, I do my best to get them on the right track. To date, I have never joined them as co-counsel on a case or taken one over completely. In full disclosure, I probably would. “

What to do if you run into trouble starting a law firm

If you are a young lawyer straight out of law school, and you are starting your own law firm, you should actively seek out and promote relationships with mentors and other, more experienced lawyers who can answer your questions about any complicated cases you get (and lets be honest, when you are first starting out, they are all complicated). You need to build these networks so that you have a place to turn when you run into a problem. In addition, so long as you recognize that there is a potential legal issue that you can counsel your client on, you are 90% of the way there. The problem Mr. Willens alludes to is that most young lawyers don’t always recognize all the legal issues – and I don’t entirely disagree with that. This is another reason I advocate sticking with only one practice area and writing your own content for your website (to learn about the law in your practice area).

But these self-entitled, righteous articles that are telling young lawyers all the reasons why they shouldn’t be going it alone are complete and utter BS.

Agree? Disagree? This is a controversial topic – I would love to hear your thoughts.