Introduction to this Series
Ever since I was younger and dreamed of becoming a lawyer, the vision that I had was of me in my own practice. So, regardless of where my career takes me, I want to start my own practice one day. It may be after a full career and my practice in “retirement,” it may be after several years working as an employee-attorney somewhere, or it may be straight out of law school. Just a little over halfway through my second year of law school, I am still keeping an open mind as to where I want to go and what I want to be when I graduate. But, at some point, I want to stop only practicing law and begin a business, and one day an enterprise, that provides legal services.
To keep track of my progress and help document my thoughts as I move towards achieving my dream, I decided I would blog about it. Other than my fiancee and myself, I do not expect anyone to read these or any of my other posts. Instead, I chose a blog because it is pretty and can be accessed from wherever I am and am looking for some personal inspiration. It also helps to write as if I am writing to an audience because it forces me fully express my ideas and avoid the shortcuts that I often take when writing notes to myself, which are intelligible when I read them but an enigma when I revisit them days, months, or years later. And, who knows, maybe this blog might be useful to someone at some point.
What I Have Been Doing up to This Point
Law School Tasks
Taking steps in law school to prepare to hang my own shingle and start my own practice is not easy. There is plenty of literature out there that complains of how law schools fail to prepare students to practice. Law school is about learning to think like a lawyer, not practice like one. What’s worse is that what practice-oriented instruction law school does offer is almost exclusively tailored towards us immediately working for a firm or agency after school. This focus means that any solo practice preparation is a lonely and difficult endeavor. In fact, I have been told by nearly everyone that trying to start a practice right after law school is foolhardy and that I should simply expect to work for someone else for three years before even considering striking out on my own. So, it’s clear that nearly anything that I do in law school that moves me towards beginning a solo practice is going to be a lonely and difficult endeavor.
Classes, Sure. . . .
I will start with the obvious: I am working hard in my classes. No matter how much I hear that classes do not actually prepare students for practice, I stubbornly continue to work hard to do well in my classes. The reasons for this are twofold: (1) My classes continue to teach me diligence and discipline with stressful deadlines, and (2) my classes still give me the foundation to understand the substantive law.
It is important to me that I continue to work hard and build up my ability to do a LOT of stressful work. Law school is hard work and the practice of law is supposed to be hard work. My expectation, or maybe hope, is that doing all this hard work will better prepare me for being the entrepreneur that I hope to be, notwithstanding the claim that the work in law school is very different from work in practice. A lot of work is a lot of work in my mind. Knowing how I work and what works best for me is valuable. To me, knowing how to spend the limited 24 hours in each day is important, regardless of what it is I am supposed to be doing.
Possibly equally important is knowing the foundations for the substantive law. A person should know where the trail is before beginning journey down it. Sure, one could simply cut across the wilderness in the general direction of the trail, but the person who starts at the trailhead will have a much easier time. No matter how much I hear practitioners say that law school classes are not useful in practice, I just cannot believe that they are useless. Can a personal injury attorney really begin a case without knowing the five elements of negligence? Can a contracts attorney draft a solid contract without learning the elements of a contract? Maybe they could learn it themselves by quickly reading over a practice guide. But, at the end of the day, I think that having the foundational knowledge will provide context for reading those practice guides, for drafting their complaints, and for knowing if there is even a case. So I will keep attending classes, I will keep doing my readings, and I will keep pressing myself to study for exams.
Preparing to Practice
Preparing to practice in law school feels like creating a budgeted grocery store list for living in a foreign country that I have never been to before, and I will not move to the country until at least 2 years from now. I can talk to people who have been in the country what they bought for themselves. I can read books and articles about the typical food that is available there. And I can imagine what I would like to eat when I get there. Maybe, if I had the time and knew someone, I could join an expatriate for dinner (work at a solo-practice). But, at the end of it all, it feels theoretical.
Nevertheless, I am trying my best to prepare for practice while I am still in law school. I, being stubborn and introverted, have focused almost exclusively on reading everything I can on starting and running a solo and small practice. I have also spent a significant amount of time trying to teach myself more IT-geared aspects, which could be a mistake in terms of efficiency but helps feed my curiosity. I have checked out and read, albeit not thoroughly, books on the actual running of a practice. There are also a large number of online articles that are much less helpful that I have scoured over the course of the last year or so. Overall, I have taken an intellectual approach, trying to teach myself everything so that when I finally do begin to reach out I am will be able to have an in-depth conversation with practitioners, rather than a simple exploratory one.
Networking and Planting Seeds
In terms of networking, I have focused primarily on classmates. Besides genuinely enjoying their company and our conversations, I expect my classmates to be my biggest support group when I hang my own shingle. I know that I need to reach out to current practitioners in the area, but my classmates will know me and my work ethic better than any practitioner who I occasionally get coffee with will know. I am also hopeful that the people that I enjoy working with in law school will one day become my partners or that we will share a space and work together. One of the most exciting aspects of beginning a practice is building something bigger than just myself, and I would love to do with those who I know and enjoying being around.
Things to Do
I see there being three main categories of things that I need to do: (1) Getting in the mindset of hanging my own shingle; (2) setting up the infrastructure to succeed; and (3) learning what I don’t know.
Getting in the Mindset
There seems to be a very different mindset between those who want to work as employee-attorneys and those who want to be owner-attorneys. My goal is to mentally prepare myself to be an owner-attorney. The difference was brought to my attention when I was among a group of classmates who are on law review, some of the hardest working students that I know, and I was singled out as the only one who wanted to deal with the stress and uncertainty of starting my own firm. It was a revelation for me because, as a mentioned, since I was young my vision of being an attorney was a solo or small-firm practitioner. To me, big-law and organizational (in-house or public interest) attorneys were always the exception rather than the norm. Even if the number of solos and small-firm attorneys out-number the number of big-law and organizational attorneys, much of the literature that I have come across suggests that law school graduates are forced into a solo or small-firm, they would never choose it if they had the choice. Yet, I began law school under the assumption that I would need to adopt the mindset of the most successful students around me, despite my desire to eventually start my own firm. Now I am left wondering what exactly the solo and small-firm practitioner mindset is, but I may already be half-way there since I want to voluntarily start my own firm one day.
Setting up the Infrastructure
Although it is still early, I feel like I can begin laying the infrastructure of beginning my own firm by learning the tools and skills necessary to be successful. No matter when I start my practice, I want to begin down a path that will no require me to start from scratch down the line because I started off doing the wrong things. Evolving is a good thing, but starting over entirely down the line is another thing entirely. I want to take the time now, when I still do not have to stress about paying the bills, to learn what I need to be successful because there is a considerable amount of things that law school just does not teach about running your own practice. Billings, client management, networking for referrals, business management, and probably a host of things that I have not discovered yet. But, the more time I spend now learning these things and implementing what I can into my life, the less time I will have to devote to it when I am working to keep the lights on.
Learning What I Don’t Know
Learning what I do not know is probably the most important step that I will continuously be taking, even after I start a practice. It is impossible to prevent mistakes that you do not even know are possible. So, I am doing my best to read everything I can about the actual business of law and will start reaching out to those who are currently in the thick of it. With diligence and some luck, I will be able to avoid making fatal mistakes as a pursue my dream of having my firm thrive.
What I Did Today
This brings me to what I did today to further these goals, which centered around learning various technologies for implementing systems that will make my future firm, not just a practice but an enterprise.
I started today by reading the E-Myth Attorney by Michael E. Gerber, Robert Armstrong, and Sanford M. Fisch. The advice that I have gleaned from this book so far already feels like it is invaluable. Reading it has helped me move towards getting into the mindset of starting my own practice as well as teaching me what I don’t know.
Today, I read about planning and distinguishing between a law practice and business that provides legal services. The most important takeaway I got from it was to have a plan to make a business that provides legal services made up of systems meant to work for me, not a practice that will rely exclusively on my efforts to succeed. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, a business that sucks away my entire life and all my time is not a business worth having. Second, the true value of any business is in its way of doing things, not just its immediate product. This truly resonated with me because this advice, coupled with the advice from the book that every business is a family business, made me realize that I was ready to sacrifice more than I should have to live a half-baked dream.
My true reasons for wanting to start my own practice is to have the freedom to live my life and the freedom to try and innovate in my own way. Before reading this book, I had it in my mind that I would just be innately satisfied with not having a boss. But, this was short-sighted and driven by some proud and egotistical attitude that I know would have bitten me in the butt later on. No matter how great it would be to not have a boss, it would pale in comparison with the ability to be able to spend time with my future family and have time for actual leisure, as the greeks supposedly understood it (time for self-reflection and philosophy). With this in mind, I started down a geeky rabbit-hole.
Content Management Systems, Emacs, and Org-Mode
When the read the importance of establishing systems in the E-Myth Attorney, my gears immediately started turning. I imagined all the technological options I could implement to create systems that would lead the practice to become a business and one day an enterprise. I did not get far, despite spending several hours researching various options. I am torn between an expensive all-in-one system like Clio and trying to implement my own hodge-podge of programs for less. To sum up, I realized I would need several
I am torn between an expensive all-in-one system like Clio and trying to implement my own hodge-podge of programs for less. To sum up, I realized I would need at least several different programs to have a law practice run smoothly:
- A knowledge base for documenting procedures and forms;
- A document base for tracking the loads of paperwork that run through a law firm
- A case tracking system associated with the document base;
- A form generator and client database;
- A cloud server/service or virtual private network to allow for remote access to key files and documents;
- A bookkeeping and billing software;
- Time tracking; and
- A solid word processor.
A number of programs immediately come to mind when reading several of these requirements, but my hope is to boil all of this down to software that uses little resources, is open-source, low-cost or free, and secure. These additional requirements left me with several choices that, sadly, might be prohibitively expensive to deploy and maintain.
For Document, Knowledge, and Client Base, including Remote Access
- Casebox, a seemingly free and open source case management software
- A custom MediaWiki, maybe just for knowledge base but possibly for all three
- A custom version of WordPress, or several deployments with different plugins
- Customized versions of Drupal or Joomla deployed on an intranet.
- Use of a NAS and openVPN with simple file structures organizing information
- Nextcloud with separate spreadsheet and word doc files to track clients and case information
- A custom developed application built on Django
For Bookkeeping and Billing
For Time Tracking
This would literally just be a timer so I didn’t look too deeply into it.
- Microsoft Word
One program, however, stuck out among all of these: Emacs, with Org-Mode. Emacs, with org-mode and maybe a few other extensions, would fit literally all of these categories. And, because many of the programmers and writers who currently use emacs are freelancers, there is actually a decent amount of community support for using it as I expect to for a law firm. But, the learning curve is STEEP and I am not sure it is worth the investment of time. Nevertheless, it feeds my geeky curiosity, so I am plowing forward with learning it as best I can. Hence, the hours of presentations I listened to on YouTube and the time I spent reading a variety of documentation, today. Hopefully, I did not waste my time, and, if I do use it, no one I hire will be too upset having to learn it themselves.