Law in Contemporary Society
This thread has been really interesting and helpful to me. Thanks to everyone who contributed. I thought I would sum up some of our major points for other people who are interested in the stuff we have been discussing.

Practical Tips for Starting Your Own Practice 1) Focus Your Firm Around Something You Have Expertise In / a Personal Connection to: This is good for two reasons. One is substantive, in that it will be easier to get a practice off the ground if you don't have to start from a knowledge base of zero. The other is cosmetic: it's valuable for marketing if you have a compelling story to tell about why you entered into a certain practice area and why potential clients should choose you to represent them.

2) Find a Partner with Complementary Skills: I think Jane's observation about this is really astute. I didn't pick up on the fact that Labby seems to be filling in holes in Greenfield's own abilities (and it seems like her connections are probably proving to be helpful to him too). When we talk about starting our own practice in class, I've always envisioned it as being an individual activity. But, thinking about it as something you can do with one or two other people makes it seem more attainable. This raises the question of how to best choose a partner or partners, which is a complicated question on its own.

3) Find Innovative Ways to Reduce Costs: In class Eben mentions how market forces play a significant part in reducing the availability and stability of firm jobs. Solo practitioners / small firms can take advantage of the demand for lower cost legal services by being innovative and flexible in the way their structure their practices. The HangShingles blog uses a PO box and in class we are learning to use a Twiki. I would be eager to hear about other strategies for doing this.

4) Hustle / Network: This is important for all lawyers to some degree, but more important for solo practitioners because they are responsible for generating their own business. The HangShingles blog is a great example of what it takes. I think Eben has also hinted at another really valuable lesson for current law students. He mentioned that he got his 1st clerkship (which led to the 2nd one) not because of his grades but because of the relationships he developed in law school. This suggests that people who are interested in being solo practitioner should work to cultivate relationships now, when we have access to a huge network of professors, students, and the various professionals who come through law school.

5) Look Around for Clients: Eben told us in class that we should constantly be looking out for legal problems to solve. He gave the example of lawyers who were looking around for ADA non-compliant businesses in NYC and then finding clients who needed access to those businesses. Here is another potential source of clients. In the past few years there has been a proliferation of unpaid internships and some former interns who have had non-compliant internships (i.e. those that basically use the interns for grunt work instead of providing them with an educational experience) have been suing for back wages. This seems like a good potential source of clients for a young lawyer for 2 reasons: 1) we probably all know someone who has had an internship like this; 2) most of these people are just getting started in their careers and probably would be very happy with lower cost legal service.

If other people have practical suggestions, resources, or information, please add them.

-- KatherineMackey - 5 May 2012

One of the main reasons I was interested in taking this class is to learn more about unconventional legal careers. I don't think of myself as being a very entrepreneurial person, so I've found myself listening to some of what Eben says about working for yourself and doing good while doing well with skepticism. The path he describes sounds great, but I don't see myself who has what it takes to strike out on my own (I imagine other people feel the same way--after all, at least some of us are in law school because we are risk averse). That's why I found this article to be so interesting. The article is fairly light about Casey Greenfield's actual legal qualifications. She went to Yale Law School and worked as an associate for a short time at Gibson Dunn. She also took some time off to work (though it's unclear how relevant her work experience was to her legal career). The article also doesn't tell us too much about the personal traits she has that might make her an exceptional lawyer. The article does emphasize how pretty, privileged, charming and tenacious (at least regarding her own high profile custody battle) she is. I came away from this article with complicated feelings. On the one hand, Casey Greenfield has managed to strike out on the path Eben has been describing to us. She has done so at a fairly young age and without spending a lot of time doing work that she was not interested in. On the other hand, by giving us so little information about her actual legal career and qualifications, the article makes it seem like she has been able to do this because she is very privileged and because she had an out-of-wedlock baby and a high profile child support/custody battle with a famous, married legal commentator. I'd be interested in getting a more nuanced and informative perspective on Casey Greenfield's career and I'll be interested to see where she and her firm are in 20 years.

-- KatherineMackey - 21 Mar 2012

You're right; there are some pretty big holes in describing Greenfield's career trajectory that this article doesn't cover. I think that's what makes me question whether this is actually the kind of venturing out that Eben is really talking about, though. I don't know how she got from being the typical corporate lawyer until January 2011 to owning her own matrimonial law firm by 2012. And the description of this "nontraditional" firm still appears pretty traditional to me in the sense that her firm's objective is still trying to keep the rich people rich. Now thinking about it, my view is that her work is pretty analogous to Cerriere's because they're both essentially getting paid by powerful clients to keep them out of sticky situations. In Greenfield's case, it seems more like this is the goal she's working toward, but it's pretty clear she has the personality to get there. So in terms of the work she does, I wasn't that inspired by it because I didn't get a sense whether this was an area that she was particularly passionate about before or whether she was working for the broader goal of justice. I mean, I was looking for some indication that she took some leap of faith when she left her cushiony job at Gibson Dunn. Yes, there's risk when you open any business, but this situation smells more like it's trading one corporate job for another. But what I did love, and always love when reading about powerful women, is that she has drive and seems to never played the role of a victim. Take what her friend said about her in the article: "I don't think she's a victim or some scheming femme fatale, either. To me she's living on a kind of heroic register: she isn't going to let what other people think about her affect her choices, and there's real bravery in that." This is exactly the type of woman I view Martha Tharaud to be--the kind that won't let any person get under her skin. Or even if this person does get under her skin, she'd never let you know it. So awesome.

-- LizzieGomez- 22 Mar 2012

It's definitely true that Greenfield is not a "John Brown" kind of lawyer. She is clearly catering to wealthy and powerful people. She is not out there challenging the societal status quo in a particularly significant way (except possibly as being a woman who has started her own firm, but I don't know how uncommon that really is). I don't think this means that she is definitely not working for justice, however. I think the great freedom that lawyers who work for themselves have is the freedom to choose their clients. This means that she can choose to take on only clients that she sees as being on the "right" side of a dispute. If she only chooses to take on clients who (she thinks) have justice on their side and works hard to make sure that they win, then she is still working for justice in an important way. Divorces and custody disputes can get really ugly and can have a huge negative impact on the innocent people who are involved in them. If you are an innocent kid or spouse caught up in an ugly divorce or custody dispute, then the justice a good lawyer can get for you is a big deal, even if it doesn't have an impact on society beyond the single dispute. If Greenfield is approaching her work in this way, then I think she is more like Robinson than Cerriere. It seemed to me that Robinson wasn't that interested in trying to make society more just, but was interested in winning for the clients that he chose to represent (which, if their causes are just, is a way of making society more just). If Greenfield doesn't approach her business in that way, then she is more like Cerriere. We can't tell, based on what we know.

Katherine -- like you, I'm not a particularly entrepreneurial person. I'm someone who follows a path. And I think you're right that this article has some holes. Reading into it, though, I may have pieced together a couple instructive points on how Greenfield made it work, or at least how people like you and I could. First, starting a firm based on something she had such a personal connection to (for her, personal experience, for others maybe just a strong passion) not only helped her to be good at it, but helped her to get clients. (See client quote, “Let’s face it, when you’re going through a painful or messy or shameful-feeling period in your personal life, it’s comforting to be able to talk to someone who has been in those particular trenches.”) This is probably pretty obvious. Secondly, though, and I may be assuming too much here, it sounds like her partner Labby (who she calls her "fixer") played a big role in starting the firm and making it successful. It seems to me that, even if this isn't necessarily true for Greenfield Labby, a good way to achieve what Eben seems to be recommending (picking your own clients, working for justice, doing well and good at the same time) is to find a partner who has the entrepreneurial skills that you and I may find ourselves lacking. As Eben said, law school doesn't teach enough collaboration, but collaborating with people whose skills are complementary to yours may be exactly the way someone like you or me won't have to "pawn" our licenses and can still choose our own clients.

--Main.JanePetersen-28 Mar 2012

Like Jane, I've been struggling to reconcile what I know about myself (quite risk averse and not very entrepreneurial) with what it would take to have the kind of practice Eben has described in class and which I thought he summed up poignantly in another thread ( "Try, as a perceptual exercise," he said, "to imagine that the end of your work here isn't a job, but a law practice. Your practice is signified by your license, which entitles you to have and solicit clients. You drive your practice, so that it produces the mix of social benefit and material reward that you define as necessary. ...Thoughtful, adventurous people, who can see that there are many things amiss about the system that is dying—which made a few people wealthy, lots of people miserable, and society very little better off—will not only entertain but will actively seek out the road to a more humane, thoughtful, independent, socially fulfilling way of using a law license."

I like plans and paths and respond well to thinking that I'm on one, so I've struggled to find real-world models who are doing what Eben describes. I agree with the posts above that Greenfield probably isn't it. Yes, she is soliciting her own clients and likely using her license in a more independent and thoughtful way than she would have been had she stayed at a firm where her time was dictated by others. However, as Lizzie points out, even with the autonomy to define a mix of social benefit and material reward in her practice, the article doesn't suggest that she's too concerned with the former. Another example that I've found more helpful is the blog of this anonymous young lawyer who couldn't find legal work in a firm after graduating, accepted a non-legal job, but decided after six months of settling to quit and start his own practice. Above the Law recently posted about him, so many of you may have seen it, but for those who haven't his blog is here: Even though monetary constraints obligate him to accept whatever work he can generate, which is primarily criminal defense work, he is driving his own practice. Also of interest is how he runs his practice: cheaply, through use of a PO box and technology, and by building a network (most of his first cases came from referrals from judges with whom he had cultivated relationships).

The young lawyer isn't exactly what Eben describes, and his experience is not entirely predictive of what it would look like if any of us decided to go into practice for ourselves, but its interesting to learn from and helpful just to see that even though its not without struggle (I doubt any line of work is), it isn't impossible, either.

--Main.JessicaWirth-5 Apr 2012

Thanks for sharing that blog, Jess. I've been tracking his progress since you posted the link with a mix of admiration and unease. Though his motivation for striking out on his own (having failed to secure a job with a firm) might be a bit suspect, I am nevertheless impressed by the fact that he is making the attempt at all. Perhaps I am as impressed as I am because I cannot imagine myself, at this point in my life, doing what he is doing. I think that probably stems from the fact that I am also a bit lacking in entrepreneurial spirit and find comfort in pursuing a path that has been successfully carved out by others before me. Despite this, my apprehension is not something I feel I can fully justify and is something I would truly like to overcome. I have been trying to figure out the best way to deal with this anxiety. I wonder if Eben would encourage those of us with little/no background in business to take some business courses while in law school or if he feels that starting a firm can be done successfully without? My parents own/run their own business (not law related) with what seems to be relative ease, neither having gone to college, let alone business school. I do know that at times having their own business has caused them considerable amounts of stress, as it is only the two of them involved, but that they both greatly enjoy the level of control they have in making important/major life decisions. Having grown up in that atmosphere, I am a bit surprised at my willingness to pursue a career in which I am not in a position to make important decisions myself.

-- ElizabethSullivan - 12 Apr 2012

I am completely in alignment with all of the above commentary and have found this thread enlightening. Thus far, this class has been revelatory for me in that it has helped me to re-shape the contours of my legal career goal into something that entails leveraging my license to have a career that allows me to do good while doing well. However, while venturing out and starting a practice sounds like the way to arrive at that intersection of doing good and doing well, I've been struggling with moving beyond that idea to anything tangible or implementable.

Like everyone identified above, one obstacle fundamental to starting and running your own practice is the risk inherent in entrepreneurship, at least for those of us who are risk-averse, which I am. I too like paths and plans and 'career tracks' and I like the security that comes with thinking that I'm following such a path or plan or track.

But in addition to the obstacle of my risk aversion, I have really been struggling with how to take steps toward attempting to run my own practice. Sure, venturing out and running a practice sounds great, but I honestly have very little idea of what that entails. I found reading the young independent lawyer's blog posted above to be instructive with regard to how a recent law school graduate, by definition lacking in experience, goes about soliciting clients. The blog, and commentary from the posts above, have illuminated some practical ways to try to strike out on your own. Specifically, piecing together suggestions put forth in this thread - pursuing something about which you are personally passionate, taking Jane's point and finding a partner with the business acumen to make entrepreneurship seem a little less scary, and following the model this young lawyer describes and using networking to build a client base until your track record can do that for you - lays a rudimentary foundation of how to take real steps toward running an independent legal practice.

Taking a step back, I think this discussion resonated with me not only because it shed light on the "how" of potentially getting to the path Eben describes, but also because it helped me understand why I have spent so little time contemplating specific steps that must be undertaken to get myself on that path. I guess it's easier for me to maintain vague aspirations of a socially beneficial and materially rewarding career than to seriously contemplate how to transform those aspirations into reality, which seems scarier and more difficult. I'm hoping that recognition of this fear is the first step to actively overcoming it and moving from undefined goals to creative reflection on how to get there.

--Main.CourtneyDoak-10 Apr 2012

I'm sure that many of you also received the e-mail, but in case that isn't true and some of you are interested, LexisNexis is hosting a webinar with a panel of lawyers who have either started their own practices or joined small law firms. I don't know if it will be helpful, but it might be. Here's the relevant info:

"On Monday, April 23rd, LexisNexis will host a panel of attorneys who have successfully gone the solo or small firm route:

Christopher Anderson started as a New York City assistance district attorney and is now a managing partner for an eight-attorney firm in Athens, GA.

Johnathan Stone is a recent graduate who started a solo practice in Austin, TX after law school.

Richard Vanderslice began his career as a large law associate, and then left to be the managing partner of Richard L. Vanderslice PC in Philadelphia, PA.

Register for the April 23rd webcast, and see what it takes to start your own practice from attorneys who have done it. You'll also receive 200 LexisNexis Reward points for attending the webcast and completing the survey at the end."

-- ElizabethSullivan - 16 Apr 2012


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r12 - 22 Jan 2013 - 18:08:00 - IanSullivan
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