I have a Law Degree: Now what?
Congratulations! So you’ve struggled through what feels like fifty-eight years of higher education, and you’ve finally won the degree in law you craved for so long. Now, it’s sitting on your mantle in a golden frame collecting dust–a symbol of what you can do when you put your mind to it, but not necessarily an indicator of what you will do.
You’re probably asking yourself: “What now? How do I start my legal career?” You have a number of options and it all depends on a number of factors unique to your own aspirations. First thing’s first: should you join a firm, or would you be better off opening a private practice?
It’s not an easy choice for anyone.
One of the greatest struggles we went through when my partner and I opened our own practice was deciding the area of law in which to focus. After a lot of healthy debate (and conflict), we ended up in personal injury when we opened our first office in Los Angeles.
Research Demographics before Locating
Part of the reason we chose to stay in the city were favorable demographics. The greater metropolitan area is home to nearly four million people, and that means a lot of injuries. A lot of injuries lead to a lot of cases. Keep in mind that the size of the city doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of cases for every practice area, though. If you specialize in discrimination litigation, you’d be better off working out of southern cities with more conservative populations over Los Angeles or New York City, where the number of actionable cases are fewer.
Demographics can make or break your new practice, and Los Angeles definitely propelled ours forward. Do some research. Find out what kind of legal entities are in your area, and then find out who manages them and how long they’ve been around. You might realize there’s an opening for exactly the area of law in which you want to specialize right at home.
A lot of us want to be our own boss, but make no mistake: it’s not going to be easy, especially if you’re already bogged down under a mountain of debt or mistakenly open your doors for people in a neighborhood with unfavorable demographics. For these reasons, be very, very careful before you choose to open your own practice.
Most graduates who continue to tackle the law will end up joining a firm. More than half of those will end up bouncing from one to another in their first four years, making this potentially the most difficult decision you’ll face. Don’t waste your time at a lesser-known firm if you can help it. Find a firm that future employers will know, trust, and respect. If you need to make a move later on, this can reduce the headache. Spend time thinking about which practice area suits you best, because transitioning from one to another can be an impossible task if you haven’t chosen a flexible firm.
The Power of Networking
Sometimes, the choice comes down to who you know and who you don’t. We don’t always walk alone, which brings us to the most important topic of all. Before you even sought your degree, you probably met a few people who were willing to help you out along the way. Don’t forget about them! Do what you can to keep past relationships intact, and look for ways to reach out, help others, and more than that to let them know you’re still around. If you’re in their thoughts, they’ll inevitably open up a world of new opportunity down the road.
Regardless of whether or not you begin your own practice or join up with another firm, build relationships with people you can trust. Volunteer your free time and let people in your communities know you’re out there. You’ll be surprised at what even the most unlikely friends will offer you throughout your career. Some of my best clients were referred to us by a mutual friends whose relationship we nurtured and maintained since our college days.
Never forget: what goes around comes around. Be kind, be respectful, and be professional. Knowing the right people and strengthening the right relationships can make you more comfortable with the decisions you make throughout your career.
Don’t Forget to Ask for Advice
My partner and I struggled to build our own firm in the beginning. Law school taught us a great many things, but organizing a business from the ground up is different. Not long after launching, we attended a seminar with a lineup of speakers who shared advice on the exact types of problems we were facing: delegation of responsibility, billing practices, networking, and even financial planning to help us juggle the debt from law school with the new expenditures common to owning a business.
It made us both realize something crucial to our eventual success. It wasn’t that we weren’t asking questions or didn’t have the necessary expertise to succeed. It was that we weren’t asking the right questions of the right people. We both had mentors from law school, but more often we shared our thoughts and concerns with people and colleagues who were in the same boat instead of the people who had traversed those waters ten, twenty, even thirty years ago.
Don’t be afraid to approach the people who taught you, because they always have more to offer. Don’t be afraid to approach people who are no longer in the business of building a firm in order to ask them the keys to success in your field of law. They know the answers, and they’re willing to share. You have all the tools you need to succeed. You just need to use them.