The Young and the Restless: the Inevitable Trend of New Graduates towards Solo Practice

I.    Introduction

The word is out–as of 2007, big law firms have boosted their starting salaries to as high as $160,000. [1]  Moreover, NALP has released its employment statistics for the Class of 2006, boasting a 90% employment rate for new graduates. [2]  If these statistics sound too good to be true, it's because they are.  The much publicized "BigLaw" salary only accounts for 14% of new-graduate salaries. [3]  In fact, 42% of new graduates last year received less than $55,000. [4]  What does this mean?  It means that graduates, who don't attend top-tier law schools and don't score at the top of their class, are struggling to find jobs that will cover both living expenses and law-school debts; which can exceed well over $100,000.  With job prospects looking grim, many recent graduates are turning to solo practice, hoping to create the dream career and salary that nearly dissolved when reality first set in.

II.    Juris Doctorate Degree = Job?

One of the reasons new graduates are considering solo practice as a serious option is because solo practice is sometimes the only option for those wishing to practice.  According to the American Bar Association, 43,883 Juris Doctorate Degrees were awarded to the Class of 2006, up from 37,909 Juris Doctorate Degrees to the Class of 2002. [5]  However, the inflation rate of the legal services industry is moving less than half as fast as the broader economy. [6]  With not enough lawsuits to go around, new lawyers are forced to put on their entrepreneurial coats and take matters into their own hands.

As of 2006, 71% of new graduates started work in firms of fifty or fewer lawyers or in non-firm settings. [7]  If this percentage wasn't staggering enough, many of the lawyers in this group found themselves at a firm of three or less. [8]  In other words, a vast majority of graduates are finishing law school with outrageous debt and a narrow job market.  The entrepreneurial coat isn't optional anymore; it's mandatory.

III.    BigLaw: the Light at the End of the Tunnel

For the lucky few graduates with a future in BigLaw, an entrepreneurial coat seems more like a closet decoration than anything else.  The partnership track is clear, the salary is large, and the office has a window with a view.  So why then are even the top law students considering solo practice?  For starters, this is because high-profile cases, such as E.E.O.C. v. Sidley Austin, are bringing BigLaw problems out into the open. [9]  In the Sidley Austin case, partners were at risk of being demoted to "of counsel" status as they got close to the firm's mandatory retirement age or no longer generated enough business to justify their draw. [10]  As a result, at the end of long and distinguished careers, partners weren't treated any better than ordinary employers.

Another reason new graduates are becoming more hesitant to embark on a career in BigLaw is because of the work itself.  As Carolyn Elefant, a leader in solo-practice consulting, puts it, "opportunities for associates to gain hands-on litigation experience have dried up as substantially more cost-conscious litigants (and their insurers) favor settlement rather than the expense and risk of trial.  Moreover, because of the pressure for firms to generate revenue, it is no longer profitable for them to handle the types of small matters once tossed off to young attorneys to get their feet wet." [11]  What does this leave new graduates with?  It leaves them with an unhealthy number of billable hours, filled with monotonous document review and memo writing.

Though some new graduates are still inclined to sacrifice their personal lives for partnership, many others are questioning the viability of the BigLaw business model in today's society.  Today, large firm partners are working just as much over-time as their associates because of the cost pressures to cover overhead. [12]  It used to make sense to have a variety of lawyers in one place, but with the Internet, an individual can very easily find a lawyer that specializes in his or her legal problem without having to contact a large firm. [13]  When it comes to BigLaw, the light at the end of the tunnel may never get closer.  Solo practice, on the other hand, seems to offer better hours, more practical experience, and a wide-range of clientele.

IV.    Solo Practice: Tricks of the Trade

Even if flying solo offers the most favorable environment, are new graduates prepared to run their own practice?  A decade ago the answer was, probably not, but many law schools are beginning to change their old ways and teach students not only how to think like a lawyer, but how to be one.  Today, a growing number of law schools are placing emphasis on the practical aspects of the profession by including courses in trial and pre-trial practice, as well as non-litigation topics like arbitration, mediation, negotiation, and transactional drafting. [14]  On the entrepreneurial side, schools like Harvard Law School have added professional service courses that focus on how to run law firms and law practices. [15]  Outside the classroom, law schools now offer strong clinical programs, giving students the opportunity to work with clients and solve real problems. [16]

Outside of the law school, many organizations offer advice for new graduates seeking to work for themselves.  The American Bar Association's General Practice, Solo, & Small Firm section boasts 30,000 practitioners, and provides members with a variety of relevant resources such as subscriptions to various publications, discounts on books and legal research tools, access to various discussion lists, and more. [17]  Furthermore, Carolyn Elefant, who has had her own solo practice since 1993, started MyShingle.com in 2002, which offers an interactive blog (discussion forum) that is used to disseminate information and encourage discussion on various solo and small law practice-related topics. [18]  Solo practice for new graduates is no longer an idea; it is a realistic possibility.

V.    Conclusion

Solo practice is becoming a more viable option than ever before.  After twelve years of grade school, four years of college, and three years of law school, new graduates are restless to use their newly-obtained skills.  Solo practice offers an opportunity, and for some the only opportunity, to directly solve legal problems and make a living at the same time.  If flying solo really does offer both a gratifying work and personal life, the trend of new graduates towards this business is more than just predictable–it's inevitable.

Endnotes

[1] Amir Efrati, Hard Case: Job Market Wanes for US Lawyers, Wall St. J., Sep. 24, 2007, available athttp://online.wsj.com/article/SB119040786780835602.html.

[2] Press Release, Market for New Law Graduates Up, NALP, July 25, 2007,http://www.nalp.org/press/details.php?id=70.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Amir Efrati, Hard Case: Job Market Wanes for US Lawyers, Wall St. J., Sep. 24, 2007, available athttp://online.wsj.com/article/SB119040786780835602.html.

[6] Id.

[7] Press Release, Market for New Law Graduates Up, NALP, July 25, 2007,http://www.nalp.org/press/details.php?id=70.

[8] Michael Bowden, The New Breed of Law Grad, Lawyers USA, Feb. 17, 2008,http://www.lawyersweeklyusa.com/nlsgs1.cfm.

[9] Carolyn Elefant, Solo Practice — Looking Back, Looking Forward, MyShingle.com, Feb. 10, 2008,http://www.myshingle.com/2008/02/articles/book/authors-cut-solo-practice-looking-back-looking-forward/.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Michael Bowden, The New Breed of Law Grad, Lawyers USA, Feb. 17, 2008,http://www.lawyersweeklyusa.com/nlsgs1.cfm.

[15] Sandhya Bathija, When Hanging a Shingle, Solos are Reluctantly Solo, Nat. L. J., Apr. 5, 2007,http://www.law.com/jsp/law/sfb/lawArticleSFB.jsp?id=1175677438183.

[16] Id.

[17] Jane Edwards, Thinking About Going Solo? Do Your Research First, Mich. Bar J., Feb. 2005,available at http://michbar.org/journal/pdf/pdf4article847.pdf.

[18] Id.

Comments are closed.