Ode to Solo Practice
A Solo Experiment: Beginning a law practice.
Sasha E. Mackin graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School, and started Sasha Mackin Law in the summer of 2006, at http://www.sashamackinlaw.com/
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE One of the first things you hear in law school with regard to starting your own practice is something along the lines of, "they're impossibly unpredictable,�? "it's too hard to start on your own,�? and "they're notorious for failing.�? At a lazy backyard party the summer of my 2L year, I heard low voices talk about a couple of friends who had bravely started their own firm but within a year they had split apart, and presumably split the losses as well. Suffice it to say, I thought my path, though precisely unclear that second summer, involved an offer somewhere perhaps working with a government entity, public interest organization, or at least something that was at its core, a law firm. I would have a supervisor and co-workers and a commute.
That never happened.
After graduation in 2005 I spent the summer like many of my friends; taking overly expensive Bar/Bri classes, procrastinating, and then studying constantly in a fear and caffeine-fueled final few weeks before the dreaded Bar exam. A saturated legal market in Minnesota meant that the 1990s expectation of an offer of stability and obscenely large starting salary your second summer was unrealistic for most. I was once sitting in my library carrel reading an article in a law journal, and although I can't recall the substance of the argument, I remember marveling at the descriptions of Texas law students receiving sometimes tens of thousands of dollars in incentive bonuses to join firms, and often even new cars. That wasn't going to be my fate; in part because I wished to stay in Minnesota and even extraordinarily successful firms here no longer hand out $140,000-plus starting salaries to new lawyers, and in part because I wasn't attracted to working for a large firm in the first place. My impetus for entering law school was an intricate mix of an interest in helping the disadvantaged, my experience working as a homicide investigator for the Washington D.C. Public Defender Service, and a childhood realization that I couldn't become a veterinarian because I did not excel at math.
Like many of my colleagues who did not find positions prior to walking across the stage at graduation, post-Bar I applied to different opportunities from judicial clerking to small firms to Westlaw. In the midst of the tedium and frustration of applications, cover letters, and interviews, I was contacted by an immigration attorney to work on a project that would eventually lead to starting my own practice.
The catalyst for my law practice can be found in a series of fortunate events during law school. The first was taking immigration law class, rather by chance via our school's registration lottery system. Then the summer of my 2L year I found myself clerking for the Immigration Court in Bloomington, MN. As a 3L I participated in a year-long Immigration Clinic. My second semester I volunteered to write an appellate brief for a Clinic asylum client that had to be filed in three weeks. No one else wanted to work under that time crunch, but I figured in true student spirit that the payoff to taking the challenge was that I could get my clinic commitment out of the way and lighten my schedule my final semester. After all, hadn't I already managed to cram all of my classes into Tuesday-Thursday? Finishing an obligation early was a natural progression. What I hadn't expected was that I would win the appeal.
Winning, then losing Ultimately, the immigration judge presiding over the case, for whom I had clerked, sent the case back to the Board of Immigration Appeals to discuss an adverse Eighth Circuit ruling, and the BIA denied the appeal. But despite that eventual final denial, I had the earned the momentary distinction of winning my case before the Board.
Then 22-year veteran Immigration attorney Richard Breitman contacted me in August after discovering I had succeeded in that initial appeal to the BIA, and wanted to know if I would contract to write a brief to the Board for one of his immigration client's appeals. I accepted the project, eager to have some income as I was searching for a full-time position. That initial project turned into another brief--and another, and the feedback was extremely positive. It led to researching and writing immigration appellate briefs for other attorneys--attorneys who found me through referral by the initial attorney. What was not happening during that period, in spite of multiple interviews and applications, was the extension of an offer for an associate position or judicial clerkship.
It dawned on me, finally, that I had a very interesting practice under my fingers in everything but name. Even though I never once entertained the thought of having my own practice fresh out of law school, (frankly, the idea terrified me) here I had stumbled upon my own niche practice within the field of immigration law. Once I decided to make a go of it, my second revelation was that I had no clue how to start and run a practice.
Most law schools do not teach, which is unfortunate since the practice of law is itself a business. The University of Minnesota Law school offered "accounting for lawyers,�? which I did not take, and corporate law and advanced corporate law, both of which I did. Still, I had only a cursory idea of how to start a practice.
I knew my business model was ideal; I researched and wrote appellate briefs for immigration attorney-clients. I needed my laptop and my brain, and little else. I don't rent office space or equipment, and I don't have employees. I structured my practice so that I work directly with immigration attorneys, who maintain supervisory control and responsibility for the final product, and I don't undertake to represent immigration clients themselves; a fact that lessens my exposure to liability. The most important thing I did was find wonderful attorneys--Richard Breitman and Kim Hunter are two--to mentor me and give me advice and encouragement in running a solo practice. The biggest disadvantage to running your own practice, in my estimation, is the possibility that your professional growth will be retarded. After all, networking and decision-making remain entirely up to you, and unless you seek out mentors and opportunities to learn from experienced colleagues, you won't have parity with counterparts who have those occasions built-in to their firm setting. On the other hand, your associate colleagues likely won't enjoy the pleasure and experience associated with the responsibility of making every decision in the operation of a law practice.
My experience in forming a solo law practice was that I was already doing the work of a solo practitioner, but I was not holding myself out as one. My decision to "make a go of it�? was a decision to own my work and declare myself a firm. I had to decide what business entity to form, for what taxes I would be liable based on my business structure, and how to purchase insurance. These decisions were unique to my particular circumstances and comfort level, and ones I talked over with many friends and colleagues.
The most fun I have had is in choosing a name for my practice, creating my own website, and hiring a designer for my logo and business cards--the artistic accoutrements of legal practice. I don't enjoy periodic incidents of instability when a project doesn't come through, figuring out my tax liability, or paying for my own health insurance. Supporting and loving friends and family are probably as essential as professional mentors.
Like I did, perhaps you have no interest in starting your own practice--especially straight out of law school. I believe my success was in large part due to the niche market in which I found myself. Attorneys have told me that my practice is the "wave of the future�? for immigration practice. Whether or not that is true, compartmentalizing my practice has meant limiting my knowledge to a manageable level for a new attorney, and increases the speed at which I can become an expert in my field. Significant to this type of law, I must not only have excellent research and writing skills, but a love of appellate work. The daily toil of my practice is largely confined to the record and a computer screen, and may be a poor fit for an attorney interested in litigation or client contact. Others in my position have expanded their practices to be full-service immigration law firms.
The truth is it takes law firms years to become established and settled, which in turn requires confidence and patience. Even a failed practice is an exercise in reward--one acquires skills in administration, leadership, creativity, self-motivation, and organization. If you already know that you have the desire to start a solo practice, you should indulge the luxury of preparatory research before taking the plunge, from what your business plan is to whether you want to invest in management software. Yet, finding yourself in your own law practice works too.