Seduced by the dark side.

Multiple choice quiz: according to the most recently available ABA figures (2000, but don’t cheat), 48% of lawyers in private practice work where?

a) in solo practice

b) in firms with up to 100 lawyers

c) in firms with more than 100 lawyers

The answer is (a) in solo practice. 38% work in firms with up to 100 lawyers, and only 14% in the big firms with more than 100 lawyers. Did you get it right?

You might wonder if this has changed since 2000. Probably not. Sure, there have been lots of mergers, but those turn big firms into really really big firms—not solo practices into big firms. In 1980, the largest law firm in the survey was 51 (!) lawyers. But there were 49% solo practitioners. So in 20 years, despite the arrival of the megafirm, roughly half of lawyers are still in solo practice.

If you go to UCLA or a similarly posh school, I’m guessing you got this question wrong. Because while UCLA grads go into private practice at about the same rate as lawyers at large (75% of all grads), about 60% of these go to firms of 100 or more lawyers and the other 40% to firms up to 100 lawyers. Pretty much none go solo. (This is according to a Powerpoint slide provided by a professor from last year. I can’t link it. You’ll just have to trust me.)

You could reasonably argue that the two pictures aren’t incommensurable: it’s more common for a lawyer to start in a big firm and open their own practice later on. So we’d expect to see recent grads go to big firms, and the balance shifting toward small firms and solo practices as time goes on.

Sure, but still. The view from a top-tier school is distorted. At UCLA, it seems like everyone goes to a big firm. But the farther down the US News rankings you go, the more selective the recruiting becomes. (I tried to get some figures from NALP for you but shit, it’s the last week of classes.)

So if these law school grads don’t go to big firms, where do they go? Well, many of them go to smaller no-name firms, and another group, lacking any better options, go solo.

Now this is funny, isn’t it? The idea of going solo out of law school chills a UCLA or USC graduate to the bone. But these folks are likely in much better position to succeed in a solo practice than a person from a 4th-tier school who’s pushed into it out of economic necessity more than preference.

Let me break the trend: yes, dear readers, after I pass the bar, I’ll be setting up a solo practice. (But don’t tell UCLA Career Services—I plan to keep reporting on their surveys as long as possible that I’m “unemployed”).

Now, this isn’t as momentous a decision as it might be for other law grads—I was self-employed for most of the time between college and law school, so the thought of having to generate my own client base and not having a steady paycheck doesn’t faze me. I’m used to that.

If anything, the idea of going to a firm and helping some fat partner upgrade his Mercedes is what fills me with loathing. (Not that there’s anything wrong with working in a big firm. Just be honest with yourself about what you will & won’t get out of it.)

I’ve been reading Jay Foonberg’s book on setting up a solo practice. If anyone has an inclination toward working solo in the next 5 years, I recommend getting this book now. (Sweet $40 discount if you’re an ABA student member and you buy it through their site.)

The book has two main purposes: to convince you that you can have a solo practice, and then to show you how to do it. The best point Foonberg makes is that having your own firm is a combination of three skills: practicing law, handling clients, and running an office. If you’re willing to develop those skills, you can be a solo attorney. Not rocket science, I know. But Foonberg is also good at making these tasks seem less intimidating, for those who are intimidated by them.

I’m not. Maybe I should be. Ah, so what? Can 48% of American lawyers be wrong? It’s not brain surgery. It’s just law. Have you ever tried designing a font? Now that’s hard.

18 Apr 07

Comments

Also, at a big law firm you don’t get a frosted-glass door with your name stenciled on it. Nor, for that matter, are you authorized to keep a bottle of scotch in your desk drawer.

Posted by: at April 20, 2007 11:42 AM

May I ask why you intend to report to UCLA Career Services that you are “unemployed?” Did I miss the sarcasm?

Posted by: at April 20, 2007 01:37 PM

It (trivially) pulls down the employment rates for the class of 2007, which is a metric the school reports to U.S. News and other authority figures.

If OCS had been helpful to me, I’d feel differently about helping boost their numbers. I’m sure the folks at OCS are very kind & well-meaning people, but they’ve got very little useful information for anyone who’s not going to a big firm.

When they heard I was interested in consumer protection law, they offered to send me a list of firms in the field and a list of UCLA alumni who practice consumer law. Okay, sounds good.

The firm list was basically a Martindale-Hubbell search results page. The alumni list contained a whopping nine names, though I was warned by Career Services “this list may be outdated”. Only one was in Los Angeles. Another was in Germany.

The truth is, with big firms soaking up so many UCLA grads, there isn’t much incentive for OCS to develop other competencies. In turn, UCLA students are less likely to be aware of other options. And so it goes.

To be fair, OCS does an on-campus small-firm recruiting event. But small firms don’t hire preemptively the way big firms do, so this arguably isn’t the right model for promoting small firms.

Posted by: MB at April 20, 2007 02:31 PM

Wow. So you’re doing it to penalize OCS (and all UCLA students) by harming our ranking? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

Posted by: at April 20, 2007 03:37 PM

You’re right, that’s cruel of me. Forget it. I’ll lie and say I’m employed, even though I can’t practice law until January.

Come to think of it, I’m probably the main reason UCLA hasn’t cracked the top 14 yet. Good thing this blog is ending.

Posted by: MB at April 20, 2007 03:51 PM

Good for you, MB, going into solo practice. It takes seriously balls to have the option to make guaranteed money being some big firm’s bitch and choose to take the risky path of hanging your own sign. I hope you have some contacts that will turn into potential clients. From your blog, it sounds like you have the attitude and aptitude for succeeding (unless, like biglaw, setting up a solo practice requires being a total ass-kisser).

Good luck!

Posted by: Bruce at April 20, 2007 03:52 PM

I don’t recall suggesting that your employment status would make any meaningful difference in UCLA’s ranking. I merely stated my belief that hiding your status from UCLA because you are angry is immature.

“But don’t tell UCLA Career Services—I plan to keep reporting on their surveys as long as possible that I’m ‘unemployed’).”

Moreover, I never encouraged you to lie. Quite the opposite. My suggestion is that rather than reporting “unemployed” you consider reporting “not seeking employment” and make a note that you are going solo. That’s all.

I understand that you’re angry about your experience, and feel compelled to do something about it. But please try not to damage the UCLA name any more than you absolutely have to. Some of us are still looking for jobs. Best of luck with your new practice.

Posted by: at April 20, 2007 04:22 PM

Ah, then I was unclear when you mentioned “harming our ranking”. I thought you were referring to, you know, harming our ranking.

If my experience with OCS was not representative of what others have shared with me, I wouldn’t mention it.

I’m not ‘angry’—I got exactly what I expected out of them. What I find comical is how they wait until I’m nearly out of here, find my name on some “status = unknown” list, and then send a flurry of emails with offers of help.

Actual suggestion from OCS: “I don’t know if you’ve started to try to gain experience in the field by working as a law clerk...”

If someone hasn’t considered “gaining experience” by the 10th week of their last semester, they have problems that OCS can’t fix.

...

PS to Bruce: my dear friends who are going to work at firms are not “bitches”. Go insult your own pals.

Posted by: MB at April 20, 2007 08:01 PM

matthewb @ ucla
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