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