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When I graduate from law school should I make my own practice, or should I join a firm?

I want to specialize in criminal justice #criminal-justice #law #lawyer #attorney

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Russell’s Answer

Hi Sanaii,

Personally, I don't believe law school prepares you to actually "practice" law. It gives you the tools, knowledge, and way of thinking that will help make you a successful lawyer, but until you starting working and practicing law it's mostly an academic exercise. While I do know people who started their own law firm right out of law school, I would argue that there is a great deal to be learned once you graduate and much of that learning can only happen under the guidance of another attorney. Working for a law firm first will give you the practical, hands on experience that law school simply cannot provide.

Best of luck!

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Chase’s Answer

You should definitely get experience first before starting your own practice. It is very difficult to start a practice directly out of law school because you will need an initial cash investment to start up the firm and figure out where your clients will come from. However, as Michael stated above, law schools do not teach lawyers how to run a business and in general, law firms are not the best run organizations for business purposes. If you start your own firm out of school, it is imperative that you have a mentor that can guide you through the process as running a law firm and practicing law are two different things. However, the benefit of starting your career at a firm, clerkship, or government agency is that you will get actual experience in practicing law under the guidance and leadership of an experienced lawyer. You will get great legal experience in both law firms and government agencies, but if your goal is open your own practice, you need to go the law firm route so that you can learn the business side of practice. If you go the law firm route, learn as much as you can about marketing, accounting, file management software, etc. I have several friends and former colleagues who worked in either government agencies or private practice before starting their own firms and both have done well. Thus, to gain experience and learn the business, I highly recommend that you work at a firm for 3-5 years before starting your own firm!

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Matthew L.’s Answer

Hi Sanaii. Great question.

I would echo what Lucas and Jenna suggested. However, I would also add this advice.

It is nearly impossible to tell from law school classes what the actual practice of law is going to be like. There are other options for you besides working in a firm or starting your own firm. Without any experience, you really won't know if you want to work for an existing firm, start your own firm, work for a corporation or for a government agency. So I suggest you get as much experience in as many practice areas while in law school as you possible can.

While in law school you have a lot of options to work for firms and courts. Try these options to maximize your experiences:

  • Work for a Prosecutor's Office - You have an interest in criminal law. So did I when I was in law school. Most states have a summer program in which you can actually work as a prosecuting attorney under the supervision of a real prosecutor while you're still in law school. I did this when I was a law student in Michigan. For the summer between my 2nd and 3rd years, I got to work as a district court prosecutor in a county prosecutor's office. I got a HUGE amount of experience in that summer. I had my own case load and came to work every day and went to court. I wrote and argued motions, conducted preliminary felony exams, tried a ton of bench trials, interviewed witnesses, brokered plea deals, and even got to do a couple first chair jury trials on my own in district court (drunk driving cases). I also got to second chair a few felony trials in circuit court (attempted murder--the best man stabbed the groom at the wedding--it was awesome). The judges, prosecutors, police and court staff were all wonderful to me and the other interns (there were three of us and we actually got paid for our work). I had a lot of fun and learned an amazing amount. I also found out I didn't want to be a prosecutor or do criminal law for a living. Check with your law school and with some local county prosecutor/district attorney offices to see if they offer these programs and how you can qualify and be selected.
  • Clerk for a Firm That Does Criminal Work - Lots of firms, large and small, have criminal practices. Get a clerkship with one of these firms. Ideally, find one that also has other areas of practice so you can get experience beyond just criminal law (family law, estate planning, corporate law, tax, etc.). Try to get paid for it but do it for free if you have to. You can do this during the school year, but don't work too many hours. Focus on studies too. Get exposure to other areas of their practice. Even if it's just following lawyers to court and watching them or sitting in on client meetings. Here in Michigan, a lot of smaller cities don't have the budget to have their own city attorney office. So what they do is hire private firms to do prosecution and other city legal work. You can find these firms and work for them to get a feel for what it's like to do criminal law. Frequently a clerkship at a law firm will lead to a job offer upon graduation, or, if not an offer, a bunch of leads to other jobs that your mentor and his/her partners know at other firms. Hint: Find a great mentor--see below.
  • Get a Judicial Clerkship - To really see how the sausage is made, you may also want to try to get a judicial clerkship. Most court systems have student clerkships available. You'll see up close and personal what judges do, how a trial lawyer spends his time and how everything works behind the scenes. Though not directly relevant to whether you should open your own firm or work at one, this will really show you a lot of what you need to know to have a successful firm. If you want to be a criminal attorney--and a good one--knowing how the court system actually works (court clerks, judges, probation, prosecutors, police, jails) is absolutely vital. You don't learn this in law school. You will also make some crucial connections with prosecutors, judges, clerks (who are the most important people in the building), and attorneys. These connections can lead to mentors, criminal appointments to get your practice started, job leads, and other networking opportunities.
  • Take a Law Clinic Class - My senior year of law school I participated in a class called the Urban Law Clinic. In that class, we basically got our own clients, mainly criminal defendants who had no money to pay a lawyer. We represented them under the supervision of our professor and the judge. I got do a bunch of bench trials, file and argue motions, do a jury trial, and negotiate a bunch of plea bargains with real prosecutors. This is the flipside of the internship at the prosecutor's office. Great experience and lots of it in a hurry,

And lastly, get the best grades you possibly can. If your grades are just mediocre, you'll have fewer options once you get out than if you had great grades. If you want do high-end white collar defense, you'll probably need to get a job a bigger firm to learn the ropes. That will take great grades.

Do what you can to participate in extra curricular activities. Try to get on law review or another publication. Since it looks like you have an interest in criminal law, that probably means you are interested in court room and trial work. Enter moot court competitions. Your school probably has internal competitions open to any one and regional or national competitions to which your school will send a team. You'll have to try out for those, so you have to be really good. I got my first job as a trial attorney with an insurance company because I won a moot court competition at the school and the guy who hired me saw me argue in the final round.

It's a good idea to work for a firm for a few years before you start your own firm. Find a firm that has a good mentorship program. You need to find mentors throughout your career at every stage. Find an experienced attorney who does the kind of law you are interested in, who will really take you under his or her wing and show you the ropes. There are just too many ways to commit malpractice if you don't find a mentor to show you the ropes before you start representing real clients.

Get good at networking. Start going to bar association events and meeting lawyers. It doesn't matter if you're just a student. Most bar association have student memberships that are cheap. Networking is the best way to get to the people who can give you a job or connect you with someone they know who can.

If you are entrepreneurial and do decide to start your own firm, I also highly recommend that you learn something about business first. Lawyers, as a rule, are terrible business people. They don't know how to actually run a business when they start a firm. Knowing the law is not the same as running a business. Use your time at a firm to learn how a business runs. Learn how to read a balance sheet and a cash flow statement. Take an accounting class or two. Learn marketing and sales. The actual practice of law is only about 20% of the job. The other 80% is getting clients in the door every month, getting them to pay on time, managing staff, dealing with vendors, and managing the money. If you can't do this stuff at least moderately well, no matter how good a lawyer you are your practice will not survive. Or if it does survive, it will be an emotional roller coaster where you are always sweating payroll and where your next client is coming from.

You may have gone to law school (like me) because you don't like numbers. You don't have to love numbers, but if you want to start your own practice it's important to at least get comfortable with them. Business is numbers. Good luck!

Matthew L. recommends the following next steps:

Look into internships, clerkships and other opportunities to get as much exposure to actual law practice as you can. If you're interested in criminal law, look at prosecutor's offices, judicial clerkships, law clinics, and firms that specialize in criminal law.
Get good grades in law school and do extra curriculars like moot court and law review. If you get great grades, you will maximize your options when you get out. Big firms, small firms and courts all look for top students first.
Find mentors. Find multiple mentors. Find law professors who know about the areas of law you like and become friends with them. They are smart and have connections. Find practicing attorneys who specialize in the areas you are interested in. Ask them to be your mentor. Follow them to court. Ask questions.
Network like crazy. Join the local bar association as a student. Go to events. Mingle. Get to know real attorneys and judges. They have the jobs you need or know people who do. Networking is the most vital skill you need to learn to be a successful attorney if you want to work in a firm or have your own firm.
Work for a few years at a firm before you start your own shop. Practicing law is hard and, unlike most businesses, if you screw something up that's malpractice. If you're a criminal lawyer, that means your client may go to jail. Learn the ropes of practicing law first. Also learn how to run a business. A law practice is, first and foremost, a business. You need to know some accounting, people management skills, marketing and sales or your firm won't survive and thrive. But business is easy if you can survive law school. You got this.

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Jenna’s Answer

You can do either! While you are in law school, you can make sure you want to practice criminal law, you could change your mind. You could interview with small and large firms, and see if you like it. You could always work for a firm for a while then go out on your own. Maybe you will find some colleagues while in law school and you will form your own firm! Don't think of it as either-or, but be open to learning about what solo practice and firm practices have to offer, and when the time is right, you will be ready to make an informed decision.

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Richard’s Answer

My wife is an attorney so I asked her this question. She said although there are huge benefits in starting your own firm, that she thinks it is helpful to start in a small firm. The practice of law is nothing like law school. If you are going to start your own firm, you definitely need a good mentor. Joining groups is a good way to get to know experts to consult as well. For example, my wife is a bankruptcy attorney so she joined our local group as well as the National Association of Bankruptcy Attorneys. This groups has been helpful because she can ask questions on-line to get help.

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Donna’s Answer

I would go with a firm first. There is so much to learn and it is nice to have other attorneys around to guide you and go over issues and cases. You might not have that access to experienced attorneys if you are going solo. When you figure out what you want to do with your law degree, then you can go solo. The others above have given some great tips too.

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Phi’s Answer

The great thing about law school is that you will not be locked in to one career path and you will have options to choose from throughout your career. You don't need to feel pressured now to decide if you want to start a practice or if you want to join a firm. But it's good that you are thinking about that now.

I personally chose to go the firm route. Having not had a full-time job before graduating from law school, I thought it best that I work for a larger firm. I liked the structure, the training program, and the mentorship that I received working for a firm. I had a few internships and volunteer positions during law school but that was different from actual practice. I also did not have experience running my own business or marketing my own business so that was another reason I did not start my own practice.

There are people who do start their own firms out of law school and do very well. I think you have to know yourself as a person and what you are comfortable with. Some people are self-starters and have great motivation to start their own firm and know so from the time they enroll in law school. Others try firm life and decide it's not for them and go out on their own after.

You have those options available to you once you get your JD and pass the bar. There are also some financial constraints if you have law school or undergraduate loans to pay after law school and there will need to be the initial investment to start up the firm and all the overhead costs. So things to consider.

The more experience you can get at any point in your education, the better. The more you can get out there and see what fields there are and what types of firms/organizations there are, the better you will understand what you want and you can decide your path from there. Good luck!

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Lucas’s Answer

it is a good thing trying to know about your stand in making these options but i beleive every great thing starts small . my advice is that you join afirm to master and learn from the ongoing law practitioners with tutors in law firms, this will give you a better insight to build a personal fashion of law aswell trend better before getting your own firm