When Recent Grads Go Solo
California Lawyer

When Recent Grads Go Solo

May 2013

illustration by Marc Rosenthal

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San Francisco attorney Aaron Dawson didn't expect to set up a solo practice straight out of law school, but after graduating from Santa Clara University School of Law in 2011 and taking both the California and Oregon state bar exams, that's exactly what he found himself doing. "There are two reasons," he says. "The first is that I like the idea of being in control of all my own clients and cases. The second is that there was an utter lack of jobs."

With the employment rate for recent graduates remaining grim - only 55 percent of the 2011 graduating class was able to get a long-term job that required bar passage - the number of attorneys who choose to go straight into solo practice is creeping up. As they plunge into practice for the first time, new lawyers like Dawson are developing resourceful ways to mitigate their lack of legal experience. Nonetheless, starting out solo is not a move that Karen Goodman, a ten-year veteran of solo practice in Sacramento, recommends.

"You're going to learn what to do as a lawyer and how to act and how to behave and make judgment calls because of experience," says Goodman, who is also a member of the State Bar of California Board of Trustees. "If you're on your own and you don't have a mentorship, it's going to be tough."

Luckily for Dawson he had mentors on hand ready to help with advice and even some work: his attorney parents and a law school friend, Christopher A. Barnett, who graduated the year before Dawson and also went into solo practice.

"I couldn't have possibly done this without my particular circumstances," says Dawson. "Knowing a variety of established lawyers was a great confidence booster because I knew that I would have at least some contract work relatively quickly."

Barnett didn't have readily available mentors, but he knew the basics of running a business after working in IT sales for more than eight years. When he needed help on a particular case, he would find a few solo or small-firm attorneys with the expertise he sought and simply ask them for advice. And when ethical quandaries arose, he would call the State Bar's Ethics Hotline. "If I need to educate myself in a new area of law, I'll do that without billing the client," he says. A year and a half into his practice, he can bill 60 percent of his time.

Like many new attorneys going solo, Jared M. Cohen is concerned about malpractice suits. "It absolutely crosses your mind anytime it's the first time you're doing something," says Cohen, a graduate in Golden Gate University's class of 2011 who is building a personal injury practice in San Francisco geared towards cyclists. "Things that should take me ten minutes take me a couple of hours because I have to be certain."

Sacramento attorney Jason W. Burgess, who turned to a solo law practice as a second career in 2005 after working as a construction subcontractor, offers encouragement to those just starting out. He says several factors allowed him to succeed after graduation from McGeorge School of Law at University of the Pacific. His wife's income relieved some of the pressure, and he sought out office space in a building with an experienced attorney who "was kind enough to act as a resource for me. [He] provided insight and referrals, and he was very helpful," says Burgess.

For Dawson, investing in his own practice feels like it's paying off. "I think I'm breaking even about now, but good things seem to be coming."

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