Starting Your Own Law Practice is a Leap of Faith
by Jamison Koehler on May 8, 2010
In another lifetime, I wrote short stories. Five or six of these stories eventually found their way into obscure literary journals, with one or two still floating around somewhere on the Internet. The largest circulation of any of the journals that published me was probably two or three thousand readers at the most. With the exception of one story for which I received $500, my compensation was a couple of free copies of the issue in which the story appeared. It was not profitable. It didn’t make me famous. But I enjoyed it. And I found that it served as an outlet for what was apparently some pent-up creativity.
People warned me at the time I started law school that the law would sap all of this creativity out of me. It didn’t. It just channeled this creativity in a different direction. My wife bemoans the fact that I have not written a single word of fiction since my first day at law school. I’m thinking the literary world will survive.
Apart from the acceptance itself, the part I liked best about having a story published was receiving the printed version in the mail. It was gratifying to think that you had taken something out of nothing, something in your head alone, and turned it into something tangible, a finished product, a printed story that other people could read. A piece of paper and a pen were all you needed to do this.
Having a story published was completely different from the satisfaction I derived from my then day job at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in D.C. As director of the international technology office there, I worked with developing countries in establishing their environmental programs. The work was laudable, and I could take pride in what I did. But the work I was actually engaged in – negotiating within our own government for the necessary funds and working with the host government in launching the actual programs — was at least three or four steps removed from any actual results; for example, clean drinking water for people in Southeast Asia, Central America or parts of Africa.
Starting your own law practice is much more akin, I believe, to getting a piece of fiction published. Yes, there are certain basic requirements. You need the legal research service, the malpractice insurance, the cell phone, the computer, the scanner, and all the rest. But, like the writing, the service you provide to the client comes mostly from out of your head. You are thinking, researching, and problem-solving. You are advising, counseling, arguing, and cajoling. You are advocating. And none of that – none of what you really need and none of what you offer — is tangible.
The leap of faith part comes with the belief that you can take your law degree and your license and turn it into something tangible. You need to believe, first, that people will hire you. You need to believe that you can take that something in your head and turn it into dollars. You then convert those dollars into food and a place to live and clothing.
Making the leap of faith easier is the realization that you can use your legal skills to improve people’s lives. At EPA, I could never quite make the connection between the work I did and the quality of the air, water, or land in a far-off country I had visited maybe once or twice during the planning phases. By contrast, the work you do through a law practice has direct and immediate results for the people who hire you — a “not guilty” verdict or nolle prosequi when you are successful; a disposition, a conclusion of the legal proceedings at the very least, when you are not.
You know it has direct and immediate results because you are standing right next to the client when the verdict is announced. You can see and feel the client’s reaction. You can see and feel the reaction of his family and friends in the gallery behind you. He may be walking out of court that day. He may be spending years in jail. It depends on you. It depends on the legal strategy that has, like the plot of a short story, gradually taken shape in your mind out of nothingness. The strategy is like the view through a camera, the images first blurred and now sharp, the colors brighter and more vibrant with every rotation, every turn of the lens.
One client turns into two clients and then a stream of clients. You take the leap. From nothing emerges something.
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