Wednesday, January 1, 2014

It's 2014, not 2004 (or 1994)

I received a link to this widely-circulated “Checklist for Opening Your First Law Office” recently, and was utterly amazed at how dated it was. The original piece was first published in 1999, but it is still being used today, seemingly without any updates, as advice to newly-minted lawyers on how to get their solo practice up and running after passing the bar exam.  And it's a glaring example of the kind of information law school applicants (and students) are still taking as gospel today, fifteen years on.

The checklist appears to have been written for new attorneys living in a world where clients grow on trees, and where lawyers are as rare as unicorn tears; financial analysis, business plans, marketing strategies and so forth are barely even mentioned, and the checklist invites the reader instead to:

Consider the Area in Which You Wish to Practice
1. Where are your friends and relatives?

2. Pick a growing, rather than decaying, area. Watch out for blight and decay. Consider possible changes in economic patterns due to escalating energy costs.

3. Do you want an urban, rural or suburban practice? Analyze whether you can really be happy in a rural or small-town atmosphere or in an urban atmosphere. This is a matter of your personality and background.

As if seeing your mom once a week is truly more important than figuring out whether the market is saturated with lawyers in that area.  And as if you can pick where you’ll be happiest living and automatically a successful law practice will follow you there.

The checklist goes on to ask new grads to:

Consider Quality of Life Factors
1. Quality of professional life: What kinds of cases and clients can you expect to get where you will practice?

2. Quality of social life: Do you want proximity to museums, symphonies, young intellectual people, etc.?

3. Quality of atmosphere: Is there smog and pollution, or clean air and water?

4. Quality of recreational life: Do you want proximity to swimming, skiing, boating, hiking, hunting, etc.?

5. Quality of home life: Is the area safe for your spouse and children? Will you be afraid to go out at night or to sleep with the windows open?

6. Quality of economic life: What kind of money can you earn there?

Smog?  Skiing?  Symphonies and museums?  Boating?  Leaving the windows open at night?  Really?  All of this is before even one mention of whether there are any clients in that area, or any need for another attorney.  (Perhaps this is a question that doesn’t even need to be asked though, because the answer is, “No, there is no need for another attorney here.”)

And point 6 above, "What kind of money can you earn there?" That's about as deep as the financial analysis goes in this checklist.  Basically telling you to pluck a figure out of thin air and run with it.

Continuing on:

Consider Miscellaneous Factors

1. Proximity of office to public transportation for staff and clients.

2. Proximity to eating places for client entertainment and meetings.

3. Proximity to law library.

4. Proximity to major anticipated clients.

5. Type of practice you are planning. For personal injury, worker’s compensation, and criminal law, proximity to courts and administrative hearing locations or jails may be important.

6. Proximity to other lawyers for possible consultation, referral of overflow work, or library sharing.

7. Will office and building be accessible for people on crutches or in wheelchairs, or elderly people?

At last, clients start to appear on the radar.  But “anticipated clients”?  As if one can simply look at a list of corporations and decide who you’ll accept as a client rather than the other way around.  If only starting a practice was that simple.  Even back in 1999, the demand for legal services did not exceed the supply of lawyers.  In 2014, demand for legal services is so small compared to the massive number of lawyers that the very mention of “overflow work” is laughable.  It's all written as if clients are the least of the new attorney's worries.  As if the new attorney should be more concerned about entertaining them (who'll pay for that?), rather than finding them in the first place.  The new attorney needs to be told how to find clients, not how to wine and dine them.  No, scratch that.  The new attorney need to be told that there aren't any clients in the first place.

The checklist contains a huge amount of items to consider when renting space, although not one of them is “can you afford it?”  Then the checklist moves on to marketing, with hot suggestions that nobody has ever thought of before, including mailing your law school classmates, your family, professional associations, etc.

There’s no mention of technology whatsoever.  The checklist suggests that you should plan on waiting up to two months for your letterhead to be printed and delivered.  It speaks at length about telephones, including dedicated fax lines and dictation equipment.  It suggests that you “consider getting a domain name and e-mail addresses if you want to attract out-of-state and international clients.”  Yes, it's that outdated yet still being circulated as guidance for new attorneys.

And then we’re on to furnishing your office, still with next to no analysis of if you can even afford to do this in the first place.  Get a photo of your family for your desk.  “Your desk should be at least six feet wide with overhang in front, and treated to protect against scratches and spills. Consider putting your computer or keyboard or monitor on a separate desk behind you or alongside you.”  Your wastebasket should match the desk.  Magazine rack.  Umbrella stand.  Yup, an umbrella stand.  I'm surprised it doesn't suggest one made from the lower leg and foot of an endangered species - hippo perhaps, or rhino.  Maybe elephant.  That's how outdated this checklist is.

Office equipment.  Today’s solo can survive on a laptop, a smartphone and a printer.  But the checklist suggests otherwise, and advises that you purchase a copy machine, word processing systems – “This requires serious study. Don’t depend on vendors to advise you. Consult secretaries, office administrators, and other lawyers” – standalone fax machines etc.  And office supplies:

Ask your secretary or another lawyer’s secretary to help you make up an initial order list. Consider such items as staplers, paper clips, scissors, two-hole punch, three-hole punch, telephone message pads, rubber stamps with inking pads, scratch pads, legal pads, paper cutter, felt-tip markers, staple removers, adhesive tape, desk calendars, pens and pencils, manila envelopes, Rolodex™ files, coffee maker and cups, check protector, fireproof safe, etc.

Secretary?  Huh?  Who’s going to pay her?

Then we get to insurance requirements, hiring a secretary (seriously, hiring a secretary will be an instant $40,000 per year hole in your budget), filing systems, starting an accounting system, and then we’re almost at the end of the checklist and we see the first signs of “how are you going to pay for all of this” – the budget.  Sources of income for that first year include:

a. Estimated income from fees for services. 

b. Savings accounts.

c. Working spouse.

d. Relatives who may offer help.

e. Bank loan.

f. SBA guaranteed loan.

g. Credit union loan. 

h. Bar association credit union loan.

So one out of eight sources of income is fees.  The other seven are beg and borrow (yet no mention of "repay").  And not one mention of whether you want to borrow (or can even borrow) when you're $150K in debt already.  What bank will lend you start-up capital?

And that’s the kind of information being circulated by state bar associations to new lawyers as actual, real life advice on how to start a viable law office.  Basically, Field of Dreams levels of "if you build it, they will come."  It's misleading.  It's read by people thinking about attending law school, and all they take away from it is, "Oh, that looks easier than I thought.  Pick a city, sign a lease, hire a secretary and buy me an umbrella stand and the cash will start rolling in."  Nothing can be further from the truth.

My advice?  Don’t go to law school in the first place.  If you’re already in law school, get out.  And if you’re already out of law school and unemployed, find a job doing something else and don’t look back.  (A few exceptions apply, but I’m currently of the opinion that law is like gambling – the house always wins in the long run, and the only way to “win” is to not play in the first place, or to cut your losses if you’re already suckered in at the table.)

But that’s not the point of this post.  The point of this post is that we’re now in 2014, and information containing advice on whether to attend law school or not is stuck in the prior century.  The books and guides and materials that applicants are reading are so inaccurate at this point, so derivative, and so misleading that many people end up in law school thinking that the legal profession is like it was in the 1990s, and they graduate (too late) in the legal profession of the 2010s.

I tried to address this point in Con Law (more updates on this book in the near future, because the message is still just not getting out there.)  Thane Messinger and I tried to write a guide book for the 2010s, something from scratch, throwing out the old information and starting afresh.  I updated my earlier book, Later in Life Lawyers, to reflect the new legal economy, issuing stern warnings about the low number of law jobs and the high cost of a JD.  This blog and the other “scamblogs” are trying to get the word out, but it’s all being drowned in a sea of outdated advice.

I remember, back in the late 1990s, reading many of the law school guides that are still topping the lists of best-selling guides today.  Some have been updated, some are still offering the same old mid-nineties advice.  Those that have been updated rarely contain significant revisions.  The overwhelming body of information upon which law school applicants rely is hopelessly outdated, rather like reading a manual on how to ride a horse when prepping for your driving test.

And this is perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face in the upcoming year.  How to get the point across that the rules have changed, that the entire game has changed, when it comes to legal education and legal careers.  There are far fewer winners today, and the cost of losing is so much higher than before.  Much of what is still relied upon by law school applicants was now written when those applicants were babies, some perhaps not even born.

So where to get updated information?  Well, here for starters.  From newspapers – look for articles about the state of the legal profession.  From current lawyers, from lawyers who left the profession because it was too rough.  From Con Law.  Just anywhere except the old sources that are now so out-of-touch with reality that they have slipped from being merely harmlessly out-of-date and have now become dangerous misinformation (and that includes your pre-law advisor at college who has been in that role for thirty years.)

And of course, the best source of information is you.  You can ignore the commentators and the advice-givers.  You can do your own research.  Look at how much law school will cost you.  Look at how much time and effort it will take to repay those loans.  Search for law jobs in your local area and see how many you can find (and then figure out how many law grads will be looking for that same job.)  Look at the Yellow Pages and wade through the fifty pages of lawyers, all of whom are your future competition and all of whom have more experience than you will when you graduate from law school.  Do some analysis, even if you don't like the answers.  Don’t be like the checklist where you merely assume that the money will take care of itself somehow, and that you can be more concerned about the finer things in life such as skiing and umbrella stands.  Work through the facts and figures specifically for you, and do that first.  You can’t afford to trust other people to tell you that law school is a doorway to a great career anymore.  This isn’t Field of Dreams, and getting through law school is the easy part, not the hard part, of a successful legal career.  The real struggle starts after you graduate.

Charles Cooper is the author, along with Thane Messinger, of “Con Law: Avoiding...or Beating...the Scam of the Century (The Real Student's Guide to Law School and the Legal Profession)”, in addition to being the moderator at and the author of “Later in Life Lawyers”.  He can be contacted at


  1. When people talk about top 14 or T14 law schools, I immediately think, "What the hell are you talking about?!?! This isn't 1994."

    1. The whole system
      Is stuck in a pre-recession mindset. T14 is a good example.

      There is no T14. It's now a T5, then TTTs.

  2. Can someone please do an entry on seton hall laws claim (of only a few years ago) that even grads in nonlaw "business" positions started at $125,000. This number is so absurd its laughable. Does a harvard mba even claim to result in a starting salary that high?

    1. Link?

      Is Seton Hall still doing this?

    2. @ 6:16 am,

      These are the 2009 stats by $eTTon Haul Univer$iTTy Sewer of Law. According to this document, those in private law practice had a median salary of $125K. Those in corporate/business jobs made a median salary of $112,500.

    3. My understanding of Seton Hall Law's skewed numbers was that a grad was hired by his dad's firm and given a $750K annual salary. Of course, the corrupt pigs at SHU factored in the anomaly into its weighted averages to come out with the outrageous and false median. It reminds me of the time when Steve Young, former QB for the 49ers had a $7M NFL annual salary and his alma mater law school at BYU used the number in its glossy brochures or so the story goes.

    4. Thanks for the replies.

  3. The suggestion that anyone starting a law practice could ever get a bank loan to finance it is so idiotic it destroys whatever tiny measure of credibility whole piece ever had.

    1. Borrowing from parents is a great idea. Use $50K of their cash to float your sham law office for a year, at which time the law school will have reported you as employed in a solo practice. After that, you're irrelevant and your debt and unemployment are your own problem.

      Thus article just reinforces the idea that a legal career is just a house of cards.

  4. Agreed. Having sat through some required out of state admission bar association material lately, I can vouch that this outdated information is still being preached. I would add how valuable it was for me to first surround myself in a for pay position with others who could help guide my experience. The law career is a lot of self teaching, and some of that teaching comes with observing what others do. Then I would also add for those not desiring to go it alone, try finding similar minded folks, or go into a business and legal environment where you can get paid to start your own legal dept. Sure both of these alternatives are not exactly like starting your own firm, but you don't have to worry about billable hours as much, and get benefits and pay that help pay down the loans.

    1. Could you provide an example of a "legal environment where you can get paid to start your own legal dept."? Do such opportunities really exist (especially for recent grads)?

  5. Good catch.

    That piece was dated advice when it was written. It's certainly obsolete, if not dangerously so, now. 20 years' worth of continued erosion of the legal sector and overproduction of grads. PLUS: This in no way could account for the rise of technology and outsourcing that was just coming into view back then.

    1. On top of that, the cost of law school has more than tripled in 20 years.

    2. "That piece was dated advice when it was written."

      Agreed. Speaking as someone who graduated from law school in 1995, the only issue I have with this post is that it paints an overly rosy picture of what things were like for law school grads in the '90s. Things were nowhere near as bad as they are now, but the trends that blew up when the economy collapsed in 2008 were already well under way then. (This plays right into the law schools' myth that everything was fine until 2008, and everything will go back to being just fine as soon as the economy recovers. Things hadn't been fine for a long time before 2008; 2008 caused the problems that had been growing for years to suddenly become so big that the law schools couldn't hide them anymore.) The advice in the piece was pretty much useless in 1999, when the market was already well saturated with plenty of un- and under-employed grads. Today it reflects a complete detachment from reality.

      From what I've seen, I don't think there has been a single year since 1990 when any more than 75% of law school grads found "real" attorney positions (permanent, full-time employment) of some kind. Better than the 50% new grads are facing today, but not the "virtually everyone gets a high-paying job" picture that much of the general public perceives, and that the law schools have painted with their employment stats. And that 75% figure was for the best years. What people thought was the worst case scenario for a bottom-of-the-barrell law grad was probably more like what a middle-of-the-class grad would get.

    3. 'It's read by people thinking about attending law school, and all they take away from it is, "Oh, that looks easier than I thought. Pick a city, sign a lease, hire a secretary and buy me an umbrella stand and the cash will start rolling in."'

      Precisely. This is written to sooth the concerns of prospective law students, not as a realistic guide for graduates.

  6. Whenever I hear advice on this subject, I immediately think, "this person has never tried to sign a paying client / good contingency claim."

    There are law firms in your area (doesn't matter where, this is universal) that have been around for 10+ years with experienced attorneys and market presence who are struggling mightily to get paying clients.

    How fucking arrogant do you have to be to think you - no name, no experience - can hang a shingle and get decent clients to walk in the door? And if you can, and you can land them, how are you going to do them proper service when you have to hustle to find new ones WHILE learning what the heck you're doing?

    It's truly baffling, like these fucking morons live in a different reality.

  7. One can't overstate the importance of a Rolodex. I also advise storing each client file in individual Trapper Keepers. Each one features a different Marvel superhero, so I never grab the wrong one on the way to court!

    1. And a full set of regional reporters and state court publications. Do not - I repeat DO NOT - try to practice law without the law!

    2. Your witty add ons have changed my New Year's frown - caused by reading the dated guidance - into a cheerful smile.

  8. Do we need "The Clapper" for the office lights?

    1. Thanks for reminding me of another "invention" that rolled out about the same time that this "guidance" was initially issued.

  9. The original article has to be read in order for the absurdity of the situtation to be believed:

    The newly starting lawyer should:

    * engage a secretary and possibly some outside clerical help
    * rent office space, which entails agreeing to a lease of some duration
    * engage the services of a CPA
    * engage an outside service to do the billing
    * purchase malpractice, health, general liability, and umbrella insurance

    I've been following this over 20 years, and know at least 12 contemporaries (i.e., 20+ year lawyers) who are solos practicing from their homes who are able to do none of the above, but would certainly like to and say they want to. None considers him/herself particularly successful, and certainly not comfortable, but "It is what it is" and "You gotta do what you gotta do" is a common refrain.

    Leading young people to believe that their future will lilkely be any brighter is a great dis-service.