Published: 28 July 2011
This is part #2 of a debate I am involved in – with myself – about whether a lawyer should work a standard job and practice solo at the same time. If you have not read this column’s entry from June 2011, please visit there now BEFORE you read this column. Click HERE. This is a rebuttal so if you do not read the first column, this one may not make sense. Then, come back and see the end of the debate. Remember, as you read, that I am the speaker in both sides of this debate – when you read harsh comments, remember that there is nothing personal about this debate. It is just a debate that addresses an important question. I have already forgiven myself.
I have completed 3 weeks in my corporate job and am not in a position to assess the long term. However, I can say that many of the affirmative and negative arguments are true. There is no single answer and as I replied to a comment on last month’s column – “…this is a personal decision…”
So, the negative speaker is rising from his seat to address the arguments.
Resolved: a solo lawyer should NOT continue to practice law while employed in a standard job.
There are times in your life when you have to decide who is in control – you or the tide. Solos – at least “my kind” of solos – are the ones who swim against the tide and force their career to do what they want instead of having some accident make the most important decision in their life: how and where and for whom they will work. It sounds to me like the affirmative speaker in this debate forgot the main advantage and thrill of being a solo. Instead of riding the range free to go where he wants, he is a hired gun – at the beck and call of another and, make no mistake about it, NOT free to practice law as he wishes. In fact, when the affirmative speaker admits “Life is in charge”, he surrenders his card as a true – genuine – solo attorney. It makes sense because when you work for another you cannot and should not continue to practice law…at least the way we think of it.
I will answer the arguments made by the affirmative speaker in order and, in the process, will show the perils and errors of his decision. As you hear my arguments, remember this: there are lots of sharks swimming around in the solo practice ocean – the person that would hire you to work for them is just one of those sharks. They do not want what is best for you or your career. They do NOT want you to be a solo.
- NOBODY TRAINS YOU TO LEAVE THEM! The problem with taking a standard job is that you will never learn the broad horizon of skills you need to go elsewhere and be the amazing asset about which you fantasize. Corporations, by their nature, train individuals in a very narrow set of skills and put groups of individuals together in teams to perform large-scale functions. While you can certainly learn something – and glean other things – from working a corporate job, you will never benefit as much as you would if you were on your own…forced to learn new skills every day. As a result, everything else being equal, solos will always be better prepared.
- THIS IS A MASSIVE INCREASE IN RISK! Time never stops passing – no matter how much you fantasize about a corporate gig being a “break” from the rigors of solo. Every minute you spend working for someone else – doing what they say just the way they say to do it – increases the risk that you may never get back into solo practice. What you lose in stress is what you lose in motivation and inspiration to create new things and do those new things in new ways. This, again, is exactly what makes solos a different and special breed. If the affirmative speaker does not want to be special, so be it. However, do not tell me you get it both ways. You do not.
- WORKING FOR SOMEONE ELSE ROBS YOU OF THE ABILITY TO CHOOSE YOUR PRACTICE AREAS! That one-in-a-million job where someone pays you to eat cotton candy and laugh all day is a fantasy. The truth is that every minute you work for someone else is every minute where you do not make your own choices about what practice areas to pursue, what cases to take, and which clients to represent. This is an absolute truth that is a 100% loss when you go to work for someone else. I cannot see the time when for that few hours a week you are truly practicing law (in the evening or on the weekends), you can do so with the freedom to put in the effort, hours, and focus that you would if you were not selling your prime hours to another employer. In the process, your law practice loses and your clients lose. Please do not tell me that is a win.
- COMFORT IS THE OPIUM OF THE HIRED ATTORNEY! As I said above, the lack of stress translates into a lack of motivation. Comfort reduces the drive to get new clients, acquire new skills, and deliver when results are all that matter. I know more than one of those “corporate” lawyers who have lost the desire to be a “real” lawyer in the solo sense…do you really want to be that kind of lawyer? I am not saying there is anything wrong with being comfortable. I am saying there is a difference between a corporate lawyer and a solo lawyer. My grandfather used to say, “You cannot ride two horses with one fanny.” Stop trying to do two things when one is quite enough and doing two sets you up to fail at both.
- YOU ARE NOT FREE TO LEAVE THE JOB AT ANYTIME! I will bet you that responsibilities and opportunities do not come down the road every day. You may find escape hatches and then again, you may not – the question is whether the escape hatch comes at the right time. Now, what has happened in this situation is the escape hatch put you INTO prison instead of breaking you OUT of prison. You may not find the opportunity to escape is offered just when you need it. So, to say that you are free to leave anytime is underselling the risk. The truth is that this solo’s law practice was going fine. You cannot expect too much good luck. Asking to recapture a strong solo practice may be just that.
- FAITH IS AN ILLUSION THAT CLOAKS THE LACK OF COURAGE! I appreciate the value of instinct and belief – but I suspect taking a corporate job may be a rationalization that cloaks the lack of courage to stay the course. Solo practice is difficult work – no doubt – but it is a mistake to say you have the perspective needed to judge the long run when this solo has been in the corporate job for all of three weeks. I will wager $5.00 now that this job lasts less than two years. When that time comes, we will be able to more clearly tell the difference between faith and courage. Solos know that – for them anyway – they are the same thing.
- YOU ARE NO LONGER A SOLO ATTORNEY! When you sell your prime hours to a corporation and spend only your evening and weekend hours (the hours where you are less focused and less sharp) to your clients, you lost a great majority – if not all – of what makes you a true solo. It may be necessary to redefine what you call a solo attorney. I will kindly call you a “Part-Time Solo” which is NOT the same as a true solo. I mean this in a nice way when I say you are still a lawyer but you are not what you intended to be when you entered solo practice. The work you are doing for a corporation is lawyer-type work but that is a marked change from solo lawyering.
- IGNORING THE REAL COST DOESN’T MAKE IT GO AWAY! What you may gain by working for someone else – in terms of skills and the like – is dwarfed by what you lose in real motivation. What I mean is that it is easier to do work you choose to do and find interesting than it is to do work that someone else heaves onto the desk in your cubicle. If you are a non-trad to start with – choosing law as a second career – you do not have time to waste working years more for someone else. Whether you worked for yourself or someone else in your first career, this is your big chance to strike out and do something bold and wonderful. Being solo is bold and wonderful. The cost is too great to spend time working for anybody else…can you really afford that?
- SOME DOORS ARE DEAD ENDS! What some view as an opportunity, others view as a trap. I heard recently that some people commit crimes just to go to jail so they can have a place to sleep and three meals a day. That sounds like going to work for a corporation. It does make everything “easier” I suppose but you have lost your freedom in the bargain. I do not know what things will lead to – nobody does – so it is a mistake to count on what may happen from a gamble. And, you know, going to work for a corporation IS a gamble. What you see as a route to another opportunity, others see as a dead-end road.
- A JOB ABSOLUTELY COMPETES WITH THE PRACTICE! I have said above and I will repeat now that you cannot do two or more jobs at the same time. When you sell you first forty hours a week – your BEST work hours of the week – to a corporation, you have lost your ability to practice law the way you really want (which I suspect is as a serious and committed expert attorney). Enough in this context seems like too much – especially since I wonder what will happen if any of your clients really need you during standard work hours or if you have to (shudder) go to court. Getting a law license is hard work – why would you not want to be a lawyer? Doing two things robs you of the benefit of doing either one really well.
This new job (while undeniably a kind of cool opportunity) makes the affirmative speaker a captor – a prisoner – and robs him of the most precious possession of a solo attorney – his career. It would be better if he had not turned himself in for something that is not even a crime – somehow the fact that he surrendered without a fight makes it worse for me. Nonetheless, I am not angry with him – I feel an obligation to speak the truth and remind him he is always welcome with us “real” solos.
I say we get a posse of us together, make a plan, and break him out of the corporate prison. He may regret our rescue for a moment – he may need to be deprogrammed. In the end, he will see that the greatest compensation a solo attorney earns is being solo. How much is freedom worth?
So, this is the end of the debate. I may have an afterglow with some comments about how the debate proceeded. I will surely keep everyone up to date on how the corporate gig goes, what sort of law stuff I am doing, and how my career is evolving. Like a blank canvas, every career is different. This is mine – stay tuned.