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Building a Solo Law Practice, Part 4: Gaining Experience as a Young Lawyer

September 21, 2011

This is the fourth post in an exclusive series by guest blogger Doug Greenberg, a successful tax solo based in San Francisco, CA.

After starting this series, I realized that many readers might be fresh out of law school (or perhaps still in it).  Not having had a full-time job, you may be short on experience.  So how much experience do you really need to become a solo attorney?  And in such a poor job market, what do you do to get that experience?

To be honest, becoming a solo with no work experience is not ideal.  It’s no secret that law school does not prepare you to start lawyering from Day 1. Some work experience–I would say 2 years, at a minimum–provides an opportunity to learn substantive law and practical lawyering skills in your chosen practice area, without having to continually reinvent the wheel.

Obviously, the best option would be to work at a firm or other organization that can foster your development as a young attorney.  Unfortunately, however, this may not an option.  Jobs are scarce, and many employers increasingly prefer to hire experienced attorneys rather than take the time and resources to train new law grads.

It’s a difficult catch-22 , one faced by many entry-level job seekers.  I need experience.  But without experience, I cannot get a job that will allow me to get experience.

For me, a big part of the solution was volunteering with a non-profit.  Non-profits are an excellent place to gain practical experience.  Frequently, these organizations do excellent work and do a good job supporting attorney volunteers.  And they are always looking for new attorneys because the always-high demand for direct legal services has spiked during the economic crisis. [Ed. note: One good place to start in Philadelphia is with Philly VIP, which acts as a pro bono legal services “hub” for low-income Philadelphians.] 

The great thing about volunteering with a legal non-profit is that the scope of their cases is often small enough for one lawyer to handle.  This offers young attorneys a highly valuable, ground-up learning experience.  I learned so much in law school about the jurisprudence of tax law, and even did some internships.  But I had no clue when I graduated how it all actually worked on the ground.

When I was still a fresh law school grad, hunting for a job, one of the first things I did was locate the nearest low-income tax clinic in our neighborhood.  I found a great one, the Chinese Newcomers Center in San Francisco’s Chinatown.  The clinic managers were more than happy to receive me.  Naturally, they were swamped with cases.

I had such a good experience there that I kept it up even after I got a job at a law firm.  Initially, I did it as pro bono work that I could feel good about.  But later on I realized that there was a valuable personal benefit, the experience I was gaining.  Through the clinic, I was able to handle matters that were far and above what I was ever able to do as a young associate.  For instance, I personally tried a case in Tax Court (something no law firm partner would ever have let me do on my own).  I also got immediate experience dealing with IRS agents and appeals officers. Only through the clinic did I begin to understand how the IRS really works, which in my field is just as important as knowing the law.

So, for young lawyers seeking a foothold in the profession, I strongly advise finding a law non-profit in your practice area.  If they take you on, be appreciative and be reliable.  The organization’s staff will come to appreciate you and so will the clients you are helping.  It can really be the best of all worlds: you’ll be doing a good deed for others, and for yourself.

Other posts in the series: Part One (the decision to go solo), Part Two (choosing a specialty), Part Three (sole proprietorship, corporation or LLC?), Part Five (preparing to go solo mid-career), and Part Six (getting clients).


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