I did really well in law school, and that was a big mistake. Allow me to explain.
It all started when I was putting myself through college working as a radio announcer in Tucson, Arizona. One day the station manager announced that our top-40 AM radio station (“Lucky-13 K-HYT, where AM means Aaron Morris!”) was switching to a new-fangled format called “talk radio” and that they were bringing in all new announcers. I knew this talk thing would never catch on, but nonetheless it meant I had to find a new way to pay my rent and tuition. I dropped the needle on “Stairway to Heaven”, affording me 8 minutes and 2 seconds to peruse the help wanted ads in the newspaper. As it turned out, the Tucson Police Department was looking for police officers, and that is how my career in law enforcement began (with the City of Tucson paying my college tuition — sweet!).
I enjoyed police work, but hated that you are usually mopping up after the crime has occured, leaving it to the detectives and District Attorneys to try and make things right for the victims. Also, while doing the cop thing, I did a college internship, working as a hearing officer in the juvenile traffic court, and volunteered as a Small Claims Judge in the Pima County Justice Court. The experience of presiding over trials, as well as appearing in court as a Police Officer, exposed me to the work that attorneys perform. I also added pre-law classes to my course load, and I loved reading about court cases and how the law is applied. I decided that being a lawyer was a great profession, working to help people with their legal problems. I wanted the satisfaction of knowing that I was helping people find justice, and although I knew nothing about the practice of law, even I could figure out that satisfaction would not come from representing mega-corporations. My plan was always to start my own firm so I could take the cases I wanted. ‘So I quit the police department’ (Beatles, She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, off the Abbey Road album) and went to law school.
Which brings me back to the big mistake.
I ended up at the top of my class — lunches with Supreme Court Justices, Editor in Chief of the Law Review, full ride scholarship, swimming pools, movie stars, the whole nine yards. So the big law firms came calling. I had standing job offers from firms that had never even interviewed me (those were very different times). I felt like such a hot property, that the plan of starting my own firm went right out the window. I ended up at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which at the time was purportedly the biggest firm in the world. The summer associate program had made it look so wonderful, but when I started working there for real, it took me about three months to realize I had made a horrible mistake. That’s not a dig on the firm — as big firms go Gibson is probably as good as they get and some associates were undoubtedly having a wonderful time. I didn’t see any, but I’m sure they were there. I just knew this was not a life I wanted to live. I was a litigator, but at a big firm you are all just hired guns, with no consideration as to whether you are on the right side of a case. Doing justice? Not even a consideration. I somehow fell into an ERISA niche. Plaintiff attorneys would sue to recover benefits being denied to their clients, and I brought summary judgment motion after summary judgment motion to dispose of the actions on the basis of ERISA preemption. We actually were on the “right” side of those cases, because the plaintiffs were bringing the actions in the wrong court, but that didn’t change the fact that I was just another cog in the insurance company machine that worked to deprive people of their benefits.
By the time Christmas rolled around, I couldn’t rationalize any more — I realized that I hated the practice of law. My misery was amplified by the firm’s Christmas festivities. Gibson didn’t have a Christmas party; it had a Christmas pageant where the associates were expected to perform. At the conclusion of the pageant, the partners got up and sang to the associates a song they had written, called “There is Nothing Like a Drone“. I realized, as I listened to the song, that I did not have the proper drone mentality. In the first place, I wasn’t content to devote my life to my job, and in the second place, I could do the math. I was working 70 to 80-hour weeks, and although my salary seemed impressive, I wasn’t making much more than I had as a cop when I calculated my pay on an hourly basis. Just about any hourly job will pay an impressive amount if you put in 70 hours per week. Indeed, had it been possible to work that much overtime as a police officer, I would have earned more than what I was making as an attorney.
But the real eye opener came from calculating my income another way. At the hourly rate the firm was charging clients for my services, the firm was making over $500,000 in gross profit after deducting my salary! No wonder the partners sang There is Nothing Like a Drone. Looking at the numbers yet another way, I calculated that if I went off on my own and charged the same hourly rate (understanding that was unlikely), I could make what I was earning working less than ten hours per week!
I returned to plan “A” and began putting everything in place to start my own firm. I was the first attorney ever, as far as I know, to handle a trial solo my first year at Gibson, never even having second-chaired a trial. Don’t be too impressed, it was a righteous slip and fall we handled as a service for an existing corporate client. (Which I won, thank you very much.) I found more such work hiding around the firm, and gained quite a bit of practical litigation experience. When I was ready, I left the big firm practice. Initially I found a great transitional firm with about ten attorneys that provided an office in exchange for a split of whatever I brought in, while at the same time providing work of their own on an hourly basis. That was a good buffer while I continued to get everything in place and developed my own client base, but after writing them a high five figure check for their percentage of a case I had brought in, I decided I no longer needed the safety net, and officially started my own firm.
I’ve never looked back. If you do it right, working at your own firm is far, far better professionally and financially than working for someone else. I mostly handle interesting and very cutting-edge First Amendment / free speech / defamation cases. I’m always on the right side because I turn down the case if I’m not, and therefore I can feel good about and enjoy what I am doing.
I love being a lawyer. How many lawyers do you know who can say that?
You’ve probably heard a dozen reasons why you should not go off on your own, or why it is difficult to do so, and added a few excuses yourself. I can tell you the reasons are either urban myths or factors that can be overcome. This site is here to help you start your own successful and satisfying law firm or, if you already have your own practice, to raise it to new heights.