Go Downtier

At Lawyer for Profit today Michael Sherman posts, riffing on this post by Susan Cartier Liebel at Build a Solo Practice, LLC, about law schools’ failure to teach students how to hang a shingle.

Susan quotes Ryan Alexander, a Harvard law grad who started his own practice:

I hope HLS will eventually offer a seminar in running your own practice to open up students’ eyes to the possibility. HLS students are too risk averse for their own good – there is a lot of demand for services that you can provide for people. Many students go to BigLaw against their conscience or interests and hate lawyering, because they are not true to themselves. There is another path. It is exciting, liberating and uniquely fulfilling to have your own practice. You can prepare for it and be ready.

The following might surprise lots of future law students. It might surprise some current and past Harvard Law School students (if you think that the first tier of law schools is the be-all and end-all of legal education, prepare for a revelation):

If you want to work for yourself, go to a second- or third-tier law school in the city in which you want to practice.
If you have the native intelligence and/or the work ethic to get into Harvard, you don’t have to go to Harvard to succeed. If you go downtier, you may not be as well educated as if you had gone to Harvard, but you’ll be better prepared, better connected, probably better trained, and most likely in less debt.
Biglaw pays big money for the prestige of having wage slaves from the “top” law schools. But the paying clients? The ones that might hire a first-year lawyer to do their legal work? They don’t give a damn whether you went to Yale or TSU. And rightly so.

Susan writes:

While you might say, “he went to Harvard. He’s got it easier,” I would have to disagree. Fear is fear. Not following one’s own desires and personality and terror at breaking free from the herd is not unique to Harvard Law graduates. This mentality is instilled in all law students, the mantra, “you can’t do it. Who would hire you? You’re a malpractice case waiting to happen” is drummed into your head from day one wherever you go to school. He just paid more for the brainwashing.

I would take it farther. First-tier law grads, I think, have it harder when it comes to starting their own practices than many do. Students at South Texas College of Law don’t have this negative brainwashing drummed into their heads. Students at TSU don’t (if they survive the brutal first-year cut). Students at my alma mater, University of Houston Law Center, weren’t steeped in this negativism when I went there (but that was a long time ago, before the Richard Alderman regime, when the Dean tried to turn UHLC into Nebraska).

One of the keys, I think, is that more students at these law schools see self-employment as a necessary option. Because a higher proportion of students from these schools will hang out their own shingles, the curricula at these schools are more geared toward preparing them to do so. Why doesn’t Harvard prepare students to hang out a shingle? Because it doesn’t need to.

Another key is that students have opportunities to work or otherwise participate in the local legal community during law school. A lawyer who wants to make a living in Houston will be better off if she knows and is known by the local bar. An internship at the DA’s office, or a job as a runner for a criminal-defense lawyer, provides an entree into a criminal defense practice.

A third key is that alumni are clustered around the schools. Alumni want to see law students from their school succeed, and will often be more helpful to students there.
Of course, my opinions are formed by practicing in Houston, and this may be a Texas thing (graduates of lower-tier law schools in other states, did you feel prepared to practice on your own when you got out?), an urban thing (Baylor grads, how about you?) or a Texas urban thing (UT grads?).

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0 responses to “Go Downtier”

  1. I had the unique pleasure of attending a historically black college for law school. Howard provided me with a well rounded education which prepared me not only to work in a big firm but to hang my own shingle as well.

    The greatest advantage I find in attending Howard is that it gives me an automatic credibility with my Black clients.

    It is hard enough sitting down with a client and overcoming the presumptions most of o0ur clients have about PD’s, but when they find out I went to Howard the response is surprise and curiosity as to why this “white boy” went to Howard. (most of my clients don’t believe i am Mexican) This is generally followed by a sense of mutual respect that gets me better cooperation than my colleagues seem to get.

    I wouldn’t change my law school experience for the world.

  2. Damn straight!

    As a recent grad UT Law in Austin whose considering hanging out a shingle once the bar results come back (but I’m badly…under-capitalized), my guess is that you are absolutely right. We got no support or even a suggestion that it was possible for a young lawyer to hang out a shingle.

    UT, and probably many prestigious schools, mostly cares about moving the top 10% of students into the top 10 law firms. For everyone else they have something between pity and contempt. This hyper-focus on moving people into the top firms leaves those of us who are not destined by grades or natures for such work at something of a loss for career plans.

  3. I’m a second year student at the University of Baltimore, a supposedly 4th tier school (that just happens to supply the bulk of trial lawyers in Baltimore). Mr. Bennett’s intial post has inspired me to post this comment seeking advice. I have an interest in a criminal defense career. Given the nature of the law school course requirements and scheduling, it looks like I’ll have to make choices between taking substantive criminal law electives (Constitutional Criminal Procedure II, Federal Criminal Practice, Forensic Evidence, Sentencing and Plea Bargaining Seminar), and legal skills classes (trial advocacy, advanced trial ad, bench trial ad, appellate ad, litigation process, criminal law clinic , etc.). Which type of course is more valuable–the substantive course or the skills course?

    My instincts tell me that one can learn the substantive law via independent study, and so I should load up on the more practical legal skills courses while making sure I take the not required but highly recommended bar-tested courses. Do you folks agree? If not, why not?

  4. Bill M, thanks for the comment. One thing that I think the law schools should teach is how to hang out a shingle on the cheap. If you’re a new lawyer and you don’t have either family money or a spouse who works, you’re probably undercapitalized.

    Zeb, I think you’ve got it right, but I’ll move your post up to a new blog posting so that others see it and weigh in.

  5. They have something called a “Plea Bargaining Seminar?” Do they use desks in the classroom, or make you take the entire course on your knees?

  6. I’m a little late in commenting on this post, but I would have to disagree. My feeling is that you go to the very best school that you get into unless there are significant financial or geographic reasons for doing otherwise. I went to Cornell, which hover between 11 and 15 on the so-called top ten lists, for what they are worth. I went solo back in 1993, 5 years out of law school, and I can tell you that my Cornell degree has generated significant revenue for me. Because of my school, I received referrals, lucrative contract work that would never have otherwise come my way. moreover, I have been able to build a solo practice that encompasses energy regulatory work (which has always been a money maker) and more interested court appointed criminal work (which I did when I started my firm and 2 years thereafter).
    I know that I part ways with my solo colleagues on this, but I believe that skills training in law school is overrated. I think that students should get a couple of skills courses, work at firms or government jobs over the summer, etc…But you never really learn how to do something until you watch real lawyer in court and then hop in and do it yourself. I took a 3 day public defender seminar to prepare for my court appointed criminal cases. The kinds of things you don’t learn on the job are how to think, how to reason and how to analyze and distinguish cases and how to write. Those are the skills that I learned in law school, the rest I have figured out on my own.
    Carolyn Elefant

  7. Carolyn,

    Thanks for the comment.

    What did you do for the five years between law school and hanging out a shingle?

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