Hi. Just wanted to jump in here as another lawyer who is pro NON-big-law. (How about using the word "regular law"???? When did "Big Law" become the norm?)
I am very close to my sixth year of practice (since being sworn into my state' bar.. I clerked at a law firm during law school and worked there as a new associate over the second summer, before officially being sworn in, so I have an additional six months or so of "practice"). I worked at several different firms including a BigLaw firm and I didn't like any of them. I would say my experience was different because I live in a smaller city, not NYC or LA or anything like that, so the BigLaw firm was at a regional office and I would say the type of work I was assigned was quite good compared to what I read on this forum-- I got to go to court, write appellate briefs, etc. So I enjoyed the experience but didn't like the clients, nor most of the partners/political shenanigans involved with being an associate at a firm.
So I left, in January, and started my own practice and am much happier. Granted making money was not (any longer) important to me... I was pretty miserable and I decided I would rather try my hand at helping real people with real legal problems, than stay stuck working for huge corporations or insurance companies or state entities etc. (my clients and types of firms ran the gamut, but it was mostly defense work for the "big guy" and I wanted to be on the "little guy"'s side). I think what helped me leave (other than being miserable) was being okay with not making a lot of money for awhile... I had saved some money and was more concerned about my quality of life/career.
Well, the results have been surprising-- I am already set to make more than I was making at my last firm, and that includes fronting some plaintiff's cases and paying expenses (granted I keep my overhead low-- I have a small windowless office, but is downtown!, and I have a couple assistants I'm training, which was more important to me than a fancy office). I credit my so-far success with a few different things--
1. Networking/connections from prior firms: I jumped around to a couple different firms and although I never found my "home," I never left on a bad note, I have good relationships with my former bosses and colleagues, who refer me conflicted-out work or work that is too "small"/low-paying for them (but pays me quite well, considering I don't have the expenses that they do), and I even had some clients follow me (which I wasn't expecting). So I would say definitely work somewhere for awhile if possible (it also helps to work in the same city where you went to law school) so that you build up a reputation and a network circle within the legal community.
2. As UTLaw mentioned, networking in social circles helps-- I've had cases referred to me through friends and family, which surprised me, but then I realized I could actually accept and work on these smaller types of cases, now that I wasn't a slave to the partners' decisions at a firm. It would have really helped to have been born and raised where I went to law school, and have an extended family etc. here, but I don't; however I have made some lasting relationships/friendships and social groups that also come in handy for getting cases, and my signficant other is from here so I end up getting cases from his high school reunions (completely accidentally ha ha).
3. As UTLaw mentioned, it helps to have the ability to work for other people while starting off, especially if you are having to fund your own cases. One of the firms I worked at was small (a boutique litigation firm that had been formed by former members of BigLaw/TT grads), and it so happened that I'm able to do contract work (not document review, but research and writing briefs) for one of my former bosses from that firm, for which I am very grateful! I also do some contract work for a solo practitioner who has overflow work-- this can vary from covering court appearances for him to drafting pleadings or doing discovery etc... whatever he needs. This work balances out my client work although right now I'm super busy and am trying to concentrate on my own work over their work so that I can continue to build up my own practice rather than relying on other attorneys. (On the other hand, working for them gives me a steady paycheck and the ability to work from anywherea nd travel home to see my family etc... so sometimes I entertain the idea of just being a contract-rate lawyer for other lawyers... I go back and forth about it but in the meantime continue to get new clients of my own).
4. For me it's been very useful to learn other practice areas-- for instance I am doing some family law work and I had almost no prior experience. I am also doing some other new areas of law and the hard part about this is making sure I am doing everything right and representing the clients well... I do not accept clients who can't pay (well, I have plaintiff's/contingency fee cases but for my billable hour clients, I get a retainer up front and tell them if they can't pay I stop work-- so far they have all continued to pay, and when they don't, I will stop work... but luckily I have not had any problems with payment thus far). Anyway since they are paying me good money I really learn how to do their cases and wouldn't feel comfortable just winging it... I consult with other attorneys in those practice areas and if it seems way to hard to learn I refer it out but honestly it is not very hard to do most civil litigation cases since that's where my background is, and even though I'm new to family law, or probate, etc., they are not hard to learn when I actually apply myself and ask other people.
5. It kind of contradicts with number 4 but I also think it helps to find a specialty niche that differentiates you from other solo lawyers. Like UTLaw I do employment law (for employees and small business employers) which in my area is not a popular field. I find that lawyers with the same amount of experience as I have are either have little to no knowledge or experience with employment law (many of them have family law or criminal law practices-- either having hung out a shingle right away or working as prosecutors or public defenders first), or, if they are good at employment law then they are at firms, and therefore cannot represent the smaller employees or plaintiff's attorneys who come to me.
It has worked for me and quite well at that-- perhaps I am just lucky? I don't understand why BigLaw attorneys look down at attorneys in the real world who practice real law. I mean my cases have a lot of variety and excitement and I feel I'm actually helping people. Before I was just helping a rich dude fight with some other rich dude about who gets to keep the most amount of money, or claim that the other rich dude defrauded him when actually he probably defrauded the other guy too. Or I was helping some huge corporation claim they didn't violate any laws when it was pretty obvious that they did. I just wasn't into the work or the clients and I think that is an awful way to live no matter how much you get paid. (I honestly don't think $160k is that great of a salary for the hours one has to work and the stress and sometimes abuse that can be heaped onto an associate. Granted I didn't make $160k, but I made the equivalent in my city with a much lower COL, and it wasn't worth it. As another disclaimer, I don't have HUGE student loans because I decided to go to a law school that was ranked pretty well and has a good reputation but is very affordable. However, I had what I consider to be a good deal of student loan debt, but it still wasn't worth it to me to slave away like that (especially when the interest rate is so low.
) To me it came down to what I thought was a choice between personal happiness and job satisfaction or stable and good money and benefits (I know that is not an easy choice to make -- I am lucky that I don't have dependents), and I chose the former. So far it's looking like I get both!
But I had to be willing to walk away from the allure of the money to really experience what life could be like on the other side.
As an aside I will add that I was laid off from a BigLaw firm at the height of the craziness... which I took as a huge personal blow. Just last month, however, the former firm, having heard that I left my last firm and started my own practice, offered me my job back, saying that the financial situation is looking up and I was always a valued associate and they were looking for the first opportunity to ask me back. ?! I was flabber-gasted and seriously considered going back just for the prestige and money. Then I splashed some water on my face and remembered that I didn't like working there and am much happier right now and am close to making the kind of money I made there, so, why mess with a good thing?!
After reading through this whole thread I am realizing that things probably work differently for firms, even "BigLaw firms" (aka regional offices) in the city where I live. If someone graduates from my law school with good grades and/or they are on Law Review, they will get hired by a local firm and will make decent money, and they might even get hired by one of the most prestigious firms or Biglaw satellite offices and make super good money. The opportunities seem better at big firms here than they do in big cities. Still, I don't think it's worth it and I personally think "sh!tlaw" or whatever you want to call it is the place to be. I hope I've helped encourage someone. I agree with UTLaw that if you have some good business/entrepreneurial sense, if you are smart and you work hard at both the law and business, then you will do fine as a solo practitioner!!!