Training Lawyer-Entrepreneurs

The Great Recession has caused many new attorneys to question their decisions to go to law school. The highly publicized decline in employment opportunities for lawyers has called into question the value of obtaining a law degree. The tightening of the economy has diminished the availability of entry-level jobs for law graduates across employment sectors. Large law firms are laying-off lawyers, bringing in smaller first year associate classes, hiring more contract and experienced lateral attorneys. Government entities and public interest organizations have suffered furloughs, and hiring freezes, and are relying more on volunteers than on new employees to get the work done. To complicate matters, the baby boomer generation of lawyers is retiring later and contributing to a lack of new job opportunities. As a result, a large number of recent law graduates are unemployed, under-employed, or are working in settings that do not require a bar license. James G. Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), reported that “members of the law school graduating classes of 2009 and 2010 have faced the worst entry-level legal employment market in 50 years and perhaps ever, and the market for the classes of 2011 and those that will follow is likely forever changed.” The latest figures released by 198 of the 201 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) confirm Leipold’s prediction. Only 55% of law students graduating in 2011 reported having full-time, long-term jobs requiring a law degree, at nine months after graduation. The change in the job market masks a long standing but rarely recognized reality. Law jobs, particularly for new attorneys, have never been abundant.

Historically, most attorneys in the United States have created their own jobs by establishing solo and small law firms. The latest ABA market research indicates that about three-fourths of all attorneys work in private practice. Of those attorneys, almost half identify as solo practitioners and approximately 14% work in small law offices with five or less lawyers. ABA market research found that in 2005, only 16% of attorneys in private practice work in law firms of more than 100 attorneys. In fact, the number of lawyers in private practice working in law firms of more than 50 attorneys has never accounted for even one-fifth of the private bar. Attorney demographics confirm that the majority of lawyers in private practice are self-employed. Regardless of the large number of lawyers in solo practice, few law graduates enter the profession understanding the opportunities and challenges of starting their own law firms.

The reality of self-employment has not been well-received by many new graduates. Fewer opportunities in the job market have spawned blogs, editorials, articles and letters from and about angry and greatly disappointed new lawyers who viewed law school as their ticket to a six-figure salary upon graduation, but instead found poor job prospects and student debt equivalent to a home mortgage. A group of law graduates initiated lawsuits against their law schools alleging, among other things, misrepresentation and fraud. Although the particular claims of the lawsuits vary, all of them accuse law schools of reporting exaggerated employment statistics in order to lure prospective students into law schools. As a result of the public dissatisfaction of recent law graduates and the high cost of legal education, the number of applications to ABA accredited law schools declined in 2011. In December 2012, the Law School Admissions Council reported an additional decline of 22%.

The future of the legal profession is uncertain. Some predict that large law firms are unlikely to rebound to pre-recession hiring. It is also not anticipated that government, academic, and public interest sectors will represent more than a small fraction of available law jobs. The most consistent and largest employment sector for lawyers will continue to be solo practice. If the largest segment of our law students will eventually work for themselves, then law schools should provide direction about what it means to be a self-employed lawyer. Like their predecessors, the self-employed lawyer of the twenty-first century must learn how to think like a lawyer and find a niche within the business of law. However, to make a living in an increasingly complex and competitive legal market, self-employed lawyers must also become lawyer-entrepreneurs.

This Article does not offer a comprehensive understanding of the study of entrepreneurship. Nor does it engage the discussion of the tension between professionalism standards and personal gain. Instead, this piece focuses on what law schools can do to help the thousands of self-employed lawyers who must embrace entrepreneurial models to survive in a competitive market. Part I of this Article considers how technology and the need for more affordable legal services require the transformation of solo attorneys into lawyer-entrepreneurs. It explores how technology and client preferences are impacting the practice of law for self-employed lawyers that address personal legal services. Part II summarizes the findings of several empirical studies that help us understand what it means to be a self-employed lawyer. It considers the challenges and opportunities of lawyers as entrepreneurs. Part III posits that Millennial generation lawyers are good candidates to become lawyer-entrepreneurs. It contemplates a future where Millennial lawyer-entrepreneurs, if properly supported, can exploit technology to increase access to justice and achieve their personal goals. Part IV documents a sample of existing and emerging efforts by law schools to train self-employed lawyers. This section focuses specifically on the emergence of networks supporting solo and small firm lawyers, attorney incubator programs and post-graduate residencies. Part V offers recommendations for law schools committed to advancing the training of lawyer-entrepreneurs. The perspective offered here is informed by my experience launching a solo practice in 2002, my involvement in a national conversation about the lack of affordable legal services, as a mentor to lawyers starting their law practices, and is supported by empirical research.

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Citation: Herrera, Luz E., Training Lawyer-Entrepreneurs (August 2012). Denver University Law Review, Vol. 89, No. 4, 2012.

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