Tips on starting a law practice in California.
Recently, a young law school graduate, who is getting ready to sit for the California Bar, asked me if I had advice on how he could get started in practice. He got me thinking, and so I thought it was a good topic for a blog post. While my suggestions are focused on California attorneys, these tips can apply to any new lawyer, anywhere in the US. Below are a few of my suggestions:
- Decide on your Practice Area. This is not always easy to do, but a necessary first step. There are several ways lawyers end up focusing on a particular area, here are a few:
- It is an area that interests you, e.g., intellectual property, contracts, real estate, family, or education law.
- It is an area you want to learn more about e.g., litigation, animal law, wills & estate, appellate work.
- It is an area you have been thrown into, because a friend needed help, e.g., criminal, personal injury, entertainment, or bankruptcy.However you get there, it is critical that you find an area of focus. Because the more clear you are about where you want to go, the easier it will be to get there.
- Stay Current on the Law.
Once you decide where you want to focus your attention, learn everything you can about that area of law, e.g., the basic concepts, relevant case law, current case law, and any legislation that has impacted the area. You want to be prepared and up-to-date when you get that first client. There are many ways to access the law: brick & mortar law libraries vs. online research libraries. Brick & mortar law libraries can be found at law schools, many bar association offices, and courthouses. But more common today are online research libraries, e.g., CEB, theLaw.net, BNA, Lexis, Westlaw, and Intelliconnect, just to name a few. Some are very amenable to working with solo attorneys and small law firms, as evidenced by their reasonable rates. As a California lawyer, CEB is a great value for the money, and they offer free access for 1-year if you are within your first 5 years of practice. TheLaw.net is another best kept secret offering you access to a total case law database for one low annual price. Lawline is another great value, offering lifetime CLE access for one low price. Do your research; don’t let a popular brand name company convince you that they are the only game in town.
- Get Active in a State Bar Section.
California, unlike many other states, has a mandatory bar requirement, which means, if you want to practice law in California, you must join the State Bar. While the State Bar is mandatory, joining a Section is not. I recommend that you get active in a Section, which focuses on your practice area, or an area that interests you. Join a committee and volunteer to do something, e.g., chair or co-chair a subcommittee, write an article, help draft a resolution, work on a CLE program, or speak on a panel. The key is to get active, so you will start to know the players, and they will start to know YOU!
- Get Involved in the American Bar Association (ABA). While our State Bar is important for building local connections, the ABA is a great place to learn and meet attorneys around the nation (and the world). The ABA is the largest non-mandatory association of lawyers in the world, with over 250,000 and counting. You never know when you might need a referral or local counsel in another jurisdiction.
- Attend a Legal Conference.
Not only does attending a conference create networking opportunities, but you can learn and get your required CLE credit at any number of educational sessions. Both the California State Bar and the ABA sponsor annual educational meetings. This year the ABA Annual meeting will be in Chicago from August 2-8. The California State Bar conference will be in Monterey from October 11-14. Both events are well worth the price of admission. Each Section has its own hotel meeting place and scheduled events. Network, network, and network some more!
- Take on a ProBono Case.
Many bar associations, e.g., the San Francisco Bar has a volunteer lawyer program (VLSP), where you can learn the law, get clients, and have a mentor. A great way to get started, if you are interested in an area where they offer this service, e.g., family law or landlord/tenant.
- Invest in Smart and Professional Marketing Materials, e.g., a web site, business cards, stationery. If you are going to be a professional, you should look like one. In this age of the Internet, a presence online is essential, and so easy to accomplish. There are many ways to get started. You can create a website for a few dollars, or develop a Facebook Business Fan Page, LinkedIn Profile, or start a blog for free. The idea is to start getting the word out about you and your practice.
That’s it for now. I hope this gives you newly-minted California attorneys a place to start. Good luck and welcome to our esteemed club of California lawyers.
Until next time, I’m attorney Francine Ward sharing what I know.