Time to go solo?

 

I was inspired recently by this post on “Grace vs. Grind“. Being temporarily underemployed (by my own doing, no less!) has given me a lot of time to think about what it is that I want to do. What am I passionate about? What do I enjoy doing for people? What problems do I want to solve? How do I not end up hating my next job?

I’ve been resistant to the idea but I’m starting to think it may be time for me to step out on faith and start my own practice. My law school homie Jaleesa thinks I would be a great solo practitioner and that I don’t give myself enough credit for knowing what I am doing–my fear has always been that I don’t know enough to do it on my own. She’s right that in reality, everybody learns on the job.

Several little things are making me more amenable to the idea. I am part of a local Levo League group, which hosts free networking and professional development events for women every month. Several months ago, I met a woman who was interested in hiring me to teach a mini-session on business law at one of her events. I also had a tax client ask me for my card to do a will for him. No follow up on either of these so far, but it shows that theoretically there is some demand for my services. In addition, I’ve been volunteering with the local bar association. I’m on a committee that provides attorneys for free speaking engagements, which of course is another networking opportunity.

If I’m honest with myself, pretty much everything I hated about my old job related to the fact that I had no control. I didn’t get to decide what cases we took, how much we charged, or how we handled the matter and it was frustrating as hell. While I could go to another law firm and be better paid, I’d still be working crazy hours and have the same lack of control. Work life balance is very important to me and that’s hard to achieve as a lawyer unless you’re willing to go solo. Of course, solo practice is no walk in the park. But whether I’m working 20 hours a week or 60, at least I’m in the driver’s seat and that makes a huge difference to my stress level. It’s one thing to take on a workload that requires 12 hours days and get 100% of the profit from those clients. It’s quite another to be underpaid and chained to your desk until 9:00 p.m. while the partner twiddles his thumbs and goes home at 5:00 p.m. on the dot.

Of course, being a solo practitioner is a lot of work too. It means constantly marketing, and doing everything yourself for however long it takes to make enough profit to hire help. It’s easy to put up a website and download some apps that will help you set up a virtual office. It’s much, much harder to get paying clients in the door. There’s a good reason that most people aren’t business owners–handing over 40+ hours of your time every week for a steady paycheck makes life easier in many ways.

Tax season ends next week and with it, my regular paycheck so for the next however long it takes to get a job offer, I’m on my own. I’ve been applying for a while now, and August will make a full year since I quit. I know I’m not underqualified for the positions I’ve been applying for, so maybe this lack of response is God’s way of giving me an answer…

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Work | Life

So I had an interview at a law firm today. It went well, in that I got there early, came prepared, and delivered my answers without sounding rehearsed (and with a minimum of filler words). Go me! However…I could tell it wasn’t going to be the right fit. The first indication was that the job was advertised on Craigslist and the company was confidential. I applied anyway on the off chance it could be legit. But, I got my last job through CL so I braced myself for the worst. If a firm can’t afford to spend a couple hundred dollars to list on a dedicated jobs site for 30 days, they more than likely don’t want to pay a competitive salary.

In this case, the odds were not in my favor. It started with the job itself. I was told that they expected me to work cases with little to no oversight or guidance from them. I’m an independent worker but most law firms specialize in just two or three areas of law. They do everything- tax, estate planning, immigration, criminal defense, personal injury, products liability, contract, worker’s compensation, YOU NAME IT! That’s fine, I’m willing to learn…but the expectation is that I would be on my own and I was not to bother them with questions. Seriously? It took me a year to get down all the subtleties of the FLSA*, and that’s just one part of one branch of law. Hubs said, “Well then clearly they’re comfortable with you making mistakes and learning by trial and error. ” HA! If only that were true.

The second red flag was the schedule The principal attorney is one of those Gen-Xers with a Baby Boomer “back in my day” mentality. In his associate days, he worked until 1am and then got called back to the office at 6am and didn’t complain! (Mind you, his firm bio says that he worked in BigLaw and finished law school in 2001, so he was definitely getting six figures for his troubles). I was told that in addition to working past closing time during the week (fine), I’d be expected to work every weekend because that’s when they got most of their work done. Not fine. How am I in the office 60 hrs during the week and still need to work Saturday and Sunday, every single weekend? Either a) they’re pulling in a huge volume of cases and need at least two associates to even the load or b) that scattershot approach to getting clients means they’re burning too much time on research.

 

I’m just going to put it out there that a 60 hour workweek is about my limit. That’s already a huge time commitment. Let’s say I get up at 6:30. Take an hour to eat breakfast and get dressed, 30 minute commute (even though the average daily commute is almost an hour, I’ll be generous) to get to the office at 8am. I take a 30 minute lunch and leave at 8:30pm to get home at 9pm, eat dinner, and go to bed at midnight.  When do I have time to exercise, cook a healthy meal, or do anything fun, other than the weekend? It’s just not sustainable. Especially if you’re not going to pay me enough money to put aside how exhausted and stressed out I am.

On top of all this, we discussed salary. I included my bare minimum number ($60k) and they asked if I could go lower.  I had already figured out the job wasn’t for me but that cleared any doubt in my mind. I surely didn’t go to into debt to obtain an advanced degree and get paid less than a teacher. No disrespect at all to educators, but I know my worth. In Houston ISD, teachers start at $54k. You only need a Bachelor’s degree and you get weekends, all federal holidays, and 2 months off in the summer. $60k is a damn bargain if I’m working 10-12 hour days year round with no holidays except Thanksgiving  &  Christmas.

Anyway, I’m not discouraged. If I can get one interview I can get another. There is definitely something better out there for me–even it means that I have to hang my own shingle. If I have to take a pay cut, I’d rather do it comfortably from home where I can set my own hours. Because being cash poor and miserable is a double-L that I’m not signing up for.

 

*Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes the minimum wage and the requirement that non-exempt workers be paid overtime.

A Lawyer’s Lament

My graduate certificate program will be finished in 3 months so at the top of the year I started job hunting full time. I forgot how demoralizing it is. No interviews yet, although I’ve applied for dozens of jobs, and I’m qualified for most of them. There have been a few stretches of course, but if someone with no political experience whatsoever can be Commander in Chief, then anything is possible! #MURICA

Anyway, I’ve been applying for lawyer jobs as well as corporate ones. Corporate jobs are much easier to apply to–just send in your resume and a cover letter! No need for transcripts, writing samples, or references. Attorney openings on the other hand…SMH. First of all, half of them I don’t even bother with because they ask for top 10% or 25%. It’s no use trying to get around the grade requirement unless you’ve got five years experience or know someone at the firm who will keep your resume from being trashed (that’s a no for me on both counts). One listing that really got my ire up said “Top 25% only (or a REALLY good excuse as to why you blew it).”

Well excuse the heck outta me. Last time I checked, law school was graded on a curve which means IT’S PURPOSELY SET UP SO THAT SOMEONE GETS SCREWED. Despite the fact that the entire class may have an 85% or greater understanding of the material, the curve dictates that somebody’s going to get a grade of 70% because of the curve. I busted my behind in law school after being on the Dean’s List my whole life, but I barely squeaked by in the upper 50%. Mind you, I never received any actual negative feedback on my papers and exams the whole time. But because of the curve, most of my grades were mediocre even though I had an above average understanding of the material.

Law might be the only profession where you need an advanced degree and a state license but your grades still matter. Nobody asks doctors or CPAs for their class rank, so why does it matter for lawyers? If you have to be in the top 25% to get a job at a law firm, why didn’t they just flunk me out after the first semester of 1L year when I was only $10k in the student loan debt hole? I could have gotten 2.5 years of my life back.

Anyway. I hope my loyal readers (shoutout to all five of you, much love!) weren’t too bored by my rant. I’ll write about something more entertaining next time but I needed to whine a little bit before I go back to being adult. I know I just have to keep the faith. I only need one yes, after all.

Loose lips and pink slips

This image originally appeared at http://peoplelab.co.uk/trust-me-im-your-employee/

This image originally appeared at http://peoplelab.co.uk/trust-me-im-your-employee/

Since 2002 when Heather Armstrong got fired for making objectionable comments about her workplace on her blog, social media has exploded. It’s now an inescapable fact of life that we’re living in what amounts to a self-imposed surveillance state. Headed out  to the store in your IDGAF comfy clothes? Don’t be surprised if you end up on People of Walmart. If you get into a barroom brawl you might see it later on Worldstar Hip-Hop. Between Twitter, Facebook, Vine, Instagram, Snapchat and the memes that accompany every news item of note, privacy is all but dead.

But for all of us who are not celebrities, the internet presence that’s attributed to you is usually of your own choosing. Unless you’re applying for a job that requires some type of government clearance, most employers are not going to go any further than a Google search and a standard background check. So if you don’t put your government name on all your social media accounts (and don’t follow/friend all your coworkers), you can maintain some level of privacy on the internet.

The National Labor Relations Board recently passed down a ruling which states that employees cannot be fired for criticizing their employer online. It’s considered protected activity. This squares with the NLRB’s general policy on social media. This doesn’t give you the all clear, though- you can still be fired for posts that are not considered protected activity (such as  untrue statements about the employer, disclosure of confidential information, or racist/sexist/harassing comments that contribute to a hostile work environment). And this doesn’t take into account the ways in which your outspokenness about job conditions (or even religion or politics) may make a bad impression on your employer, leading the company to place you under scrutiny without your knowledge.

The lesson? Social media and your job don’t mix. If you’re in a creative field, then having a bold personality is part of your brand. Nobody wants a musician who is wholly without opinions, and a little controversy can differentiate a stylist or photographer from the crowd. As for the rest of us, no news is generally good news. The absence of an internet presence can scare employers off because nobody wants to hire a complete unknown. It just depends on how much you want to reveal. As a newbie lawyer, I err on the side of caution. My job is to be objective and so until I have an established track record, I’d rather not have all my opinions on display. When it comes to my job, I try not to blog, Facebook or tweet anything negative. Had a tough day at work? CALL A FRIEND. It’s highly unlikely that your BFF is going to record the conversation and send it to your boss. It’s much more likely that one of your coworkers will screenshot your complaints about your boss and save them for a rainy day.

Stay woke and remember- LOOSE LIPS EQUAL PINK SLIPS.

What they don’t teach you in law school

Every day when I wake up, I have to remind myself how blessed I am. Approximately 1/3 of the population has a college degree. There are about 1 million active, licensed attorneys and the US had a population of 316.1 million people as of 2013. I am part of an extremely elite profession that encompasses a mere 0.003% of the population. given that I am female and African-American, my status makes me somewhat exceptional.

So when I wake up and start applying for jobs on Craigslist in my bathrobe, thinking of those things reminds me that I’m not a failure.

I also make myself remember why I got into this line of work: to help people. I get a real sense of accomplishment when I can solve a problem for someone. But it’s not as easy all that. There’s rules of procedure, courtroom etiquette (aka trying not to piss off a nitpicky old judge), research, depositions, brief writing, motion pleading, etc, etc, etc. Most of which you only scratch the surface of in law school. Solo practice is hugely intimidating. Doubly so when you’re a minority and know that everything you do is scrutinized even more. Triply so when you’re new in town and don’t know the lay of the land. I went to a CLE today and everyone was saying you need to basically stalk the courthouse and pick up pro bono work (which ostensibly leads to paying case referrals if you do a good job), or just hand out business cards and pick up a random client. Sounds great in theory. But:

1. Malpractice suits are a real and present danger. Westlaw subscriptions are expensive. I have access to Fastcase through the bar association but it only lets me see Texas cases. Thus, I mostly stick to editing and drafting contracts because the law because the law tends to be easier to find and less variable across jurisdictions.

2. Who’s going to help me learn how to present a hearing, or conduct a trial? The procedural manuals tell you a lot, and so does courtroom observation. But it’s not the same as having someone to walk you through it and fill in the gaps. Clearly the judge isn’t going to do it, so…

3. Where I am supposed to meet my clients? I don’t have office space or money to rent it. I suppose we could conference at the courthouse but that raises issues with breaking privilege and confidentiality since it’s a public space. Same thing with a random coffeehouse.

I could go on….Let’s not even get into all the money I have to spend on gas and parking- I live 30 minutes away from the courthouse and there’s no such thing as free parking in Houston. Working for free costs more than just your time, contrary to what people believe.

I went to a seminar today for new lawyers and the privilege disgusted me at times. Then there was a very awkward session where a retired lawyer went on a rant about the lack of respect for authority- in my opinion, a dig at the national unrest stemming from Ferguson but I could be reading too far into it. When he started talking about professional attorney, he basically stared me (and my fluffy twist-out) down. It was pretty apparent because there were only four other attendees, all sitting to the left of me and more directly in his line of sight. It really rubbed me the wrong way. Why is it that natural hair is only professional when it’s braided or bunned and essentially, tamed? My hair grows out instead of down. What of it? And although you think I just rolled out of bed and achieved this afro, in point of fact I spend a few hours each week maintain it and several minutes every morning coaxing it into its current shape. The microaggressions are real out in these streets.

I don’t really have a point to this post. Except to say that there’s a lot they don’t teach you in law school. And life can be much more unfair than you thought. But there’s always hope. I’m going to make it, one way or another.

Esquired.

Bar results came out yesterday and I PASSED!

it's a celebration

Because you can’t be excited without referencing Dave Chappelle as Rick James.

Hugely relieved. Results weren’t due out until today, and I actually went to the website just to see what time they’d be dropping and saw the link. I scrolled down the list in slow motion and there my name was! Texas actually gives you your score and I actually passed by a comfortable margin, which was a nice ego boost. Husband and I went out for dinner at Cheesecake Factory to celebrate. Still in a state of disbelief- I’ve been dreaming of this day for so long and it finally happened. I’m a lawyer. Of course, my friends and family never doubted me. I was 75% sure I had passed, but it’s such a grueling exam and I had to learn new law since I was coming from out of state. Plus, this was a hard bar year- passage rates were down a full 10% from last year! Oh well. This news has made my month. I’m out of J.D. limbo and I feel like I finally have some job options. I’m a lawyer, y’all!

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