I recently listened to a podcast from the Un-billable Hour hosted by my friend Rodney Dowell. He spoke with Erik Mazzone from the North Carolina Bar Association about opening a law office, mentorship, StartingOutSolo and marketing.
The thing I wanted to comment on is the segment about new lawyers starting out solo and the quality of their practice and the need for finding mentors. I know Rodney and I know he would never imply that new lawyers don’t know how to practice law or are incapable of practicing law, but to some listeners, it might have come off sounding like that.
I agree with Erik and Rodney on the importance of finding a mentor but I disagree about where to find those mentors. It was said that finding mentorship between a group of new lawyers is not useful because it’s like the blind leading the blind. I disagree with this because new lawyers have experience from either past internships or practice or just learning how to practice law by themselves. On the StartingOutSolo listserv, we routinely ask simple questions about how to handle a legal situation or if someone has a form for a particular motion. If someone in the group has dealt with that legal issue before, it doesn’t matter if they’ve been out in practice for 2 months or 20 years, they’ve dealt with it before and now has the experience and the qualifications to share that experience with fellow lawyers.
It also speaks to the erroneously held belief that old lawyers equals better lawyer. The years of practice correlates to experience and breadth of knowledge but does not equate to a better lawyer overall. This I have seen in person. I have litigated against young lawyers who I thought were very good and I’ve litigated against senior lawyers who I thought were very bad. As the saying goes, practice doesn’t make perfect, it just makes you consistent.
As to having mentors, I entirely agree that mentorship is important but I don’t believe that mentorship means you can’t or shouldn’t start a practice right out of law school. This implies that if you were to join a firm, you’d get supervision and mentorship – which could or couldn’t be true. I know lots of big firm lawyers, first year associates, that hardly get any mentorship. They get thrown case research or motions to draft but no direction. They talk to the senior partners only when getting new assignments or presenting their work. So these new associates look to not the senior partners, but other associates – 2nd or 3rd year associates. This is no different than StartingOutSolo members asking each other for help.
Living in the information and technology revolution means that not only is marketing a solo practice easier than ever before, but it also means that finding mentors and legal information is also easier than ever before. Many new solos join Solosez or other association of lawyers that will gladly speak with them by email or otherwise. It’s not the traditional method of mentorship where new lawyers follow more seasoned lawyers around all day or see them in person, but it is no less helpful. My first divorce trial, I spoke with a more experienced divorce lawyer that I met online and I spoke with her and picked her brain for over 2 hours to prepare for trial. She was a one-time mentor but was nonetheless a mentor.
The bottom line is this – the information/technology revolution has opened up the world to so many more options from every aspect of life and business. It has done the same for the practice of law. There is no longer one way to open a law firm. A myriad of ways exists and are just as valid. The key, and this hasn’t changed from the old guard, is dedication, research and drive. Have a goal, don’t stop until you reach that goal, and always do your homework.