Wednesday, May 23, 2012

From Dry Land to Swimming: A Few Thoughts on Transitioning from Government Attorney to Private Practice

On March 1st of this year I stepped away from the dry land of a steady government paycheck (with benefits and retirement) to swimming in the ocean of private practice. Before I did, I asked a few attorneys (who shall remain nameless) some advice about making the leap. The general consensus from the attorney’s I talked to was, “Don’t do it!” While their misgivings were discouraging, something about that advice didn’t add up to me. Now that I’ve been practicing for a couple of months I understand why they advised me against the move…and I respectfully dissent.

Why did they tell me not to do it?

First, there is no more “steady”. The leap from government attorney to sole practitioner has been as far from steady as you can get. The word I use to describe my life to friends and family is “chaos”. That word is about as accurate as it gets. Between evaluating new clients, balancing current clients and keeping up with court dates and deadlines there is always something I need to be doing and staying on top of. (It really makes sitting down to write a blog post excruciatingly painful!). In government work, I worked from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Now, I’m on-call 24/7.

Second, there is the “unknown” factor. As a government attorney, I new how much I made and what I was supposed to do. My paycheck was always the same and automatically deposited into my account at the same times every month. I was able to budget, plan, save and keep my finances very organized…not so much now. Everything now is unknown. Week-to-week and even day-to-day, I don’t know what income I will be bringing in. There’s no way to know how many clients I will sign up. There’s no way to know what kind of case I’ll be working on in the future. There’s no way I’ll know what costs are going to pop up unexpectedly. There is so much unknown that it’s impossible to feel safe.

Third, it’s all me! When I worked for the government, I had a two legal assistants and a handful of attorney’s to bounce things off of. Now, it’s all me. I find that the tasks of researching, preparing motions, phone calls, emails and making decisions regarding my clients cases can be overwhelming at times. The responsibility of not only keeping my business sustained, but effectively representing my clients seems impossible sometimes. Psychologically, the stress and pressure has been taxing.

Now, the dissent:

It’s not steady, but it’s exciting. There is no boredom in what I do now. Now, I’m not going to say I was bored working for the government…but I will say that the pace of things now definitely keeps me on my toes. Deep-down, I enjoy the chaos. It’s stressful, and can make me irritable at times. But, for the first time since graduating law school (outside of my courtroom experience), I really feel like a lawyer. Plus, there’s always some new problem, some new situation that stimulates me to bring out my potential.

There is so much “unknown”, but some of it is really good! I don’t know what my income will be but it could be so much more than it used to be (and I’m finding that if I work hard and serve my clients to the best of my ability it likely will be). There have also been some great rewards in getting to know the people I’ve been helping and building relationships with. Those rewards were unknown when I started. Sure, it’s impossible to feel safe…but it’s also exciting to know that something really great and rewarding could walk through the door at any minute. That “unknown” is something that is constantly exciting and always hovering in the back of my mind.

Finally, it’s all me!!! When you help a client, or help them make a decision that they had not previously thought of, the rewards are indescribable. The pride I have in my work now does exceed what I previously did for the government because I know that nobody helped me come to my final decision but me. In addition to taking stock in your own work, there is that added benefit of being your own boss. I can take off when I want to as long as I'm caught up on my work. (Granted, that has not been often...but at least I know it's a possibility!)

All-in-all, I completely understand why attorneys would advise me not to go out on my own. But, it fits my personality and I’m happier now (despite the chaos and stress) than I ever have been. So, if you’re out there making a nice, steady safe paycheck and you’re comfortable with that, then my advice is to stay there. But, if something about that routine leaves you wanting for more and you’re willing to live with the fast-pace chaos, then jump on in…the water is fine!!!