Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Hang a Shingle

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Total Black: $28.61
Total Red: $227,952.40
 

No windfall just yet, but getting there.  In my efforts to think outside the box and come up with different sources of income, I offered to help a colleague with the consulting work he does on the side.  Soon after getting laid-off in October 2008, I started working pro bono for one of the local prosecutor’s offices.  Another attorney started soon after me also as a pro bono attorney.  I bowed out in June so I could study for the Pennsylvania bar exam.  Getting licensed in Pennsylvania, assuming I passed, would be a safety-net in the hopefully unlikely event I had to move back in with my mother; can’t practice law without being licensed.  Anyway, this colleague and I kinda got to know each other since we had a few things in common: both working for free, both lived in Europe for a few years, both a bit older than most of the other attorneys we worked with.  And we’ve kept in sporadic contact since I left.  Earlier this week he called to ask a question; we got to talking and he mentioned how overwhelmed he’s been lately with full-time pro bono work and all the consulting work he does on the side.  I’ve got job hunting to do, but I offered to help out, figuring he’d just want a proofreader, a fresh set of eyes.  He said if he did, he’d let me know.  Yesterday he called: he needs much more than a proofreader and will pay me $1,500 for the work.  That’s almost one month’s rent.  Pretty cool.  As we discussed the work he needed help with, we touched on his growing anxiety and frustration about not knowing what he’s doing, or whether he’s doing it correctly, or what will happen once these one-off tasks are completed.  (Two of his “clients” aren’t even paying him because they’re his friends’ companies.)  More on all this in a bit. 

But first, yet another opportunity: I stumbled across an ad on Craigslist; a businessman is looking for a place to stay in the city two nights a week.  He’s willing to pay $100 / night, which works out to eight hundred dollars a month.  Not bad.  The catch: I’d probably have to leave my apartment for those two nights.  I have to verify that with him since his ad is a bit ambiguous.  My place is set-up in a way that I could sleep on the sofa those two nights and shut the door, effectively giving him the privacy he may want.  But if not, and he is looking to have the place to himself . . . well I don’t have anywhere else in the city to go.  So here’s what I’d do: every Tuesday evening, I’d hop a bus to my mother’s house in Pennsylvania and stay there until Thursday morning when I’d take an early bus back.  A lot of people commute between the Poconos area of Pennsylvania and New York, so I might be able to get a commuter rate even though my trip to Scranton would take longer than a trip to the Poconos.  In total, it’s about two and a half hours by bus.  Pros:  My mom would have me home once a week; I’d have a guaranteed day off each Wednesday; I’d be netting at least $600 / month in profit; meals at mom’s would be free.  Cons:  Some of the money would have to cover the cost of that weekly bus ticket; once the novelty wore off, weekly bus trips to Pennsylvania would take its toll; I’d have to vacate my own space each week. 

Sound crazy?  I know.  But this year of getting debt free isn’t going to come without it’s struggles.  Ah—and in a completely random aside—I have to say that sometimes you have to appreciate life’s internal comedy, and maybe even sarcasm?  As I sat down to being today’s entry, I started iTunes playing on random shuffle in the background.  Just as I got to writing about weekly bus trips back to Pennsylvania, Gladys Knight & The Pips came on singing “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination.” 

Lyrics: “I’ve really got to use my imagination to think of good reasons to keep on keepin’ on.  Got to make the best of a bad situation. . . .  Darkness all around me, blockin’ out the sun.  Friends call me but I just don’t feel like talkin’ to anyone.”  I don’t think I ever listened to the lyrics of that song.  And it was nearly over before my ears tuned in and registered the synchronicity.  Sure, she’s singing about a lost love.  But isn’t getting laid-off kinda akin to getting dumped?  And that leads me to today’s entry, the standard response to lawyer layoffs: hang a shingle and start your own practice. 

Some readers out there may be familiar with Roxanna St. Thomas from the legal blog Above the Law, and her periodic Notes from the Breadline.  In one of her entries “To Be On Your Own,” St. Thomas listed a number of good reasons why that knee-jerk response isn’t a completely viable option.  (Ok, this is getting a bit much…now playing in the background is “When Your Mind’s Made Up” by Glen Hansard & Markéta Irglová from the film “Once.”)  I don’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel here about the drawbacks and pitfalls of going into private practice.  Aren’t the statistics that one in two small businesses fail?   I can appreciate how the cost of office space, for example, or the thought of not being protected by malpractice insurance might deter someone from moving into the world of the solo-practitioner.  Plus my colleague’s stress was palpable and demonstrated the strain of going it alone.  His face betrayed how relieved he was to have someone to delegate some of the work (and worry) to.  But one important reason often overlooked in this discussion: being a solo-practitioner may not be where you want to take your career.  And there’s nothing wrong with that!  It’s only because licensed professionals have the ability to hang a shingle that people toss that response out so casually: attorneys and non-attorneys alike. 

But here’s a counter to the resistance to that shingle: no one says it has to be forever.  If the meeting I had yesterday with my colleague is any indication of the ease with which one can segue into private practice, then it’s nothing so frightening.  Granted, though, the clients are his.  And I’m, in effect, a quasi associate in his quasi law firm.  But the work is not anything I’ve ever done before, so it wouldn’t be any different than if the client came to me herself with it.  Picking up some legal consulting work—even on the side—wouldn’t be that bad.  And there’s no rule that you’re forever doomed to pound the pavement and troll the hospitals looking for clients.  Helping this colleague out, and this year of thinking creatively, has made that clearer for me. 

So . . . you need your will drafted? 

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