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Thomas Gimer knew in law school that he didn’t want to work for a big law firm. An avid golfer and motorcyclist, he wanted to be his own boss, free from looming quotas and billable-hour requirements. He decided in his second year at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law to start his own firm as soon as he could after his 2000 graduation. He forged a partnership early on with his friend and fellow Catholic University law student, Daniel Murphy. “Both of us really didn’t want to give up our lives in order to pursue a legal career,” Gimer says. That spring, Gimer wrote the business plan for Murphy & Gimer, with a vision to grow it into a business practice. By December of 2000, the firm was open for business and had its first client by January 2001. The path to small firm independence has been dotted with roadblocks for the two lawyers, now in their mid-30s. Gimer and Murphy are representative of the many law school students who yearn to open their own firm or solo practice without having to start out in a big firm or in government. Those working with law school students and young solo and small firm lawyers say the obstacles to taking this route can be rough, if not insurmountable. Lovely Dhillon, executive director of the Law School Consortium Project, a partnership of 10 law schools that provides support for those starting their own firms or solo practices after graduation, says the incredible cost of law school coupled with enticing big firm salaries for first-year associates make striking out on one’s own a difficult choice. “I think a lot of people turn away from what they really want to do,” she says. Although any startup legal practice is challenged to make money immediately, it is even harder to do so for those who still have student loan debt. And many who start their own firms provide low-cost legal services to underserved communities. In their first few years of practice, they make just a fraction of the salary of a big firm associate. According to an American Bar Association study released Aug. 8, the increasing amount of law school debt, which in 2002 averaged more than $80,000, derails many students from taking public interest legal jobs. Although this study did not include those who start their own law practices, Dhillon says loan debt has the same impact on those who want to start “low bono” local practices, which cater to those who don’t qualify for legal aid, but can’t afford a lawyer. “It is truly outrageous to me that we have wonderful people . . . who leave law school with so much debt and pressure to go into the corporate legal world that they give up those dreams,” she says. GETTING A LEG UP The University of Maryland School of Law, one of the consortium’s four founding schools, has been ahead of the game in training its graduates to run their own practices. The school provides networking assistance, mentoring, practice management assistance, and client referrals, among other services, to alumni in their own practices. Brenda Bratton Blom, a professor at the school and a member of the consortium’s advisory board, says Maryland has been trying to make the transition from law student to firm founder a smooth one. “There is a presumption in legal education that students are going into large firms,” she says. “The reality is that’s not true.” According to Blom, only a small percentage of Maryland graduates are hired by big firms. Most end up in small or midsize practices or in the government, and many express interest in starting their own firms. One of the school’s goals, and a main reason for the consortium’s existence, is to make sure students have the knowledge base and business skills to start their own practices, Blom says. A law practice management class is offered to students interested in starting their own firms. The University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of Law has a required clinical program, which it touts as good preparation for the reality of running a legal business. About 10 percent of the school’s alumni own their own practices. Dean Katherine Broderick says students who participate in the clinical program are given the opportunity to work as community lawyers, while being exposed to the nonlegal details of legal work, such as timekeeping and courtroom etiquette. “They kind of have a leg up,” she says. Broderick says her graduates have an easier time starting their own practices because their student loan debt is lower. The 2002-03 tuition at the school was $7,000 for residents and $14,000 for non-residents, compared with an average private law school tuition of $24,920. Although many law schools are trying to prepare their students to start their own firms, some career advisers counsel students against jumping into it right away. “It’s not something I would advise right out of the gate,” says Kristen McManus, director of career services at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. She says recent graduates who start successful legal businesses are usually older graduates for which law is a second career. “They seem to have a lot larger network than your average law student,” McManus says. James Neher graduated from the Clarke School of Law in 2001, ready to start a new career in law after owning and operating a flower shop and renting out real estate. After working for D.C. Mayor Anthony William’s general counsel, he decided there was no better time than while in a junior position in city government to start his own personal bankruptcy practice this past January. But Neher wasn’t prepared for the 70 to 80 percent of his clients who proved to be no-shows at court. NECESSARY SUPPORT To assist people like Neher and Gimer who have little legal experience and often limited business experience, the consortium established a mentoring network between recent graduates and established solo and small firm practitioners. Gimer says not having someone to guide his partner and him on a daily basis was one of the hardest parts of getting started. “There was no senior partner,” he says. “There was initially no ear to bounce ideas off.” Dhillon thinks if there were more support systems like the consortium’s, more recent graduates, especially those who want to serve poor and middle-income communities, would be encouraged to set up shop. “To have that same kind of support community and guidance and mentorship is huge,” she says. To overcome the loan debt obstacle, some have proposed extending loan assistance repayment programs, designed to help law school graduates in lower-paying government or public service jobs, to those who do a substantial amount of pro bono or low bono work in private practice. “A lot of the pro bono and reduced fee work is being done by small firms and solos without any compensation or appreciation for the impact that they have,” says Denis Murphy, director of the Civil Justice Network, an outgrowth of the University of Maryland’s clinical program that aims to provide reduced-cost legal services in Maryland and the District. Several schools, such as the New York University School of Law, the University of Michigan Law School, and Harvard Law School, take this into consideration on loan repayment assistance applications, but most do not. “Debt is a huge issue for anybody who is thinking about any path other than the large firms,” says the University of Maryland’s Blom. Solo and small firm lawyers who do substantial pro bono and low bono work should be “included in the pool when loan forgiveness programs are considered.” Gimer, whose father is a lawyer, didn’t take out an enormous amount of student loans, but his partner Murphy did. While the firm was getting started, Murphy deferred and consolidated his $60,000 of student loans. “It was difficult,” says Murphy, who taught fifth-graders before entering law school. “I kept telling myself if it wasn’t, everyone would be doing it.” But money was just one of the problems Gimer and Murphy have dealt with. Because they couldn’t afford in their infancy to hire support staff, they had to figure out how to juggle answering the phones while writing briefs. But Murphy & Gimer has been successful: It made a profit after its first nine months and quadrupled that in the second year, Gimer says. Dhillon says lawyers and law schools have to pay more attention to this as a valid career choice. The legal community needs to make sure these solos and small firms are “doing well while doing good,” she says.

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