Publication note: This post was originally published 10/23/06. I think the advice and comments still hold true today. In republishing the post, I made only minor edits. Another note: my firm is now called The Schaeffer Law Office, P.C., rather than Schaeffer & Lamere, P.C.
What would you say to a lawyer with five years of defense experience who wants to open a plaintiffs' practice but is first considering a stint in a U.S. Attorney's office to get some additional trial experience? Is this a sensible way to make the switch from defense lawyer to plaintiffs' lawyer?
I recently got a question like this in an email. Here's my response. I think there are many ways to make the switch to a plaintiffs' practice. Taking a detour to get some additional trial experience certainly isn't a bad idea: real, solid trial experience is something that will set a lawyer apart from most others and make him or her employable at many different types of firms.
Of course, there is a huge difference between being employable as a lawyer and opening a plaintiffs' firm. It brings to mind the two stumbling blocks that keep most lawyers from starting a plaintiffs' practice--a lack of capital and a need for a steady income. Even with a low-overhead operation, many can't get by without a salary. You don't get a salary if you own the firm. It can be hit or miss for months or years.
A common solution to the problem is to find a plaintiffs' firm that's willing to pay a salary. This option allows a lawyer to reduce some of the downside risk of changing careers while being paid to learn the ins-and-outs of a plaintiffs' practice. In addition to a salary, many firms will also pay a portion of the fees a lawyer generates from his own cases. It's a sensible alternative to immediately hanging a shingle as a plaintiffs' lawyer.
It's more or less the route I took myself. After leaving a defense firm, I worked at a plaintiffs' firm for a few years on a salary. One thing that made my situation a little different is that I had the good fortune of joining two lawyers I already knew. Just a year before, we'd all worked together at the defense firm. When they left to start their own plaintiffs' firm, I stayed behind, in part because I needed a salary. A year later, they already had had enough success to be able to pay me one. I joined them in 1996. Eventually, I became a partner at the firm and we continued to do well enough that eventually, I was able to move on to a new opportunity. That's how my firm Schaeffer & Lamere came to be.
At Schaeffer & Lamere, I work on our firm's class action and personal-injury cases, but I also frequently join up with other plaintiffs' lawyers--including my former partners at the old firm--to work on various other projects, including the mass torts I often write about on this weblog. It's a sort of flexible deal-making--being able to supply both brainpower and capital to projects that are expected to pay in the future--that makes a plaintiffs' practice especially fun for me. By thinking of myself as a free agent, I can work on many different types of cases with many different lawyers. There's always something new to work on or something new just around the corner.
With this said, I certainly don't consider myself an expert on the right way to move from a defense firm to a plaintiffs' practice. Things worked out fine for me, but it was due in part to being in the right place at the right time. If someone has other solutions to the problem, please leave a comment.