How to Feed a Lawyer (and Other Irreverent Observations from the Legal Underground)

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Trial experience is good, but I am kind of baffled at the idea that the way to get it is to switch into criminal law with an eye on going back into civil practice. That gets you into trials, true, but they're criminal trials where you learn criminal law and criminal procedure.

Carolyn Elefant

For an already experienced attorney, I would only recommend government practice as preparatory to solo practice if you plan to use your government contacts to gain clout (see this post - http://www.myshingle.com/my_shingle/2005/03/clout_trumps_so.html) that you can market in solo practice. So, if you plan to represent white collar criminals, it makes sense to work at the SEC, if you want to go into environmental law, putting in some years at EPA or your state environmental protection agency will help you develop contacts that will give you marketing leverage when you start your firm.

Other than that, as a defense attorney, I don't see any problem switching to plaintiffs' work, except that you need to switch perspective, e.g., realize that you carry the burden of proof and you can no longer argue that "there's no evidence that...."

Diana L. Skaggs

It boils down to a tolerance for risk. After 5 years, the longer an attorney works in a field other than the one he/she wants to be in, the less likely the dream will happen. Sometimes you just have to jump in. Finding a salaried job in the desired field is ideal for a few years. If such a position isn't available, going solo and doing other work while the area of interest is marketed and developed is what must be done. If this person has confidence and some tolerance for risk, follow my motto, "don't be a wish I had, be a glad I did!"


Opening a plaintiff's firm isn't a whole lot different than opening many other types of businesses. The first thing to consider is that it is a business. No matter how much trial experience you have, it doesn't do you any good if you don't have any paying clients. Trial experience helps but make sure you have a solid business plan that includes a good marketing program.


Tom: Good point. I'm familiar with a couple of business plans that work--no doubt there are others.

(1) Trial lawyer with lots of actual trial experience. In the post, I was trying to say that a lawyer with lots of trial experience has a fall-back if he opens his own practice and things don't work out--he can go back to work at a firm, whether plaintiff or defense. But being known as a trial lawyer who gets results in real trials can also be the basis of a business plan in and of itself, as it allows a lawyer to rent himself out to other firms in exchange for a share of the fees. A recent example seems to be Mark Lanier in the New Jersey Vioxx cases, although I don't know the actual terms of the deal under which he is proposing to try other lawyers' cases.

(2) Trial lawyer who advertises. You mentioned a "good marketing program," which could certainly mean advertising. Many lawyers swear by advertising (print and/or TV), saying that if you do it right, it never fails. I happen to be of this view. What's to be done with the cases that are generated via advertising? I'm the sort of lawyer that keeps the cases he retains and doesn't refer them to other lawyers, although this isn't always the case--sometimes lawyers who advertise also depend on other firms--such as those whose business model is (1)--when it's necessary to work cases up for trial.

(3) Trial lawyer who both advertises and actually tries cases. This is a combination of (1) and (2). You can both be a firm that advertises and a firm that other firms which advertise refer cases to. This is my own chosen model, although it's complicated by the fact that I often work on the same cases jointly with two other firms. I also have cases completely outside the model.

Anyway, as I said, there are probably many other business models for plaintiffs' lawyers, but these are a few I'm familiar with.

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