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Flexibility in the legal profession?

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I am a law student with zero experience working in law, so forgive me if my remarks sound ignorant, but I am concerned about my future as a lawyer and would like some input from those more experienced or knowledgeable.

 

Although I am pursuing law I have a part-time career that is very fulfilling to me and which I intend to continue pursuing for the rest of my days.  I am not passionate about law and do not want it to dominate my life.  However, based on what I have heard and read, the legal profession does not strike me as being very flexible; in fact, it seems to be nearly all-consuming, so I am becoming increasingly concerned that I may have chosen the wrong profession....am I mistaken?

 

I should point out that I am not very ambitious for my legal career and I am not concerned about earning a lot of money.  I would be perfectly content making $40 000 to $50 000 a year as a lawyer, supplemented, of course, by my other career. 

 

Now if one is willing earn less as a lawyer, is there an option to work less at the same time???  Is it possible to work part-time?

 

If I were to pursue private practice could I not simply take on as few or as many clients as I want.  Would this apply to criminal defense, family law and personal injury, all of which interest me?

 

I am also attracted to the idea of being a lawyer in a small town, but perhaps this is a pipe dream?  I'm not from a small town for one thing, and for all I know it might be as difficult to bring in business as a sole practitioner as it would be to open up a restaurant, a nursery or any other entrepreneurial enterprise.

 

Any thoughts?

 

 

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There's all kinds of flexibility in the practice of law, since you always have the option to go out on your own. That said, like any small business, going out on your own will be pretty all-consuming until you're established.

 

Even the firms can be flexible sometimes. We have lawyers in our firm who work reduced hours (though i'm not sure I would quite describe it as part time).

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A question for the practicing lawyers: Way about flexibility to move between areas within law?

 

I always assumed this was difficult, unless the areas were closely related or mutually overlapping. For example, it would be difficult to move between crim and corporate, but perhaps not as difficult to move between litigation and labour.

 

ETA: typos. The ipad is pretty impractical...

Edited by Gogol

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I would be wary of going into the practise of law with the goal of only ever doing it part time.

 

The first two to five years of your career is an incredibly steep learning curve. You need to dedicate yourself to it. That means taking the time, taking the files, getting the experience. You can't build a practise if you're only applying yourself for 20-30 hours a week.

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If you've yet to start law school, why not put that time, energy, and monetary investment into developing this PT career you're so passionate about into something more substantial? Why bother with the law degree?

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some bay street firms do have programs where you can scale back hours, work fewer days a week, etc. but you'll never make partner doing that, and it can still be hard to balance because you are still at the mercy of clients. My advice would be to avoid private practice. There are lots of non-firm jobs where lawyers routinely work 35-45 hr. weeks and still get paid quite well.

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A question for the practicing lawyers: Way about flexibility to move between areas within law?

 

I always assumed this was difficult, unless the areas were closely related or mutually overlapping. For example, it would be difficult to move between crim and corporate, but perhaps not as difficult to move between litigation and labour.

 

ETA: typos. The ipad is pretty impractical...

 

I'm not a lawyer, and the only experiences I've heard about has been through talking to other lawyers, but they have said it is possible. One who I talked to moved from family to criminal and general as a partner, and the other has done basically every type of law I can think of (criminal, family, corporate, tax, etc.). This was all quite a few years back though, so I can't comment on the possibilities right now. I'd also like to hear some thoughts on this as well!

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My advice would be to avoid private practice. There are lots of non-firm jobs where lawyers routinely work 35-45 hr. weeks and still get paid quite well.

 

My advice would be to avoid private practice. There are lots of non-firm jobs where lawyers routinely work 35-45 hr. weeks and still get paid quite well.

 

What do you mean by 'private practice'?...Sole practitioner, or anything in the private sector?  I've previously worked for a couple of govt. departments and I was bored out my mind.  If I'm going into law I would like to be in court, not in front of a computer all day.  I think criminal defense might be one of the few areas I could see myself really getting into, but I have two questions about it:

 

1. Is it extremely competitive to get work as a defense lawyer?  I've heard from some that it is the most competitive area of law to get into, and yet it seems

    there is a need for criminal defense lawyers, so I would have thought that anyone willing to take on whatever clients need representation would be able to get

    work (providing they are competent, of course)

 

2. With criminal defense is it possible to take on less work that normal (and of course receive less pay)?  I'd be willing to put in the

    hours at the beginning, as Hegdis pointed out is necessary, as long as after a few years I could choose to reduce my workload.

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1. Is it extremely competitive to get work as a defense lawyer?  I've heard from some that it is the most competitive area of law to get into, and yet it seems there is a need for criminal defense lawyers, so I would have thought that anyone willing to take on whatever clients need representation would be able to get work (providing they are competent, of course)

 

2. With criminal defense is it possible to take on less work that normal (and of course receive less pay)?  I'd be willing to put in the hours at the beginning, as Hegdis pointed out is necessary, as long as after a few years I could choose to reduce my workload.

 

1. Yes and no. Anyone can hang out their own shingle once they are Called. Most criminal defence lawyers are sole practitioners, so they don't rely on some one employing them in a salaried position. In that sense it isn't competitive at all. You want to call yourself a defence lawyer, no one can stop you.

 

However, getting clients is another question. In order to make ends meet you'll need to build a practise - get yourself a solid client base as quickly as possible so that you can pay your bills and your self. Legal Aid clients aren't going to give you a good income individually, so you need to go for volume - and depending on where you are, there might be plenty of lawyers who take legal aid referrals who have more experience and are better known than you. Private clients are what everyone wants - but they can afford to be picky. In that sense criminal defence is extremely competitive. 

 

Much of this depends on where you are. Some markets are over-saturated with lawyers. Others are desperate for them.

 

2. Yes, it's possible to work part time as a criminal defence lawyer once you are established. But it is not necessarily a good idea. With less work comes less income. And if you destabilize your client base and then your handful of files resolve early without trial, you have no income with which to pay your overhead. It's a dangerous game to play it that close to the wire, so unless you have a supplemental income or a supportive spouse, I wouldn't chance it.

 

However, if you need to take time for family or health reasons - something likely to be temporary - it's one of the great advantages to this area of law. Since you are your own boss, you make the call. You just have to keep a careful eye on your existing files and on your bottom line.

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However, getting clients is another question. In order to make ends meet you'll need to build a practise - get yourself a solid client base as quickly as possible so that you can pay your bills and your self. Legal Aid clients aren't going to give you a good income individually, so you need to go for volume - and depending on where you are, there might be plenty of lawyers who take legal aid referrals who have more experience and are better known than you. Private clients are what everyone wants - but they can afford to be picky. In that sense criminal defence is extremely competitive. 

I apologize in advance if I derail this thread.  I am wondering Hegdis if you can tell us what you mean by develop a client base.  Do you mean just get a whole whack of files so that you've always got something to do, or is this more like a sales position where you find a client and then encourage him to continue coming back to you?  Also, with legal aid, can you get the same client more than once, or does legal aid just assign the client at random?

 

With private clients, what do you generally see?  Mostly just DUIs?  Or is the ideal to get some rich family with a delinquent child or a kingpin of a criminal organization?  And how do you get these coveted clients?  Is it a matter of just building a rep, or is there some sort of data out there on success rates and types of cases?

 

Some of those questions might come off as a bit glib, but I am genuinely interested.

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Here's an old post about what I did to build a client base. It's both, as you see - you go for volume, but you treat each client as well as you can; you want them back. Most clients will call when they get into trouble again if they trust you and know you'll take their calls. (It is still amazing to me how many lawyers don't answer their phones or return their messages.) Legal aid clients have a limited ability to choose their own counsel, but generally speaking if you keep the client you get the next referral. 

 

Private clients are susceptible to all of the charges legal aid clients get. The context is likely to be different when extreme poverty isn't in the picture but money doesn't provide any moral high ground as far is criminal behaviour goes. Private clients are just less likely to be caught since they have their own apartment or car to do these things in. Most early private files you get are likely to be domestics, driving offences, or drugs (low level - runners, mostly).

 

One of the biggest sources for referrals are when a client is in prison. If they are happy with you, you'll start getting calls from their buddies in jail. Good lawyers are a kind of currency that gets bartered. If you answer your phone and go out to visit in person and get a good result for your guy, you might get three or four new clients on his recommendation. (But you have to be very careful here - a lot of these guys have their own lawyers and are just shopping around. You don't want to poach some one else's client.)

 

Defence is really a service industry job. You don't go in as if you're doing some one a favour for representing them. You go in as if this is a person who has the ability to fire you and find some one else - because they can, and they will.

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You say you're a law student now: when you are looking for articling and/or associate positions, why would a law firm want to hire you to work part-time or reduced hours when they could get an eager person with (let's assume) similar marks to work full-time or even ridiculous hours for the same amount? How will you broach the topic of working reduced hours before you're hired?

 

Based on what I saw (not recently), I would expect - posters above can clarify - that those lawyers who worked reduced hours tended to be those who had already proven themselves useful (i.e. after a few years working hard proving their value) and/or had persuasive personal/health/etc. reasons for needing reduced hours. Or were a rainmaker, or had a major loyal portable client, etc.

 

As for being on your own, those with experience have noted how for starting out at least it's a full-time (or more) endeavour.

 

I practiced law full-time for years, and now practice it part-time while pursuing another profession full-time, but that's the opposite of what you indicate your desired situation is. Maybe after a few years of practising law full-time you can work something out, but unless you clerk at the SCC or your part-time profession is medicine or something like that I don't expect you will have much luck until at least after you've put in those years.

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Hegdis, thank you for your comments - they are very illuminating.  I have a few of follow-up questions:

 

1. You wrote: "if you destabilize your client base and then your handful of files resolve early without trial, you have no income with which

                       to pay your overhead"

 

I don't understand what this means.  Do you only get paid when something goes to trial?

 

2. How does a lawyer acquire legal aid clients?  Say you just articled somewhere but did not wind up getting hired as an associate with a 

    criminal defense firm, how would you go about getting legal aid clients, since you would not yet have a reputation?

 

3. You mentioned some markets being desperate for lawyers.  Would these be Northern locations, small towns?  And would a small town

    have enough potential clients to sustain a criminal defense practice?

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1. You wrote: "if you destabilize your client base and then your handful of files resolve early without trial, you have no income with which to pay your overhead"

 

I don't understand what this means.  Do you only get paid when something goes to trial?

 

2. How does a lawyer acquire legal aid clients?  Say you just articled somewhere but did not wind up getting hired as an associate with a criminal defense firm, how would you go about getting legal aid clients, since you would not yet have a reputation?

 

3. You mentioned some markets being desperate for lawyers.  Would these be Northern locations, small towns?  And would a small town have enough potential clients to sustain a criminal defense practice?

 

1. You can't charge a client or legal aid for a trial that doesn't happen. You get a resolution fee, either negotiated in advance (if private) or set out in your contract (if legal aid). With the exception of trial date resolution (eg a plea the morning of) this usually means you get less money.

 

2. Read my previous link. It explains what I did, and what I believe many people do. But there are a lot of roads that lead to Rome - others (maybe they can post their input here?) have no doubt done things differently. In my opinion it's best to try and get hired by an office, or at least arrange an office and work sharing agreement with senior counsel so you can get your sea legs with support and mentorship.

 

[it is worth noting that I really do not recommend immediately going out on your own as a sole practitioner if you haven't done criminal articles.]

 

3. Smaller towns tend to have fewer lawyers, but that doesn't mean there aren't enough to keep up with demand. Some provinces are booming while others are hurting - that changes the number of private clients versus legal aid clients you can get. It's best to talk to criminal lawyers who work where you want to work to get their views. I would hesitate to generalize on this one.

 

Finally, this thread should give you a much clearer idea of what the actual job is like day to day. It's fiction, but it's as accurate as I could make it. You'll get the added bonus of Uriel's input on what corporate law looks like day to day for an articled student / young associate too.

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