Not All New Lawyers Are Young

Issue November/December 2021 November 2021 By Susanne Gilliam
Young Lawyers Division Section Review article
Article Picture
Susanne Gilliam

According to my mother, I showed a tendency to march to my own drummer when I was very small. I haven’t changed much, which is how I found myself going to law school in my mid-50s. My first career was 20 years as a computer programmer, working on networking and operating systems. My second career began when my husband and I decided to homeschool our children to allow us more time together as a family.

When my children headed to college, it was time to go back to work and I was ready for a new challenge. I had never really thought about being a lawyer, but I saw an ad for a law school and I couldn’t shake the thought that it was the perfect next career.

As life expectancy has lengthened, serial careers like mine are becoming more common, and it is worth keeping in the back of your mind as a possibility. While my husband and I carefully saved for our children to go to college, it never occurred to me that I too might want additional higher education.

I selected New England Law | Boston because of their outreach to nontraditional students like me. In my starting class group of well over 300 students, I was 18 years older than the next oldest student. In fact, the vast majority of my classmates were the age of my children. But once we’d found ourselves in the trenches of first-year classes, it really didn’t matter at all.

Another choice I made was to become a solo practitioner straight after I passed the bar in 2016. The standard advice is to work for a firm for the first five to seven years while you build expertise, and then become a solo if you are interested. While that is undoubtedly good advice for some people, I couldn’t see the point in working for years for someone else and then going out on my own. I felt that by starting as a solo, everything I did would be directed at building my own business.

An additional benefit is that you can focus on the parts of being a lawyer that most closely fit your particular strengths and interests. I particularly like working directly with clients and learning their stories. I know other solos that found they really didn’t particularly like the interactions with clients, but they thrived when they needed to write a brief. Some of those people make a good living doing writing for other lawyers who find it unappealing.

There are many other examples, but being a solo straight out of law school has an incredibly steep learning curve. You also lack the ready access to other lawyers you can bounce ideas off of, or get advice just by checking in with a more experienced lawyer.

The downsides of being a “young lawyer” and a solo can be mitigated by making connections with other lawyers. There are bar associations that are focused on a particular type of law, or on a particular geographic area, or specific groups like the Women’s Bar Association.

Most bar associations will allow you to attend a meeting or two before you join, so you can determine if it has value for you. I spent about six months after passing the bar visiting as many bar associations as I could. 

My experience won’t resonate with everyone, but I do have some concrete suggestions. First and foremost, you should be aware that a portion of your bar fees pay for the statewide Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. Every state has such an organization, and while they are best known for supporting those with substance abuse problems, their offerings go well beyond that to cover all sorts of wellness.

In Massachusetts, the umbrella group is Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL). They have a subgroup known as the Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP). All services for these organizations are free to lawyers licensed in the state. Through LOMAP, I participate in a monthly support group for solos run by a psychologist that is employed full time by LOMAP. They have other support groups, but they also have an excellent program to help you sort out your technology needs and software needs.

The Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA) is a fabulous resource that I wish I had discovered sooner. While it is fee based, they have all sorts of sections devoted to specific types of law, as well as to specific portions of the profession like the Young Lawyers Division (YLD). I am also licensed in New Hampshire, which has a yearly CLE requirement. The CLE offerings of the MBA that are covered by my participation fee satisfy the requirements for New Hampshire and many other states.

Another free resource is the Small Business Administration (SBA). This resource is paid for by our taxes, and they are an invaluable source of information on running a small business, including a focus on women- and minority-owned businesses, and on doing business with the federal government. They have classes that range from the basics of financials through the impact of COVID-19 on small businesses.

The MBA, the SBA and some associations focused on specific types of law provide free mentoring to members. This can range from a one-time check on your business plan or your financials to an ongoing relationship that can nurture your business and legal knowledge.

I am still a young lawyer, even though I am not a young human being. My interests and worries are typical of those in their first years of practice. I have recently been appointed as New Hampshire’s American Bar Association (ABA) YLD delegate. I was interested in this position because I wanted to understand the issues and concerns of other young lawyers, and to get some understanding of nationwide issues. There are many volunteer positions like my ABA position that can allow you to extend your circle.

Do not be afraid to volunteer — as a young lawyer, you bring a distinct perspective to any volunteer position, and you can bring forward the concerns of other young lawyers. It is easy to think that you don’t know enough to fill these sorts of volunteer positions, but you know far more than you think you do.

You can also volunteer through different organizations to answer legal questions. Your subject matter expertise may begin with what you learned in law school, but you will build experience quickly, and many of these pro bono opportunities are performed completely in writing, allowing you time to double-check your answers. With each question you answer, your confidence in your abilities will increase.

The gap between available free legal services and those that need such services is enormous, as is the need for those of modest means. As a new lawyer, you may have more time than those with heavier client loads. That makes volunteering an excellent way to both help you meet other practitioners and give back to the community. In many cases, you may be able to be covered by malpractice insurance when you take a pro bono case, and there may also be direct mentorship available.

I believe that fear is the greatest challenge new lawyers face. If you are afraid to volunteer for pro bono cases or for positions within bar associations, you will miss out on growth opportunities that can help you develop your skills and your network. If you say “yes” and find yourself in over your head, there will be plenty of people you can ask to help you get the situation under control. Of course, you cannot endanger a client’s legal case by being too quick to say “yes,” but you also do harm when you hold back too much.

Expand your world as much as possible and you will find that the early part of your legal career will set the stage for you to become the go-to expert in some specific area. Find what you are good at and then figure out how you can use that to create a career that is satisfying and economically acceptable. Your worth is not measured solely by your income or the number of hours you put in. 

Susanne Gilliam practices asylum law in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She went to law school as an encore to a career in software engineering.