Celebrating 10 years! 2007-2017

Compliance vs. Solo/Small Law

Dear JDUnderground, Love this site. I would appreciate t noobster12/03/17
Need more information about your current gig. Pay eh/decent/ loblawyer12/03/17
After another year, I should get something between 100K-115K noobster12/03/17
do you really think he only spent 2 hours on that? He had dingbat12/03/17
I went to a municipal court the other day and saw one attorn phillydoucherocket12/04/17
Where are you getting 100K? The example given involves 5 cl noobster12/05/17
He is being facetious. lilgub12/12/17
You can make a killing at a small shop or your own practice isthisit12/03/17
Agree, if you can sell, solo or small law is fine. Most of u loblawyer12/03/17
What areas of law are they specializing in and how much do y noobster12/03/17
True, I can see how the constant pressure to find clients ca noobster12/03/17
you're making six figures. That's pretty decent. Do you re dingbat12/03/17
You are making well for a year out of LS and are considering nighthawk12/04/17
Agree with all of the above. But to assist in your decision toooldtocare12/04/17
Let's take the subjectivity out of this. In 2012 for example onehell12/04/17
Excellent replies so far. OP, for God's sake, stay in compli satoshinakamoto12/04/17
Ok after seeing your reply OP, I can now firmly say you'd be loblawyer12/04/17
Corporate compliance: a job with a future. LL/Tenant: Aw anothernjlawyer12/04/17
You left out family law, where the client gives you their la onehell12/04/17
sh!t law does not equal small law. Sure , there is a lot of themapmaster12/05/17
The reality is that most work gets boring and a bit rote aft thirdtierlaw12/05/17
Thanks all for the replies and advice. Thirdtierlaw — Y noobster12/05/17
I don't know...I have a friend who went to Southwestern Law mrlollipop12/05/17
How did your friend end up landing those kind of clients? ddonuts12/12/17

noobster (Dec 3, 2017 - 8:46 pm)

Dear JDUnderground,

Love this site. I would appreciate thoughts/comments from you all regarding the below.

I am one year out of law school. Passed the bar and currently work at a small bank as a Legal & Compliance associate. Specifically, I help update our policy and procedures with respect to specific broker dealer activities, train front office personnel, respond to regulatory inquiries, keep track of new of regulations, assist with remediation. I consider myself lucky to have this job. I earned a 3.8 GPA my 1L then made questionable life decisions that caused my GPA to plunge. With that said, I still have this desire to explore the traditional practice of law. I'm guessing a lot of recent grads who enter into alternative legal paths feel the same way?

Given my grades, my options for traditional law practice are very limited. I'm looking at areas of law that are high volume (LL/Tenant, Traffic, DUI, Real Estate, Consumer Bankruptcy). Am I crazy to even consider this path? Can you make a decent earning specializing in these areas of law?

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loblawyer (Dec 3, 2017 - 8:57 pm)

Need more information about your current gig. Pay eh/decent/good and trajectory? Hours and benefits?

Without that, easy gut response is working for a small bank is substantially better than small law, especially the practice areas you mentioned.

I would hope, and frankly expect, most recent grads who got decent paying non small law employment realize how insanely lucky they are.

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noobster (Dec 3, 2017 - 9:10 pm)

After another year, I should get something between 100K-115K. Hours are not terrible. I get in by 8:30 and leave at 6:30 though there are many nights where I will stay until 8PM. I think after a handful of years, I will coast somewhere between 120K-180K. I am not sure what happens after that. Benefits are fair -- decent health package, 401K matching but only up to 5%, pre-tax commute bennies.

The issue is that I don't get many work opportunities to do regulatory analysis and review regulations. I end up doing this after hours to better understand the policies and procedures I enforce.

Why is working for a small bank substantially better than small law? I went to a municipal court the other day and saw one attorney represent 5 clients for silly traffic violations. It took him about 2 hours by the time all his clients were called in. I'm guessing he made at least $1,000.
Looked pretty easy to me.

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dingbat (Dec 3, 2017 - 10:09 pm)

do you really think he only spent 2 hours on that?
He had to (1) find the clients, (2) figure out the best strategy for it, (3) block out the entire day, because he doesn't know whether his clients are the first or last case

A typical attorney like that doesn't make six figures in a year

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phillydoucherocket (Dec 4, 2017 - 10:50 am)

I went to a municipal court the other day and saw one attorney represent 5 clients for silly traffic violations. It took him about 2 hours by the time all his clients were called in. I'm guessing he made at least $1,000.
Looked pretty easy to me.

I went to a car dealership and saw a sales person sell three cars. Must have brought in 100k by the end.

Looked pretty easy.

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noobster (Dec 5, 2017 - 8:48 am)

Where are you getting 100K? The example given involves 5 clients at $200 per. That attorney made at least $1,000 that day (assuming cash method accounting).

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lilgub (Dec 12, 2017 - 3:13 pm)

He is being facetious.

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isthisit (Dec 3, 2017 - 9:00 pm)

You can make a killing at a small shop or your own practice if you have the ability to attract/retain business. But that's not a widely held skill. The solos I know make a nice middle class living but work all hours of the day because it's their practice/business. You eat what you kill so there's a constant fear of not making enough that year.

I'd stick to salaried compliance work and jump into a more traditional in-house role in a few years.

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loblawyer (Dec 3, 2017 - 9:03 pm)

Agree, if you can sell, solo or small law is fine. Most of us can't or don't want to of course, but if that's your thing, great.

There's a few solo or small law shops in my area and on the weekends the high end car is usually there. No way to make a living imo.

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noobster (Dec 3, 2017 - 9:12 pm)

What areas of law are they specializing in and how much do you think they are making?

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noobster (Dec 3, 2017 - 9:11 pm)

True, I can see how the constant pressure to find clients can be burdensome. When you say, "you can make a killing", what does that mean exactly? Are we talking 500K+? What areas of law?

And how do compliance professionals make the jump to in-house positions?

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dingbat (Dec 3, 2017 - 10:05 pm)

you're making six figures. That's pretty decent. Do you really want to jeopardize that?

If you really have an itch you need to scratch, ask the bank if you're allowed to do some pro bono. Something that'll look good in the community

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nighthawk (Dec 4, 2017 - 10:32 am)

You are making well for a year out of LS and are considering doing the dingy stuff? You are doing some interesting work and have a strong career trajectory. You can take the experience and expertise and move into a bigger bank. You can also use your time at a small bank to learn about other regulatory aspects of the place that can be valuable for a future gig, which may happen in the next few years. You may be at the cusp of a well-paying, good benefits in-house gig.

Nonetheless, you are considering becoming a solo trying divorce cases and workers' comp. You would give up a strong career path for immigration law. If that is the case, the you should start your own shop? You sound like someone going through a midlife crisis. To paraphrase Woody Allen, the heart wants what the heart wants.

I suggest that you go fight traffic tickets. Deal with crazy clients and people who are miserable that they cannot grow their firms. I know a number of people who do this type of work. A few of them do well while the vast majority struggle. We see people who go to LS thinking that things will work out for them as an outlier and we laugh; yet you think that your small shop will be an outlier and will become highly successful. Go do it! Remember, when you end up doing doc review, you're supposed to take calls from your clients in the mensroom because that becomes your branch office.

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toooldtocare (Dec 4, 2017 - 12:22 pm)

Agree with all of the above. But to assist in your decision-do you know any attorneys in private practice who would tell you the truth about salaries in your area? And watching cases in traffic court is, at best, misleading. During my brief time as a solo, we used to joke that 10% of the lawyers got 90% of the clients. I had a friend who was in an office sharing arrangement with seven(!) other attorneys. It looked like a call center bullpen. They all seemed good guys, but...two years later, all seven were still there.
And key points: what would health insurance cost for you(do you have spouse/kids). Health insurance is almost insanely expensive if it's for more than just you. None of the solos I knew carried health insurance(not possible now, although check changes to the ACA).
Are you going to carry malpractice? If so, keep in mind that after a few years, usually by year three, malpractice for a solo gets mega expensive.
And retirement? Well, as a solo that's totally self-funded; what are your plans for that?
Finally, with very few exceptions, what do you do if being a solo doesn't work out? Getting another job after being a solo can be very, very tough.
If you've got a job paying at or near six figures and it has benefits, unless you've got some hook you haven't mentioned, dumping that job to go solo is a bad idea.

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onehell (Dec 4, 2017 - 12:32 pm)

Let's take the subjectivity out of this. In 2012 for example, the average income for lawyers filing as solo practitioners was just under 50k:

http://www.businessinsider.com/middle-class-lawyers-are-a-dying-breed-2015-6

Similarly, we have the NALP's "bimodal salary distribution" which shows that entry-level non-biglaw salaries cluster around the 45-65k range:

http://www.biglawinvestor.com/bimodal-salary-distribution-curve/

And lastly, we have the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which says that all lawyers across all practice areas and experience levels earn a median salary of $118k (which itself is already skewed by biglaw/midlaw, in-house, and boomers generally:

https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/lawyers.htm

I'd bet that once you take the value of large-company benefits into account, like health insurance and 401k matches, you are probably making more right now than the median lawyer in this country, and way more than the average solo, no matter how experienced. If your base salary rises to 120-180 over the coming years as you said you expect, the difference becomes even more stark. Heck, at 120k, your salary would be competitive with a lot of the lower and lower-middle end of in-house counsel comp.

Statistically speaking, this seems like a no-brainer to me. For this to pay off, you'd have to do way better than average in a very average or below-average area of law. Outliers exist of course, but it's rarely a good bet to assume you'll be one of them. The odds would be better just going to some Vegas roulette table and putting your life savings on black.

The soft parts such as intellectual stimulation are also in favor of staying put. You could try and move to in-house counsel from compliance but even if you can't pull that off, the kind of law you're already working with is far more sophisticated than DUIs and divorces. And with no screaming, needy or criminal clients, it's prolly a lot less stressful to boot.

The only downside is that you have to show up every day, unlike being a solo where you have more control over your schedule. Sure, solos can say "I billed and collected my 2 hours today, I'm going to the beach!" That does happen. But for every day like that there's ten where you're chasing down some unpaid retainer, writing off hours to appease an angry client, or simply don't have any paying work to do. Again, it seems like a no-brainer to me. I'd stay put. There are tons of struggling lawyers who would kill to have your job, for good reason.

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satoshinakamoto (Dec 4, 2017 - 1:25 pm)

Excellent replies so far. OP, for God's sake, stay in compliance. You've got what sounds like a great job right now in terms of compensation, benefits, stability, work/life balance, and potential. Do not throw that away for the lie that you can find "interesting" and "fulfilling" work.

The only thing most people should want from a job is to optimize your money-making potential (taking into account your educational/experience pedigree and individual talents) in a work environment that you can stand (people's stress tolerance and expectation for work/life balance differ). That's IT. If you want to be intellectually stimulated career-wise, try to write an article for a professional publication in, or near, your field, or pursue a professional certification. (Side benefit of positioning you to move up the ladder.) If you want to do something more "fulfilling," do some charity work. Trust me, for the most part you'll find it much more rewarding.

I have taken the inverse of your proposed career track: I was a prosecutor for several years before moving into, let's just generally say, compliance consulting. I had a good legal career, did a lot of interesting things as a prosecutor, led teams of investigators, first chair murder jury trials to verdict, wrote dozens of appellate briefs, had an absurd amount of responsibility and discretion.

In terms of compensation, there isn't any. My annual reviews were always top notch; often ranked at, or very near, the top. Many years I got zero raise (not even cost of living adjustment to keep pace with inflation); other years we're talking about $1000 or so. Just no money available.

In terms of fulfillment and interest, even with criminal law practice (which most people think is so "exciting!!!") when you have hundreds of cases with fairly similar fact patterns, for the most part, it starts to get routine and boring. What sticks out most is the stress: each case has numerous deadlines with huge, and embarrassingly public, repercussions for screwing up; with enough cases it can be very difficult to keep track of the hundreds of different deadlines that are coming due. Stakeholders (i.e., victims, witnesses or clients) are almost never grateful; usually are dissatisfied even if you get a great result; often have bad attitudes and find the whole legal system frustrating, perplexing and a huge inconvenience from everything else they have going on (it is). Just turns into a grind after awhile, punctuated by periods of high stress: "...I've got a huge trial starting tomorrow that I haven't prepped yet because I've been stuck in drug court all morning, and, oh my god, I thought I subpoenaed that eye witness but she moved and I didn't notice that I didn't get the subpoena return back and, sigh, when will I have time to draft that appellate brief... oh crap.. that attorney I've been dodging for days is calling again..."

Finally, in terms of career growth and alternatives, I think the real problem with small law is that there is no natural Plan B. You do well and love it? Great! You don't do well or get burnt out by the constant stress of having high volume of cases, high stakes, emotional clients, and little to no help? Too bad for you! You have to keep doing it! Yes, you can transition into something else, but it's much more difficult and may involve blowing up your life. With all my legal experience and successes under my belt, you know how many recruiters called me? Zero. Compare that to after roughly one year of consulting (i.e., dicking around with Excel and PowerPoint), I'm getting contacted by recruiters constantly. I do this for a couple more years and I can jump to another consulting firm, go into industry, government, or maybe even jump back into law (if I lose my mind). In contrast, my buddy is a partner at a two-person shop, and he's desperate to get out, but he's married and has a kid. He doesn't want to take the career hit of "starting over." So he's essentially stuck with a middling paying, high stress job he hates, and his only hope is to pray that in future years he'll build his "brand" enough to be able to bring in higher paying business. But he has no Plan B if things stay the same. He's stuck.

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loblawyer (Dec 4, 2017 - 2:56 pm)

Ok after seeing your reply OP, I can now firmly say you'd be insane, absolutely certifiably crazy, to leave your job for what you described above. Nearly 6 figures with a mediocre GPA one year out of law school and you may well "coast" to $180k? Man, you hit the lottery. Be very, very grateful and think long and hard before giving that up.

There's likely several hundred lawyers in small law in your market that would kill to be in your position. It would be one thing if you wanted corporate law at a midsize firm (I would not do that from your position personally due to QoL) or in-house. But you seem to want to trade a cushy bank gig for what this site affectionately refers to as sh*tlaw. Too each their own but it's baffling to me.

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anothernjlawyer (Dec 4, 2017 - 3:09 pm)

Corporate compliance: a job with a future.

LL/Tenant: Awful. Disorganized, overcrowded courtrooms full of miserable, poor people, none of whom can afford to pay you. And if you're representing landlords, have fun spending your days mailing 19 different certified letters to people who think a toilet doubles as a garbage disposal and whose idea of court attire is the Loony Toons T-shirt without the cigarette burns in it. Or have your case dismissed and get yelled at by an overworked judge when he realizes you only sent out 18 letters by mistake.

Traffic: Hustle like crazy to get the .1% of people who hire a lawyer when they get a traffic ticket. Deal with other lawyers cutting rates down to the low hundreds of dollars a pop (or lower). Spend your evenings driving from one court to the next not knowing when you'll get home.

DUI: Like traffic, except more complicated discovery materials and trials run later into the night.

Real Estate: Juggle HUD, title, and bank paperwork with evening phone calls from snotty, entitled real estate agents who walk away from the closing with their 6% commission, while you get $1,000.00 flat fee for 3 months of trouble.

Consumer Bankruptcy: If they are going bankrupt, how are they going to pay you?

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onehell (Dec 4, 2017 - 4:28 pm)

You left out family law, where the client gives you their last dime to put up a 3-5k retainer which will never be replenished and the pro per you're up against files "emergency" TROs and calls CPS when your client is 5 minutes late to a visitation exchange, while you have to drag the pro per in on an OSC just to get him to understand the concept of discovery, all of which leads to you burning through the retainer before you even get to temporary orders or initial disclosures, moving to withdraw when the retainer isn't replenished, and ending up with a bar complaint from a client who says you "didn't do anything," IF you're lucky enough that the judge (who will bend over backwards for your pro per opponent while holding you to standards worthy of SCOTUS) lets you out at all.

Survive all that and you may get the extra fun of fighting over an underwater house, a 1996 Toyota Corolla, and a pile of defaulted bills and other worthless crap that suddenly has value just because it's something to fight about. Don't forget to put your reputation and ethics in jeopardy by objecting to every continuance and flinging whatever other feces you can to convince your client that you're being "aggressive enough," and make sure to check the parking lot at night before you leave lest you get shot by the opposing party or your own unhappy client. Oh, and did you know that you're going to need to know ERISA to divvy up some paltry 401k with 5k in it? Enjoy those malpractice premiums and dealing with the bureaucracy at Fidelity.

And even if you do by some miracle get to final decree or settlement before the client runs out of money, expect that they will be back in on post-judgment modification for "changed circumstances" or collections issues before the ink on the decree is dry, and will continue in and out of court like that until the youngest child turns 18 and perhaps longer if there are support arrearages. Expect to see the client back again from time to time for the rest of their life, always with some reason you are to blame for these post-judgment issues and demanding that these aspects be handled pro bono.

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themapmaster (Dec 5, 2017 - 12:33 am)

sh!t law does not equal small law. Sure , there is a lot of overlap... but established small law firms often have interesting and lucrative work. You will never convince me that top of the market criminal law practice is boring or unsophisticated work, That said, small law is extremely competitive because market entry is much easier than big law or mid law, among other reasons... so to leave OPs job for a solo shop would be obviously dumb. But to join a good small firm -- not sh!tlaw firm -- not as clear. I have a friend who was at the top of his class at a highly ranked law school that voluntarily went to small law instead of big law out of law school and never looked back.

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thirdtierlaw (Dec 5, 2017 - 3:13 pm)

The reality is that most work gets boring and a bit rote after a while, this includes top of the market criminal law practice. Every case follows a similar pattern and has the same issues. I recently made minor edits to a suppression motion from a misdemeanor domestic assault to be filed in a first-degree murder case. I agree S-law does not always equal small law.

I work in small law, divorce and criminal work, in a mid-cost of living area. This year I came in slightly below 6 figures, and unless all my cases resolve by February, I'll be well on my way to breaking 6 figures next year. My fellow associate probably only made $80k this year and he has been out for 5 years. My bosses each have decades of experience. One is likely making around $180k the other between 250k-300k. They are both considered to be near the very top of their respective areas of practice in the State. But here is the kicker, the phone could stop ringing tomorrow or we lose a few of our conflict contracts. My projected 6 figures for next year could end up being $30k.

My hours are slightly better than yours most of the time, but if I have a big trial coming up, I'm getting to the office by 7 and staying until 10 pm.

I am considered a success when compared to the rest of my law school class. Quite frankly, it's exhausting to hustle for clients while still making sure you're doing your due diligence on cases. I'm fortunate that I am comfortable being a salesman, hence why I'm significantly out-earning my coworker who has been with the firm longer and practicing longer. Or why one of my bosses makes a lot more than my other boss. In the many hours I spend driving in my car from hearing to hearing, I daydream about having a guaranteed paycheck, being bored, and relative job security.

I think you'd be silly to leave your current position. The "interesting" work loses its luster pretty quickly. You'll be trading some boredom for nonstop stress. I do not know you, but you must have some salesmanship in you if you were able to secure your current job with... less than stellar credentials.

Don't get caught up with the Traffic court guy. Sure he may have made $1000-2000 that day, but how many days of week is traffic court in session? $1000 a day sounds much better than $1000 a week.

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noobster (Dec 5, 2017 - 6:51 pm)

Thanks all for the replies and advice.

Thirdtierlaw — Yes, I do have salesmanship skills. This has helped me secure my current position. It’s also why I think I may do well if I go into law. Of course, salesmanship is not the only factor that will determine future success.

In my opinion, the attorney who made 1,000 that day probably does very well. My friend who practices in the local area confirmed the same attorney represented 9 clients yesterday at a different municipal court. I looked into his background and he has decent credentials. T-25 law school and mid law experience. He must also be good in sales. I would not be surprised if he was clearing 15,000 per month just from traffic violations and dui’s. He probably services 15-20 municipalities/townships.

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mrlollipop (Dec 5, 2017 - 3:57 am)

I don't know...I have a friend who went to Southwestern Law School and now making 5 million annually by representing hollywood stars....

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ddonuts (Dec 12, 2017 - 2:27 pm)

How did your friend end up landing those kind of clients?

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