A convoluted (legal) career path

November 18th marked the 23rd anniversary of my opening my solo practice. Over the past decade I’ve had the opportunity to formally and informally mentor a number of newly licensed attorneys. Every such attorney has been justifiably nervous about their decision to pursue a legal career and their ability to turn a law degree into a satisfying career. Just as children have difficulties imagining their parents as young people, these attorneys have difficulties imagining their mentors as struggling newbies. However, just as it is useful for young adults to hear about and understand their parents’ struggles as young adults, it is useful for young attorneys to hear about their elders’ struggles.

Twenty-three years ago I was not confident in my ability to develop a successful and satisfying legal career. After graduating law school, I took an associate position at a two-man personal injury firm in Philadelphia, while waiting for my wife to finish graduate school. At first the work was intellectually satisfying–I worked solely for one partner, whose main focus was product liability and medical malpractice. However, little time was spent on training me and no time was spent overseeing my work. The horrible experience of my first deposition is described here. The sense of being over my head and with no guidance overwhelmed me. Within nine months I was burned out.

After moving to Charleston and getting my South Carolina license, I was lucky to land a job with George Sink, who is probably the best boss I ever had. However that job wasn’t a good fit–George has and had a high-volume practice in which people skills–specifically the skill of calming down demanding clients–were at a premium. The ability to think creatively about legal problems wasn’t as useful. George’s practice and my skills didn’t match. Within eight months George suggested I seek work elsewhere and gave me two months to find it–very generous considering how worthless I was to his practice.

In those two months, I actually managed to obtain an offer with a firm specializing in Workers Compensation. That job came with a $10,000 raise. After I was offered the position, my potential new boss took me and my wife out to dinner. Driving home after that dinner, my wife and I discussed my concerns that this position seemed yet another bad fit for my legal skills. Having been dissatisfied in my first two jobs, I was worried about taking yet another position that didn’t seem a good match. At the time my wife and I were taking our toddler daughter to a laundromat every weekend because we didn’t have funds for a washer/dryer. A $10,000 raise was significant. Yet my wife encouraged me to turn down the job and I did so.

After leaving George, William (Jack) Hamilton, one of the first attorney friends I had made in Charleston, offered to let me decamp at his office while I figured out what to do next. For three weeks he let me work on his cases and sent me a bit of overflow. He also introduced me to Nicholas Clekis, who offered to lease me office space at one-half rent for six months, loan me money for a work computer and office furniture, and send me his overflow. Thus, on November 18, 1993, I opened my current practice.

By keeping my overhead low, I had positive cash flow almost immediately. However it would be five years before I was fully committed to a solo practice and until I began to emphasize family law. Initially I was so inexperienced that I would ask Jack to accompany me to hearings, solely to provide emotional support. My first contested solo matter was a public services hearing in which I unsuccessfully tried to get an employee who had tested positive for marijuana his job back. Even with Jack at my side, my knees were knocking–literally. During these initial years, I continued to seek federal judicial clerkships (both in South Carolina and South Florida)–unclear whether solo practice was the career path of my destiny. It wasn’t until 1997, when I obtained successful results for two different clients against opposing attorneys who were considered heavyweights of the local family court bar, that I finally accepted that a career as a family law solo practitioner was a good fit. My career path has been relatively easy and forward-moving ever since.

Newly licensed attorneys who meet me are typically incredulous when I indicate that, so long as they show up, work hard, and apply themselves diligently, they are likely to establish a successful legal career within five years. Upon starting out, they are rarely certain of what type of law they want to practice, what they actually need to do in each particular case, and how to get clients. It is easy for an older attorney such as myself to tell them they will be fine, and my encouragement probably sounds pollyannaish. Yet I’ve rarely seen any attorney who showed up each day, worked hard, and sought continual improvement, fail to establish a satisfying legal career. At this point, I have over a dozen former mentees who can attest that this advice works.

So much good fortune in life is actually a combination of hard work and luck. If I hadn’t turned down what would have been my third associate position and decamped to Jack’s office, if Jack hadn’t suggested I meet with Nicholas Clekis regarding office space, if Nick hadn’t offered me assistance in starting a solo practice, if I hadn’t accumulated mentors such as Jack, Nick, Susan Dunn, Sally King-Gilreath, and Conrad Falkiewicz, I likely wouldn’t be in a position to write a blog about the 23rd anniversary of my (successful) solo practice. My advice to any newly licensed attorney struggling with his or her career choice is, “find good mentors and don’t get discouraged.”

And to all my clients the past twenty-three years, thanks for trusting me enough to allow me to help you resolve your legal problems.

Put Mr. Forman’s experience, knowledge, and dedication to your service for any of your South Carolina family law needs.

Retain Mr. Forman

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