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Phasing into practice can be a daunting task for new attorneys

Starting out in the law may not be the hardest step you’ll ever take as an attorney, but it certainly not won’t be the easiest either.

But at least you’re not alone.

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 74,800 lawyers will join the profession by 2022. Nearly half that number — a projected 35,954 accredited graduates — will complete law school this year, according to the American Bar Association.

But finishing law school and phasing into practice are two entirely different things. Ruthann Koch is still learning that lesson nearly two years into her career.

“It’s almost embarrassing to go back and look at my early cases; it’s like looking at your third-grade class photo,” said Koch, a lawyer at Schmiege & Graff in Medford, a small city in north-central Wisconsin’s Taylor County.

The learning curve isn’t any easier when you go out on your own, said Ben Wood, a solo attorney who joined Koch last year to talk at the State Bar’s solo and small-firm conference about phasing into practice.

“You have to go into it understanding it’s really hard,” Wood said.

After starting with an established firm in 2012, Wood recognized it wasn’t the right fit. Two years ago, he started Wood Law Firm, which has offices in Fennimore and Boscobel, both about 90 minutes west of Madison. He specializes primarily in transactional work, spending much of his time on wills, trusts and estate planning. He also serves as corporation counsel for about eight nearby towns.

“I was taking a risk leaving a well-established place that had been there 100 years,” Wood said.

Especially since his startup was only 15 minutes from his old firm.

“I was nervous,” Wood said. “Would people come? Do older people have their attorney already? Would they change attorneys? Would younger people come?”

The fears largely proved unfounded.

With clients coming through the door, Wood was quickly asking an entire other set of questions.

“Are you going to do it all on your own? Are you going to have office space? How many staff are you going to have? A lot of it comes down to having a business plan,” Wood said. “It sounds silly, and I know most people won’t sit down and write goals, but I think the biggest thing is to have goals.

“What will your firm be like? What work will you do? Will you take public-defender cases and build that and do criminal law? Do you not want to do court work, or do you want to do mostly transactional law?’

“Obviously those plans change, but I would say to anyone who’s thinking about doing this: Have some plan in mind. Don’t take whatever walks in the door because you might not have the knowledge to take those cases, and that’s tough to admit; it’s hard for lawyers to say, ‘No, I don’t handle that.’”

For Wood, hiring staff made it easier to focus on the work of settling into practice.

“It’s a lot of pressure to know that people’s livelihoods depend on how much work I can come up with,” admitted Wood, who employs four people for his solo practice. “But I think staff multiplies people. We can get a lot of things done with a lot of good people.”

That’s true even if those people are just offering advice, which is why mentors can be so important, Wood said.

“You always hear when you come out of law school about mentorships, and since the recession a lot of those programs got squashed at bigger firms,” Wood said. “But I think our communities can fill that gap.”

It has worked for Wood, who has reached out to other attorneys in his area, even opposing counsel.

“I haven’t had anyone who’s turned me away,” Wood said.

Koch said she’s been fortunate to find mentors within her own firm.

“They can kind of prepare you,” Koch said. “I can walk into court knowing this judge is going to make you call the case, which is a small thing but if I didn’t know it would have thrown me off.”

But even attorneys without those resources can start to fill in those practical gaps.

“As a new attorney, that’s caused me the most anxiety and angst — the hearings and not knowing exactly how they will transpire, and that comes with experience,” Koch said. “But I could have saved myself that anxiety by taking an afternoon and going to a hearing or two.”

Still, Koch said, it’s never too late, especially for a new attorney. All you have to do is ask.

“My brother said, ‘If you have to fall, make sure you’re falling forward,’” Koch said. “I don’t know if he made that up or got it off the Internet, but it was great advice. So now, when I wonder,

‘Should I say something? Is that something I can request from a judge’, I think, ‘What’s the harm?’ It’s better to request something than sit there and not do anything and be paralyzed by inaction.”

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