Taking the leap
In my case, the thought came to me gradually and over time.
The Missouri Bar had deigned to bestow a law license on me in 1997, more than ten years before the thought of opening my own law firm really began to occupy my thoughts on a regular basis.
But I suppose that, even before I went to law school, I had entertained the notion of running my own law firm. Doing my own thing.
When I was 20 years old, my father threw caution to the wind and left behind a steady paycheck with the idea of building an architectural and engineering firm with a new business partner, his friend, David.
My dad was 45 years old when he and David started their firm. My mom worked part time as a schoolteacher and my dad had a nice job as the vice-president of marketing for an engineering firm. My dad had started out on the survey crew of that firm and risen through the ranks with his quick intellect and very hard work.
No one outworked my dad. No one.
He left early in the morning and put in a full day chasing down jobs. He came home for dinner at 5:45 every night and then he went to his side hustle – building decks for friends and neighbors, all by himself. He put in three or four hours in the evening digging post holes, pouring concrete and cutting the wood planks that he needed for the deck.
My father’s decks were built to last. The sturdiest decks that you would ever see.
Each day, he woke up the next morning and did it all again.
When David and Dad opened their firm, the side hustle waned, but the hard work only accelerated. No job was too small or too far away for Dad to make work. When he learned of a possible job, he worked tirelessly on crafting his proposals just right. He was a machine.
He still found time to make it home for dinner with his family. Every night.
As a young man, I saw the trappings of entrepreneurial success – company credit cards, eating out, a company car and season tickets to the Cardinals. I really had no idea how hard my dad and David were really working.
When Dad and David started, they had three employees. Today, their firm is one of the most successful in the area. They have offices in Philadelphia and Chicago. They currently employ nearly 150 people. 150!
So I suppose the idea of hanging out my shingle and trying to build a law practice from the ground up was always there.
My path to actually pulling that off was a bit more convoluted than my dad’s.
After college, I worked at one of the best plaintiff firms in town. The lawyers that I saw every day also worked very hard and were exceptional lawyers. They saw great financial success.
I know this because one of my jobs was to bring the client’s settlement checks to the bank. These checks were routinely in the five and six figures; sometimes, even seven or eight figures.
I thought that I could get used to contingency fee work. Not only did it apparently pay very well, representing the little guy against corporate bad guys and insurance companies comported with my worldview.
I thought plaintiff’s work was what I wanted to do more than anything else.
But the firm did not have space for me when I graduated law school. I practiced commercial litigation for two years and then practiced maritime defense work for ten years.
I eventually became a partner at this maritime firm. I liked my partners very much and we succeeded financially. They were great mentors and very generously offered me partnership. I thought I had arrived.
A year or two after “making partner,” I started questioning whether I wanted to represent insurance companies for the rest of my legal career. A lot of my time was spent quibbling over money and trying to save dollars for the insurance company.
Some of the insurance companies hired bean counters to nickel and dime us on our legal fees. I hated that, but I could certainly handle it.
But then I worked on the case that changed everything.
My firm represented a man whose speedboat collided with another speedboat on a lake in Oklahoma. A passenger on the other boat got knocked off the back of the boat and drowned. He sank to the bottom of the lake and resurfaced about ten days later.
The pictures of the man who drowned were horrible. I could only look at them from across the room.
As things turned out, I had to take the depositions of the man’s mother, father and twin brother. It was during that trip that I really began to question how I was using my law degree. Was this really it?
It was at this point that I began giving serious thought to doing something different.
My wife and I had met in law school. She was born in Egypt and moved to America when she was 7. Many of our friends and acquaintances had asked me over the years to help them with small immigration matters.
I couldn’t help with immigration problems as I was a maritime attorney. I kept turning them down, but they kept asking.
I tried to refer them to the two immigration attorneys that I knew, but those attorneys often complained of being too busy.
That wouldn’t be the worst problem to have in the world, I thought.
I started thinking that representing immigrants in personal injury cases and helping them with their immigration matters might be a better way for me to utilize my talents.
The idea simmered for months and months.
One night, my wife and I had dinner plans and, as usual, I was the first one ready. I turned on C-SPAN and saw a speech by Judge Richard Posner from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. He spoke on the dearth of quality legal representation for immigrants. He complained about the poor brief writing that he saw at the appellate level.
This is when I really got serous about making the jump. I had friends and acquaintances telling me about their need for immigration help. I heard a federal judge complaining about the lack of strong lawyering from the immigration bar (I later came to learn that there are some amazing immigration practitioners out there). I saw a need.
And so I followed that need.
I left my partnership.
I left maritime law.
I left the safety of something certain for the risk of building something all brand new.
Just like my father had when he left his safe job in 1990 for something new.
It might not have been the most sensible thing to do.
But I made that leap.
I took the road less traveled.
And, as Mr. Frost famously said, it has made all the difference.