In this new series, we are profiling legal professionals and J.D.s and asking them the hard questions that don’t always get answered in law school. For example, how did they find their job? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? And, was law school a worthwhile investment?
Susan Cartier Liebel worked in advertising then sales for ten (10) years before she decided to go to law school. As a law student, she realized there were hardly any resources for anyone who wanted to start their own law practice or learn the business side of running a law practice. She took the initiative, sought out mentors from her clinics and network of contacts, and opened her own law firm with friends from law school shortly after she graduated. Since then, Susan has successfully practiced as a solo/small firm founder. Based on her own experiences, she started to teach others how to do the same. She served as an adjunct professor at Quinnipiac University’s School of Law and then opened her own consulting firm. About two years ago, Susan brought the idea to a larger scale and started Solo Practice University, the ‘practice of law’ school. Susan talks about her journey and the void SPU fills in legal education.
RecruiterEsq: Thank you for speaking to us today! You worked in advertising and sales for ten (10) years before attending law school. Why did you decide to go to law school?
I love education. I found advertising and sales very unfulfilling. I was very good at it but I wanted my advocacy skills to have more meaning and becoming a lawyer meant I could use those skills for something more important than creating a campaign to sell more batteries or perfume.
Directly after law school – well, after passing the bar exam – you opened your own firm with two classmates. Who started this discussion? Why did you decide to take that path?
When I finally decided to go to law school (four years after taking the LSATs and after turning down an almost six figure job) I was unsure if I was going to actually practice law. I knew I wanted the education to navigate through life. It was during law school that I realized I wanted to open my own practice and become an entrepreneur in the legal field. I believed being an entrepreneur in the legal field was the epitome of law practice. But, I was quickly disabused of that notion while in law school. When I told people my desire, especially academics, I was looked at like something unpleasant on the bottom of their shoe. That really pissed me off (excuse my French). I was so confused by that attitude. So, I realized I had to figure out my own game plan within law school to take the right classes, clinics, etc. to make me prepared to go out on my own when I passed the bar. This was no easy feat. Yet, on the very first day of school I met two gentlemen who felt the same way so we navigated together and formed a game plan.
What type of law did you practice when you owned your own firms? How did you decide what area of the law you wanted to practice?
I concentrated on family law doing primarily divorce as well as representing children during the dissolution process. I personally enjoyed the one-on-one versus dealing with business entities. While family law can really burn you out over time, the personal advocacy can also be very rewarding as you know you had a hand in directly changing lives. I’ve represented more than 100 children through the process and had several very memorable cases. Putting my skills to use in this way was what I always envisioned.
As part of your game plan, did you work for firms during your summers in law school? In which law school activities did you participate?
I don’t recall what I did during the summers except take summer classes. However, clinic was the defining event for me. We had a full blown 30 day custody trial. We did all the research, interviewed the witnesses, the plaintiff, the experts, took depositions and put on the trial with supervision. I got pneumonia during the trial and the judge ordered me home. The trial lasted up until Christmas Eve so we missed our finals (we took them after the break after getting special consideration). For this experience, I received a prestigious litigation award (along with a sizable check!) from the sponsoring highly-regarded insurance defense firm in CT. These events ultimately gave me the confidence to go out on my own. I wasn’t particularly worried about marketing or getting business as I had this background in sales and advertising already.
Because I knew I was going out on my own, I never did the ‘hire me’ activities such as law review or moot court. Maybe it’s because I was a non-traditional law student (not directly out of college and older) or because I’d had enough working for others, but I directed all my activities to those which helped me be my own profit center and self-sustaining once I passed the bar.
Once you started your own firm, to whom did you look for guidance regarding different matters?
I went to my professors first, then other attorneys I’d met and even judges! I have no problem meeting and greeting but always offering my assistance to others first. We did something very cool, I think. When we met lawyers in court who were traveling to that court house from another town, we always told them if they ever needed a place to hang their hat they could borrow our conference room or offices. (And prior to having an office ourselves, we would ask lawyers if we could rent theirs if needed – this was before virtual offices, etc.) This always presented nicely and we genuinely meant it. It was our way of putting it out there first. We never did yellow pages or traditional advertising as we couldn’t afford it. We did hang out in the court houses and restaurants lawyers frequented, acting part of the crowd. We’d often get, ‘don’t I know you?’ because we’d be seen around and that was our entree to introducing ourselves. It was fun. And, naturally, these lawyers would offer their assistance if we needed it. We used these offers sparingly, but strategically.
How did your background in advertising and sales help you when you decided to go off on your own?
My background in sales and advertising played a huge role because I know how to interview clients and ‘close the sale.’ There is nothing wrong and everything right with being able to identify a client’s needs and effectively address them. When you do so, they want to hire you. When you understand what will inhibit an individual and overcome those inhibitors, they want to work with you. That is the nature of sales. It’s a critical skill in advocacy, not just in getting clients but in working with opposing counsel, mediators and judges.
You’ve been blogging for a very long time about solo practice. Do you ever read old posts and question whether your thoughts about solo practice are still valid?
I actually don’t. When I write a blog post it’s fairly well thought out and generally global in application. I don’t shoot from the hip because I know it will be in cyberspace forever. Therefore, I’m pretty pleased with the content and prepared to debate and defend my thoughts or statements if someone doesn’t agree with me It was years of this consistent content and message about solo practice which permitted me to attract those who have helped to make SPU the success it is – the faculty, the students and our sponsors. Most importantly, going solo is about entrepreneurship. Principles of entrepreneurship are timeless.
How did you start writing “An Independent Spirit” for Law.com?
‘An Independent Spirit’ was a column I was invited to write for the Connecticut Law Tribune after I won their New Leaders in the Law Award for Education. The class, obviously, was my course at Quinnipiac University School of Law. Since CT Law Tribune was owned by Law.com, when the columns were particularly interesting, Law.com would pick up the columns for national exposure.
Can you tell us more about the course you taught at Quinnipiac, “How to Open and Manage [a] Law Practice Right After Passing the Bar Exam”? What were the types of assignments or readings that were on your syllabus? I’m thinking about the realities of starting my own business, which I should point out is not a law firm, and what I didn’t learn in law school – e.g., marketing, accounting, etc.
Students ultimately created a very unique and personal business plan which took them out two years. It was labor intensive and no two plans were the same, nor could they be, because no two lawyers are the same. This may sound strange to you, but this is the truth: You can’t box in entrepreneurs, only lay the ground rules for what they absolutely cannot do. Then the sky is the limit. The business of lawyering should be no different. Before we ever started the business plan each student went through a guided analysis of their strengths, weaknesses, individual needs, support systems, and technological savviness. This helped me to help them and it guided their business plan, how they needed to allocate their resources and more. It was never used to dissuade them from solo practice. It was used as an exercise in overcoming perceived obstacles and to build confidence. Many students years later told me it was the one project they saved from law school and with a few tweaks they implemented it when they were ready.
Oh, I love that philosophy about entrepreneurs: “You can’t box in entrepreneurs, only lay the ground rules for what they absolutely cannot do.” I need to stick that quote next to my desk! It applies to lawyers and non-lawyers but, based on my own experience, law students graduate without a good sense of what they absolutely cannot do, despite the ethics exam and ethics class requirements.
When I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in 2006, there was nothing like the course you taught at Quinnipiac and you started teaching that course in 2001! Now, I see that Legal Rebel Max Miller started a program at Pitt Law called the Innovation Practice Institute. Have you seen more law schools implement programs on how to be a successful solo over the years?
I see law schools making efforts to do so but ‘named’ schools are restricted by bureaucracy and tenured professors fighting for their livelihoods. The newer schools seeking accreditation are much more innovative taking their classes on line and recognizing their students will be going into business for themselves upon graduation like Lincoln Memorial in Tennessee. Keep an eye on them.
With Solo Practice University, you’re able to offer many courses like the one you developed at Quinnipiac on a much larger scale, given the online platform. You’ve created that space in which lawyers can learn how to be more entrepreneurial within the limits imposed by the profession. How did you decide to start Solo Practice University?
Solo Practice University is a labor of love. Truly. It sounds like it was an overnight brainstorm but it was many years in the making, I just wasn’t able to fully realize the vision until January, 2008 when all the necessary elements came together. Half of any successful venture comes from recognizing when all the necessary ingredients to create a business are right in front of you…then getting in the kitchen and cooking! Ironically, I started ‘cooking’ at a time when law students were graduating into $200,000 associates positions. Yet, SPU physically opened its doors one month after Bloody Thursday.
How do you choose faculty and guest lecturers?
Choosing faculty is both subjective and objective. We are frequently solicited by those who wish to teach. However, before we ever opened I actively solicited people I knew who are excellent in their fields and believed in me. When I told them of my idea they were on board because it is positioned as a 100% win for all involved. I want those interested in teaching to approach me, too, because they may bring up a course I never thought of. One doesn’t need to be out for a 100 years to teach, though. They need to be good at what they do and have an active interest in a 21st century practice. If you are a superb advocate but don’t know how to turn on a computer, it will be very hard for you to teach others how to build their practices in the 21st century and on an online platform. I really enjoy using the SPU platform and traffic to popularize excellent lawyers who are teaching who might not otherwise be able to get the reach and audience SPU can provide. It’s actually one of my favorite things to do. :-)
Are most of the people who enroll recent graduates?
Actually, no. We are split between recent grads (0 – 3 yrs out), those out 4 – 8 yrs and a significant number out 10+. Many finally want to learn how to build a 21st century practice and many are changing practice areas. We also have a significant number still employed who are planning their exits or expect they will be shown the door soon.
Some of the skills that are taught at SPU would be beneficial for all lawyers to learn, solos or otherwise. Do attorneys ever sign up for SPU to learn how to expand their practice even if they have no desire to go solo or would SPU not be right for them?
Actually, we have many working for law firms (as noted above) who are utilizing the marketing, blogging, copywriting and virtual technology classes. And others are getting the benefit of the forensic accounting course and e-discovery class and other substantive classes and more to enhance their current work. While we emphasize solo practice, as you recognized, many classes can help any lawyer however situated.
Now that you’ve started Solo Practice University, what are your job responsibilities?
At this stage of the game I am totally in charge of SPU as the Founder and CEO with the exception of the actual architecture and maintenance of the site. However, 2011 promises expansion as we bring in more dynamic people to take SPU to the next level of operation.
What websites do you visit on a daily basis?
Interesting question. There was a time when I had a list of must read blogs. Now I utilize Twitter and use those I follow to drive me to excellent blog posts and articles, readings I would not otherwise know about. I read NYT, WSJ and other news on a regular basis.
What technologies do you use in your business, e.g. blogging software, accounting software, SaaS products?
[He’s also on Twitter!]
Solo Practice University is almost finished with its second full year of operation. Looking back, what has surprised you the most about the venture?
What has surprised me most about the venture is how universally well received it has been by colleagues, students, law schools and professional associations. One person well positioned within a law school said, ‘You not only filled a void, the void was the size of the Grand Canyon.” This was high praise indeed. Along the same lines, the gratitude from students is very rewarding. While our site is filled with testimonials, what I love most is hearing students say they finally have a place they can call home while they prepare for solo practice or continue to grow their solo practices. Secondarily, we are reassured on a daily basis that we are delivering for our faculty, too. They are receiving book deals, significant referral business, getting noticed by reporters and other opportunities they might not otherwise have gotten. I feel personally successful when I know I am delivering on my promises.
You’re delivering on promises and you’re giving lawyers a space to achieve career success in their own way. It was truly an honor to speak with you!