Hage: Pros and cons of a decade of experience prior to entering law

May 31, 2017
hage-justin-mug Hage

By Justin Hage

I did not take the traditional path into a law firm where one graduates from college, attends law school, serves as a summer associate for a firm while in law school, and upon graduation and passing the bar, joins that firm. I received my undergraduate degree in 2006 and spent five years working in Washington, D.C. In 2011, my wife and I moved to Indianapolis where I took a full-time job and matriculated at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law as an evening student.

While making a career shift after completing a professional degree may be expected, millennials are accused by some of being “job hoppers.” A recent study by the networking site LinkedIn showed that millennials work for an average number of four companies in the 10 years after graduation from college. In contrast, those graduating from college between 1986 and 1990 averaged two different employers. Prior to law school, I had two different jobs with two different employers (federal executive branch agency and U.S. Congress). While in law school, I had three different jobs with two different employers (both state agencies). That is five jobs in 10 years, but all in state or federal government.

I graduated from law school in December 2015 and sat for the bar exam in February 2016, then continued to work in state government until joining Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP in January of this year. In many ways, I am starting a second career and this has both pros and cons. On the pro side, I have 10 years of experience, specialized knowledge accumulated over that time and a strong network. On the other hand, I have developed some habits and perspective that worked well in my previous career but need to be slightly adjusted for my new career. I also feel as though I am playing catch-up in terms of my legal skills, knowledge and understanding of the practice of law.

I am certain that entering the practice of law with 10 years of experience will serve me well in multiple ways. Having worked full time and attended law school at night, I have developed a strong work ethic and the stamina necessary for the long hours required of attorneys. I also feel comfortable and confident in a professional setting. My chosen area of practice (economic development, real estate and government affairs) lends itself well to the knowledge I have accumulated in previous positions, including working for nearly four years at the Indiana Economic Development Corp. My time in state and federal government has also allowed me to build a substantial network in the public and private sectors. Still, I have much to learn about the practice of law, and I do feel that I have to step up (especially relative to soft skills) in some respects compared to those taking a more traditional path into a law firm.

If I had gone to law school right after graduation from college, I would be in my eighth year of practice. Government is great place to start your career because public service provides opportunities for those at a young age to have a large amount of responsibility. In that respect, my experience in public service was extremely valuable. At the same time, in my past positions I was a policy-oriented generalist (handling a broad range of issues and looking at the big picture). I worked my way up from an administrative position to a program manager helping oversee the creation and implementation of a plan today to invest $1 billion over the next 10 years to advance innovation and entrepreneurship in Indiana.

The practice of law requires a degree of specialization and acute attention to detail that my previous positions did not. I am now in the process of shifting my focus to develop skills and knowledge in a few specialized areas and sharpening my attention to detail. While my previous experience has it benefits, there will always be more to learn relative to legal skills and knowledge and understanding of the practice of law. Patience has been important as I have worked to get up to speed as quickly as possible with legal skills (i.e., drafting a deed), the law (i.e., Indiana Code governing tax abatements) and the practice of law (i.e., maintaining a steady workflow).

Whether it is expected of me, self-imposed or just an area of opportunity, I am focused on learning the art of client development. My goal is to bring in a new client or two sooner than might be expected of other first-year associates. My existing network and the skills I have developed to build and nurture my network will make client development a little easier than if I had taken a more traditional path into a law firm. I have quickly learned that superior legal service is required in the marketplace and the key is for each firm, practice group and individual attorney to distinguish themselves. This is often accomplished by building expertise in niche legal areas, industries and disciplines. Being perceived as a thought leader in a specific area is also very important.

My path to a law firm may be different than most but I am going to do my best to make up for lost time in some areas and use my skills and experience built in the past 10 years to gain ground in others. Right now, I am in the process of determining the areas in which I can add the most value both within my firm and in the legal marketplace. I am going to research, attend conferences and be a thought leader in my chosen specialty areas when ready.•


Justin Hage is an attorney at Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP, where he assists clients with a broad range of legal issues in the areas of real estate, corporate and government services. He can be reached at jhage@bgdlegal.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.