Many law school students graduate with the goal of joining a well-established firm and securing a steady income as soon as possible. But Erika Bryant is among those who would rather take a risk on themselves.
The Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law rising 3L said she prefers having the freedom to make her own choices. So, Bryant thinks her best bet is to immediately start a solo firm after she graduates and dive in head first.
“There’s definitely a little sense of fear,” Bryant said. “But I think, ‘Why not?’ I’m ready to approach that fear head-on.”
Bryant hasn’t been a conventional law student. She’s 31, married to a minister and has worked two jobs during the entirety of her schooling.
Regardless, Bryant’s untraditional status hasn’t fazed her determination or quieted her outspoken voice. She hopes to help families and children in need, specifically those facing custody battles within the system.
But the unusual choice to start her own firm so quickly has raised eyebrows at networking events and in classes among those who now seem hesitant to wish her good luck.
“I have met professors and attorneys that shy away from it, that say ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Do you want to try something else?’ … Uh, no,” Bryant said. “I don’t want to think about anything else.”
Where few have gone before
A professor recommended Bryant chat with IU McKinney alumni J.T. Funk and Ben Spandau of Funk & Spandau, LLC, about her ideas. The two attorneys were law school friends who shared a dream that quickly became reality.
Funk and Spandau made plans to team up after graduation from the get-go, researching and making as many connections as they could before finishing law school in 2016. Like Bryant, they too wanted the freedom to choose their own clients and priorities in practice. The pair opened their firm that same year, just months after turning the tassel.
“It was hard,” Funk said. “But so far it’s been incredibly rewarding.”
After spending the past year under their guidance, Bryant considers Funk and Spandau her mentors and friends. The attorneys have advised her on law firm essentials, such as networking, making a business plan and budgeting.
The biggest takeaway from their experience, though, was that starting off solo is “absolutely worth it,” Bryant said.
“It’s a lot of hard work, you’re going to have some challenging times, but they wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said. “And the accomplishment that I see that they get from owning their own firm and helping their clients is so inspiring that I want to do the same thing.”
Defying the odds
Funk said it’s not common for law school graduates to develop a solo practice right away, and the odds don’t seem to favor that approach.
The number of graduates setting up solo practices is the lowest it’s been in 16 years, according to National Association for Law Placement’s “Jobs & JDs: Employment for the Class of 2017 – Selected Findings” report. Graduates setting up solo firms immediately accounted for only 2.5 percent of law firm jobs in 2017, down from 2.8 percent in 2016 and 3.4 percent in 2015. That number had risen as high as 6 percent in 2011, however, after NALP said law school graduates faced the worst job market in a generation following the Great Recession.
For new graduates hoping to secure a job, Spandau said joining medium and large firms probably seems more appealing than taking off alone.
“A lot of the mentality while you’re in law school is that you go to school, get a job with a big firm and then try to get partner,” he said. “It’s a little out of the norm to start your own thing straight out of law school.”
Facing your fears
The Funk & Spandau law office has become a routine stop for IU McKinney students who are interested in learning about solo practices.
“People studying for the bar exam tend to reach out to us because they’re thinking about, if they don’t already have a job, what are they going to do,” Funk said. “Or if they’re going to start their own firm, they tend to reach out and find out what we’re doing.”
Spandau said if a new graduate has even an inkling of possibly going solo, they should go ahead a make a business plan.
“We get a lot of questions because someone’s mind was opened up to, ‘I didn’t even think that was a possibility,’” he said. “So they want to ask us how we’re doing. ‘Is it really possible?’ It definitely is.”
Not having to worry about insurance or other financial costs while simultaneously paying off student loans — benefits that come from joining a traditional firm — may sound appealing, Bryant said. But for her, gaining independence overrides any fear of failing.
“You have to be willing to take a fall if you have to,” she said. “But how are you going to bounce back from that? Are you going to let it get you down, or is it going to propel you and push you harder to be better the next time and succeed?”
Bryant knows she has a lot to learn from those who came before her.
“There’s already a lot of attorneys out here successfully doing what you want to,” she said. “So you have to be humble enough to learn from other people.”
The soon-to-be graduate said she hopes to embody the traits she believes are vital to succeeding on her own: “Being wise and having the tenacity to just go after what you want, regardless what everyone else says or what happens.”•