“Oh wow, good for you,” “Really? Why did you do that?,” and “How is that working out for you?” are some of the condescending comments I received when discussing my journey with fellow lawyers and disclosing that I started my own law practice right out of law school in 2014.
Derek A. Hawkins, Marquette 2013, is trademark corporate counsel at the Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Milwaukee. He previously operated a Milwaukee-based private practice focusing in trademark law and served as general counsel for Markable Inc., an AI-based startup in Madison.
When hearing these comments, I couldn’t help but reflect on my time as a law student and my exposure, or lack thereof, to what life as a solo practitioner would entail. Granted, there are courses that touch on the basics of private practice and what is required to start a law firm. But I think current instruction is particularly lacking.
Law school left me with the impression that starting a solo practice was an avenue reserved exclusively for people who couldn’t find a decent job at a law firm or who first worked in Big Law for several years, aggregated a large book of business, and established themselves as an expert in a field. In the five years since graduation, I have found that this rhetoric hasn’t changed much – you attend law school, work as a summer clerk at a big firm, get hired by a big firm upon graduation, and thereby kickstart your career. This was the primary narrative provided to me as a student, and current law students echo this sentiment from their respective law schools. Why is this the standard?
I took what would be classified as a “nontraditional” approach to my career. Disinterested with my internships and work experiences as a rising 2L, I looked for other ways to put my legal skills to good use. I managed to spool online consulting gigs with law firms across the United States and nonprofit organizations into relationships that would help me obtain great work experience and clients when I opened my private practice. The discipline, perseverance, and tenacity to build an efficient business that would provide for me and my family led me to my current in-house position with one of the world’s largest companies, responsible for protecting their multibillion-dollar brand.
Nontraditional pathways should be respected, celebrated, and put in the forefront of law students’ minds.
I say this to highlight that there is no talismanic approach to leveraging a law degree and there is nothing wrong with starting a solo practice right out of law school or deliberately building an experience that aligns with your interests. This might take you away from the law entirely, but that’s okay! While any endeavor should be met with preparation, due diligence, and humility, a nontraditional pathway can provide unparalleled experience. A certain level of discipline and responsibility comes from having your name on the door and taking your career squarely into your own hands.
Nontraditional pathways should be respected, celebrated, and put in the forefront of law students’ minds. As lawyers we serve at the pleasure of individual clients, businesses, and their owners, but it is time for lawyers to become entrepreneurs and build their own pathway in the law on their own terms. I challenge my colleagues to question the status quo, take a different approach to their careers and, in the words of the late songwriter, entrepreneur, and community activist Ermias Asghedom, be prolific, so gifted, and the type that’s going to go and get it.