SETTING UP PRACTICE
It is a truism that Law School does not prepare you for practice. I really realized what that meant when I learned that I had passed the bar. I am a Criminal Defense lawyer. That means that I'll be setting up an independent office. Not only did I have the office to set up - and no clue from law school about any of the practicalities of an office - but I also had to learn how to be a trial lawyer, since criminal defendants cases involve court appearances.
I'm still really feeling this out. But fortunately I have had paying
clients from the start, and even my first cases had outcomes which satisfied
the clients. My practice is mainly criminal defense, and in that area mainly
marijuana charges. I am doing a bit of forest activist defense lately.
Both areas have interesting clients and present novel legal issues.
The marijuana cases have often settled before trial. I like to think that
my years in the music business gave me some negotiating skills that have
carried over into the law. The activist cases probably will not settle,
and as I write this I have had my first trial. It was the defense of an
activist who was arrested in a lock-down and charged with trespass (Cal
PC 602(j), and delaying an officer (PC 148(a)). The trial was a success
but the video tape of the 5 hours it took to get my client off the road
seemed to have some impact on the jury, and she was found guilty. (she
was in a junker car with no wheels placed across a Pacific Lumber logging
road, lying on the floor of the back of the car with her arm going through
a hole in the floorboard, and then into a huge chunk of concrete (a "dragon"
in activist terms). In the concrete block was a piece of rebar and her
wrist was chained to that.) She was offered probation but refused it and
got 120 days in county jail (which comes to about 80 with good time). While
in jail she got the judge to provide a vegan diet to her, and proper diets
to two other prisoners. Activists are so much fun. Because I was vigorously
defending her the charges were dropped against a second activist.
Now as I near the 2 year mark here are some observations.
1. It takes a while to figure out what is going on. Fortunately most court appearances before trial are routine and the judges will lead you through them. Each county's court system has its own pecularities and there is no way to learn what they are except to go through the process.
2. I have had a very good client list from the moment I was sworn in. However there are some startup expenses. Here's what I got for equipment:
a. A vehicle which is good for road trips, and which has 4 wheel drive for garden tours (I represent many people accused of growing excess marijuana ). I got an 83 Toyota SR5, had it painted, and have put about 25,000 miles on it (That's once around the earth at the equator, more or less.)
b. An office computer: I have a Mac G3 with a 17" monitor. Get the biggest monitor you can afford.
c. I have a copier in the office that I got frrom Costco for a few hundred dollars. Its a Cannon and it works very well.
d. I have a plain paper fax/phone. It was not expensive. I would avoid faxes that don't use toner.
e. I print on an Epson ink-jet unless it is for court, in which case I use my GCC laser printer.
f. I have a "road office" which consists of a Mac laptop and a very small Cannon portable printer. I can now go to a motel, set up, and create and print out forms and documents. I can also get on-line, download, and print out. That's important for me because all 8:30 appearances in any court mean overnight visits at local motels. I live 2 hours from Eureka, my nearest court.
g. On-line service is essential, I find. The more modern DA's use it quite often and I think it will become the norm. It is also very good for client and office communication. My ISP has supplied me with dial up numbers for various cities.
h. Being isolated I thought I would not be able to go to law libraries. I find I can't effectively use them anyway. So I subscribed to Westlaw Pro for about $250 a month. That gives me access to California cases and Federal Cases in the 9th circuit and the Supreme Court.
i. I buy books all the time. West helped me get a free set of the annotated California Codes that someone else was replacing. I subscribed to pocket part service for them. I have a set of US codes I got the same way, but so far I'm not practicing in the US Courts.
j. I am in the ABA, NLG, CACJ, NADCL, and CPDA. They all publish print magazines, have websites, and often ofter live lecures, and tapes of prior lectures. If you drive any distance at all consider listening to the tapes in the car. Expect about 1/2 the tapes not to be useful, but the other half will be essential.
k. I also get internet list messages from Findlaw of current cases, as well as internet service from some of the organizations, MacLaw, and a marjuana news service.
a. California Criminal Law Procedure and Practice, published by the CEB (you can find them on-line)
b. NACDL audio tapes: Get anything by Terry McCarthy, or Larry Pozner. These can be ordered on-line through the NACDL website.
c. Other lawyers: I find them friendly, helpful, and fun to talk to. (Mostly).
Continuing eduction: I go to MCLE classes. The Mendocino PD puts on a good, close, and inexpensive series. I went to San Diego for another series, to Sacramento for another, and the National Lawyer's Guild did a nice series for activist lawyers in SF. I buy tapes of these lectures too, often, and listen to them in the car (see above for 25,000 miles. At 50 miles per hour that's 500 hours in the car. I especially like Terry McCarthy as a lecturer on "Terrifying Trial Tactics" and "Killer Cross Exam".
The Western Trial Advocacy Institute in Laramie, Wyoming puts on a fantastic week long practical hands-on program for criminal trial lawyers. I've been twice and recommend it highly. It costs about $700, a single room in the UWO dorm was aboaut $150, and what with airfare etc. it came to a total of about $1500. I learned more in that week than in months of trial and error, so to speak.
I have no idea what my overhead is at this point. I think I spent about $5000 on vehicle and office equipment, plus more for computers. I probably spent as much on books and another several thousand paying for and attending MCLE classes. My West bill for Westlaw and various book subscriptions is probably $500 a month. This being a lawyer is not cheap. (My first year library costs were $10,000).