Law degrees at use beyond the courtroom

By Jane Pribek

Dolan Media Newswires

MILWAUKEE, WI--Law degrees have long been touted for their versatility, but two graduates are showing just how far outside the courtroom a legal background can go.

2005 Marquette University Law School graduate Erica Elia and 2010 University of Wisconsin Law School graduate Troy Vosseller are using their degrees miles from any judge or jury: Elia as a baker and co-owner of Classy Girl Cupcakes in Milwaukee; Vosseller as owner of Sconnie Nation, a Madison-based T-shirt business.

Both said they went to law school with the idea of practicing law, but both realized they could instead use the legal background to start their own business.

Vosseller, who also works as a clinical instructor for the UW's Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic, said it's a trend that's on the rise. He's seen an increasing number of law students interested either in starting their own business or joining a startup company, rather than practicing law, he said.

Though their post-law school paths have strayed far from traditional practice, Elia and Vosseller said they are pleased with their choices and have no regrets.

From clients to cupcakes

As an undergraduate, Elia studied anthropology. Post-college, she managed a clothing store, but she soon craved a greater intellectual challenge and decided law school seemed like the best way to achieve that.

The legal education provided the desired challenge, she said, as did almost five years of plaintiffs' personal-injury practice afterward.

But, Elia said, practicing law didn't offer the creative challenge she also sought, as often as she would have liked -- nor did she find the adversarial system a good fit with her personality.

In August 2009, while still practicing law, she baked cheesecake cupcakes for her own wedding. They were a huge hit, she said, with several guests telling her she'd missed her calling.

Not long afterward, a friend asked her to bake cupcakes for his wedding. Elia agreed and enlisted the help of her longtime best friend and sister-in-law, Sara Elia. Once again, the cupcakes received rave reviews.

Elia then created a website for the business and word spread quickly, she said. As business picked up, she expanded her offerings, eventually creating 40 different cheesecake cupcake recipes, as well as several varieties of cake cupcakes.

In June 2010, Elia had a baby and started her maternity leave from the firm. Although she was incredibly busy with a newborn and the burgeoning catering business, the break from law provided time for reflection, she said.

In September, she resigned from the firm.

In November, Elia and her sister-in-law opened up the storefront bakery in Milwaukee. About 80 weddings are booked for this year, she said, and in May, they baked 6,500 cupcakes for the Breast Cancer Walk.

T-shirts turn into business venture

As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Vosseller befriended Ben Fiechtner shortly after moving into Kronshage Hall in fall 2003 as freshmen. They soon discovered they shared a dream of owning their own business.

In spring 2004, they started talking about putting a word they'd heard used to describe people from Wisconsin, "Sconnie," on T-shirts. They contracted for 100 shirts to be printed.

"We literally started selling them out of our dorm rooms and backpacks, and were sold out after about a week," Vosseller said. "At that point, we said, 'We're on to something.'"

Two years later, Vosseller enrolled in law school as the Sconnie T-shirt venture continued to thrive through online sales as well.

"I quickly realized I was more interested in the business side of things," he said. "My first year of law school (in 2006), the Sconnie business was really starting to take off and our numbers were really going up. That's what pushed me into getting my MBA simultaneously."

The business reached a major milestone in summer 2007, when Fiechtner and Vosseller partnered with their T-shirt printer to open the store Sconnie Nation on State Street. The printer would run the retail and online stores, while Fiechtner and Vosseller retained creative control and royalties.

In 2008, Fiechtner took a fulltime job and Vosseller bought him out, becoming 100 percent owner.

By then, Vosseller said, "I didn't think I'd ever find myself practicing law. But that's when the Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic opened up, and I found I could be a lawyer and counselor to small businesses, many of whom were facing the same struggles I'd faced as an undergraduate starting Sconnie Nation."

Vosseller participated in the program as a student in its first year, and after his 2010 law school graduation, he was hired as a supervising attorney.

As for his business, it's still exceeding his wildest dreams, he said.

With the Badgers going to Rose Bowl in January and the Packers' Super Bowl victory a month later, the first quarter of 2011 has been the biggest yet for Sconnie Nation, he said.

No regrets

Juggling the costs of starting a business and paying for law school may sound like a daunting challenge, but Elia and Vosseller both said they found ways to make it work.

For Vosseller, that first batch of T-shirts cost him and his business partner $300 each, the profits from which financed the next batch, and so on.

For Elia, the down payment from the first wedding she was contracted for covered the costs of the ingredients, and the profits she and her business partner made from it went toward better, professional-grade baking pans, utensils and more for the next booking.

As for paying for their law degrees, Vosseller, 26, said that by the time he started law school, Sconnie Nation was already established, allowing him to pay tuition and living expenses without student loans. He also landed a teaching assistant position at the UW's business school, which paid a stipend in addition to two years' tuition remission.

Elia, 34, said her student loans are still part of her monthly outlay. But for now she's also supporting herself and her family, and there's enough money to fuel the business' continued growth.

Neither regrets getting their law degree.

"I knew that having a law degree would provide an additional filter, in terms of making business decisions," Vosseller said. "And even though I'd never claim to be an expert in any particular area of law, it did give me a ground-level working understanding that can help you make better decisions and avoid potentially costly mistakes. So I'm very happy I got it."

Elia said she doesn't feel forced to use her law degree, and doesn't regret it, as it was part of getting to where she is today.

"It was a great education and intellectual pursuit that I'm never going to forget," she said. "And it doesn't mean I won't go back someday. I can't see that happening at this point. But it got me to where I am -- on a zigzagged path. That's how things happen."

Jane Pribek can be reached at jpribek@bellsouth.net.

Entire contents copyrighted © 2011 by Dolan Media Company.

Published: Thu, Jun 30, 2011