Tough market for young attorneys: Lawyer has five-year plan for success

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For now, he's happy to pay the bills

By Tom Gantert

Legal News

There are times Ryan Phillips does the math and realizes he's working for minimum wage.

Phillips, a Jackson attorney, didn't hesitate to sum up life as a relatively new attorney.

"What's it like?" he asked. "It's hell."

Establishing a practice as a new attorney is not easy and often times not very lucrative. According to the 2010 State Bar of Michigan annual survey, an attorney with one to two years of service makes on average $48,647 a year with as many as 25 percent of that group making $20,000.

He's still learning how to use discretion on whether he should take on a client.

"The people who are calling me are not necessarily the ones calling the more established lawyers," Phillips said. "They generally don't know what a reasonable fee would be. You cannot take the work and not get paid. You can take the work and get paid your retainer, which you will probably use up before the matter is half over. And you pray you will get more out of it."

It's been just over two years since Phillips, 38, passed the state bar exam.

He focuses on family law. And he frequently talks to other local attorneys for advice.

"Most of the other attorneys have been very helpful whenever I called," he said.

In 2002, Phillips got his own divorce and was represented by Jackson attorney Dennis Hurst. He said Hurst was honest, straightforward and gave good advice and knew what he was doing. Hurst also worked with the opposing side.

"Most of the times in family cases, these people have to work together with more than just the divorce proceeding," Phillips said.

He was impressed by how professionally Hurst handled an emotional and potentially combative case.

"That is how I want to model my practice," Phillips said.

Hurst said he's glad to give a younger attorney some guidance.

"Because I'm an older lawyer and was an administrator at Cooley Law School, I have a special place in my heart for younger lawyers just starting out in the profession," Hurst said.

And Hurst knows what a struggle it can be in the beginning. He said in his first year of practice, after expenses, his legal secretary made more money than he did.

Phillips graduated from Cooley Law School in September 2009 with just $20,000 in student loans because he was able to work as a material planner at Michigan Automotive Compressor, Inc. When the company offered buyouts in February 2009, Phillips took it to focus on his legal career.

Phillips passed the state bar exam in February 2010 and sent out resumes to any law firm he could find.

For months he would go to the court room and sit and watch for 10 hours a week just to get experience.

"I didn't have anything else to do," he said.

He caught the attention of court officials. A court official would approach and ask if he was there on a matter. He explained he was a new attorney and just observing.

A judge's clerk eventually introduced him to Jessica Schirmacher, who had been in practice for about six years. She contracted work out to Phillips as he appeared at motions when she was out of town.

Eventually they formed a limited liability company together before Schirmacher left the state in January of 2011.

Phillips also worked for another Jackson law firm, making appearances on cases involving mortgage foreclosure and unsecured credit debt relief cases.

"Sometimes I sit here and wonder if I'm really doing anybody any good at all," Phillips said. "The conventional wisdom is the business needs to be five years old to be established and be profitable. I have that as my long term goal."

"The mortgage is current. That water is running. The lights are on. Five years from now if things haven't improved, then this definitely won't be worth continuing."

In one of his first cases, Phillips represented a woman on a divorce case.

"I didn't think I did anything stellar," he said.

After the case was over, he got a thank-you card from the client. That was 10 months ago, yet Phillips still keeps the thank-you card in his desk.

Phillips asked whether he was glad he became a lawyer.

He paused.

"Yeah," he said. "I guess so. It took me a while to say, 'Yes.' It is unique and challenging. There is something new every day. The stress is making sure you get paid and make sure the lights stay on, which seems to detract from a great profession."

Published: Mon, May 14, 2012

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