I had always wanted to go to law school. In fact, when I graduated from Brigham Young University (BYU) in 2000 I was accepted to a number of law schools. At that time, the real estate market in California was beginning to really take off and I saw an opportunity to provide well for my family, make my own schedule, and earn what I was worth. I hustled for my business and became adept at marketing and selling myself to the public. Real estate treated my family very well for a number of years.
In 2008 a series of events began to alter my career path. These events led me back to pursue my law degree at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law. For one thing, I saw the writing on the wall with regards to the real estate bubble. I knew that the real estate market was getting bad and it was not going to improve any time soon. That year my sister was in her second year at Loyola Law School. I saw her on the verge of accomplishing something I had always wanted to do. I was also attracted to the law because I craved stability in my financial situation. I did not want my career to be defined by super high highs and devastating lows. These factors led me to choose a permanent and drastic solution to the impending financial downturn on the horizon.
Now, I sit on the other side of the decision to attend law school. After graduating from Fowler School of Law in 2012, I secured a job practicing construction defect litigation at a very respectable firm with seven offices in four different states. As one who has had a successful career and changed career paths I can now impart a little of what I have learned along the way, especially for those contemplating a career change to the law.
- Law firms are businesses. Just like any other business, the law firm needs to make money. Principles of finance, marketing, and organizational behavior are vital to the success of any law firm.
- You need to take control of your own fate. This is true whether you are at a law firm or if you go out on your own. I recently had lunch with a partner from a prominent plaintiff’s construction defect firm here in Orange County. His candor and wisdom inspired me. He told me that young attorneys today are foolish to think a law firm will take care of them. He said that many young associates get in career trouble because they assume that the firm will watch out for their interests and keep them warm and safe as they dutifully work their way up the ladder. His advice was that if you ever want to be partner you have to seize your own fate by building your own book of business, networking on your own by taking your clients to lunch, and making yourself indispensable to the firm. The firm needs to know that if they let you go, revenue and clients will also follow you out the door. That is how you create your own job security at a firm.
- You can find success by opening your own firm. If you ran your own business prior to law school you can do the same now. I have seen fellow Fowler Law classmates open and run very successful employment and personal injury law firms right out of law school. Once you have your J.D. degree and the ability to practice law, your own firm may be the perfect way to seize the moment and take control of your own fate.
- Don’t expect a firm to pay you like your old career did! I think most of us have the idea that all attorneys make great money and if you become an attorney life is going to be great. Not so! If you are changing careers you may find it difficult to support a family on the salary a firm is willing to pay you. I know this was the case for me. I have four children, two of which are teenagers. I found it extremely difficult to provide for my family making $75,000 a year. The students who land jobs making over $100,000 right out of law school are the outliers. From my experience, $60,000 to $80,000 is a more realistic salary you can expect from your first law job. Do not plan on making higher than this range in your first job.
- Be true to who you are. Honestly evaluate your own personality. Ask soul-searching questions such as: Why do I want to change careers and why do I want to practice law? What are my strengths and weaknesses? Am I a person who likes to work for someone or do I thrive when I work on my own? Am I willing to take the risk of going on my own and am I willing to market myself and sell myself to prospective clients? The answers to these questions will tell you a lot about the decisions you should make as you leave law school.
After the lunch meeting I had with my with my friend, mentioned above, I knew I had to make smart decisions about my future in the law and I had to be true to myself in order to seize control of my own fate. I had to evaluate my strengths and weaknesses. I had to decide if I was going to continue at a firm and attempt to become partner by building my own business within the firm or if my personality and experiences were better suited to opening my own law firm. That self-examination period led me to conclude that my decision to attend law school was right for me, but working at someone else’s firm is not being true to myself. Being true to myself is realizing I learned a great deal about business management in my former career that is applicable to a law firm. My strength is marketing myself, selling a client on my services, and providing them with an experience where they want to refer their friends to me.
I cannot tell you how many people have told me to avoid family law at all costs. And I have done just that up to this point. But my introspection taught me that family law does not have to be right for anyone else except for me. Being true to myself is accepting the fact that my unique personality is actually great for family law.
So, on January 1, 2014, I opened the Wallin Family Law Group. You can see how I help others navigate their divorce, child custody, and spousal/child support issues on my website, www.wallinfamilylawgroup.com.
For me, changing careers, going to law school full time with a family to support, working at a law firm for a year, and now making the switch to my own firm has been a rocky road. I have learned many lessons. But none of them were more important than the lesson to seize control of my own fate and stay true to myself. If you are contemplating changing your career, learn from my experiences, ask yourself the soul-searching questions, and seize control of your own fate.
About the author:
Zach Wallin (’12) graduated from Brigham Young University with a B.S. in Business Management with an emphasis in marketing. His career began in Orange County with 12 years in real estate before he graduated from Chapman University School of Law with an emphasis in Alternate Dispute Resolution. He is a member of the California bar, the Orange County Bar Association, and the J. Reuben Clark Law Society.