Law Office of Me, LLC.
New law grads go it on their own
By Chris Jenkins
When they were In kindergarten, Matt Weil helped his buddy, Bob Buckett, open his milk and reach his lunchbox on a particularly high shelf. How many law firms can claim an origins story like that?
The childhood friends stayed in touch in college, then reunited as classmates at Marquette Law School. During their final year, they began having serious discussions about forming a law firm. The 2011 law graduates went to the Brookfield Public Library (Wis.) on June 1, 2011, to complete articles of incorporation — and, four years later, Buckett & Weil, LLC., remains open in the Milwaukee suburbs.
With their successful launch, Buckett and Weil became part of a small but significant group of recent Marquette Law School graduates who build law firms from scratch. Some do so out of necessity, given the effect the economic downturn has had on the job market for lawyers. For others, it’s a fast-track way to pursue their passion. “We really just encourage people, if this is something they’re interested in, to seek it out as a first choice, not as
a last resort,” Buckett says.
Shannon Wynn, Law ’10, formed her law firm after graduation. She lives in Lake Geneva, Wis., where joining a large established law firm wasn’t an option — mostly because there weren’t any. “I already started planning my business my last year of law school,” she says. “I don’t think that people should always feel like just because a new lawyer is starting a business that it’s by necessity. Sometimes, it’s by choice. This is what they’ve always wanted to do, own a business, and they do have that entrepreneurial spirit and the drive.”
Pursuing a passion
Wynn is in her second year teaching the Law School’s course Starting and Managing a Law Practice, a course she took as a law student. While law students spend most of their time learning the law, this course encourages them to think like small business owners. The final project is to write a five-year business plan with startup costs, income and expense projections, and a well-developed idea of what kind of law they will practice. For a few students, that project is the first step toward actually doing it.
“It takes somebody who is willing to take on a challenge,” Wynn says, “who is willing to put in the hours and the effort because it’s not a 9-to-5 proposition. And it takes somebody who is multifaceted when it comes to personality because you have to be your own bookkeeper, your own secretary. You have to have the people skills and the work ethic to be doing this all at the same time.”
A reward for that hard work is the flexibility to pursue a passion. For three recent law school graduates, that passion was immigration law. Kime Abduli and Melissa Soberalski founded the Marquette Immigration Law Association — a topic that was personally meaningful for these children of immigrants.
Abduli, Law ’12, came to the United States from Macedonia with her mother when she was 16 months old, joining her father, who already lived here. She was the oldest child in her immediate family and the first in her family to speak English fluently. By age 10, she was translating immigration forms for friends and family. As she got older, she began thinking this was something to pursue. She founded Abduli Immigration Law, LLC., in West Allis, Wis.
Soberalski, Law ’12, partnered with Maria Lopez, Law ’13. The two law students met while working on a pro bono project involving an asylum case. Today, Lopez & Soberalski Immigration Law, LLC., is based in Milwaukee. “There’s something really powerful about getting to know an individual’s story, how and why they decided to leave their home country and forge a completely new life in a foreign one,” Soberalski says.
Waiting for the phone to ring
To get off the ground, a new law firm must meet its most fundamental need: clients to serve. “We got an office after a couple of weeks,” Buckett says of the early days after founding Buckett & Weil. “And you plug the phone in, and it doesn’t just ring.”
That’s where the nerves kick in: Am I going to make it? At one point early on, Abduli considered taking a part-time job at the grocery store to make ends meet — an example, she says, that you have to do what it takes to keep going. “Be prepared,” she says. “You’re going to have those freak-out moments.”
For Abduli, Lopez and Soberalski, a breakthrough came in the form of the Obama Administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Weil and Buckett began to get criminal defense assignments from public defender offices. Today that work represents the bulk of their business.
Done correctly, and with a plan, a law firm can be a relatively low-budget path to small business ownership, say these law grads. Most of the business plans Wynn sees have start-up costs of $5,000 to $20,000.