The Colorado Attorney Oath of Admission states "I do solemnly swear....I will use my knowledge of the law for the better of society and the improvement of the legal system." I love that the legal profession cares about pro bono work and access to justice issues. I am proud to do my small part!
On April 10, lawyers in Gunnison County met for the annual Karl Ranous Professionalism Award dinner. Every year, the bar association gathers to honor a local lawyer who exemplifies the values and practices of professionalism. This year, the Gunnison County Bar Association honored Hon. J. Steven Patrick, the Chief Judge of Colorado’s 7th Judicial District. Judge Patrick sets the tone and a high standard for lawyers practicing in the 7th Judicial District. This is a well-deserved recognition of the professionalism displayed in Colorado courts.
We also heard a presentation from Jim Coyle, head of Colorado Attorney Regulation Counsel and Barbara Eyzk , Executive Director of the Colorado Lawyer's Assistance Program.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with undergraduate honors students for a networking dinner. The purpose of the dinner was to let students mingle with professors and local professionals to practice networking skills in a formal setting. It was a delight to meet with a diverse group of students with a wide range of interests—some were heading to graduate schools immediately, one hoped to enter the Peace Corps then go to law school, one was applying for jobs in healthcare before going to medical school, and several were undecided.
I’ve come to enjoy networking, but that wasn’t always the case. For a long time, and all during law school, I often felt a little awkward or out of place at networking events. I felt like I didn't know what to say, how to approach people, or how to get anything useful out of the event. Although these students seemed much more at ease than I remember being as a graduating senior, their questions about the basics of networking reminded me that networking is actually a skill—one that you need to learn, practice, and use to your advantage.
Here are my top tips for law students and young professionals in networking:
· If you have business cards, bring them to your next networking event! If you don’t have any, ask your Career Services if they have temp cards you can use. Also, many online printers offer business cards for very cheap. It is worth investing a few dollars to have a simple card with your basic contact information.
· If you’re like I used to be, the prospect of going to a networking event isn’t exactly fun. Maybe that’s not the case for you and you feel at ease at these events—if so, that is great! If you need a confidence boost, however, keep in mind that others are either secretly feeling as awkward as you are or they’re chatty kathys ready to mingle with you.
· Remember that the purpose of networking is to build a network! You aren’t going to walk out of the room with a job offer, but you might meet someone who knows someone who can help you with professional development. Law is incredibly people-driven and building and sustaining relationships will always serve you well. So many opportunities will come to you if you can develop that mindset now. Your best asset is human capital. Make connections!
· If you need to build your network but aren’t attending a formal networking event, you might need to take initiative and contact people directly. Call or email lawyers and offer to take them out for a cup of coffee or an after-work drink. This is especially helpful if you’re new to the area or breaking into a specific practice area. I have never heard of a lawyer declining to meet with someone for a friendly outing like this. Bar associations might have informal networking resources, so look into those.
At the Event
· Networking doesn’t have to be stuffy or overly formal, but it is usually a professional event. It should go without saying, but behave in a way that reflects well on you, your school, or your employer.
· Work the room: Networking events are usually about mingling, not having an hour-long conversation with one person. If you’re feeling stuck, you can use getting more food or drink as a tactful excuse to move around the room. You can also be direct: “It has been great meeting you. I am going to walk around a meet a few more people before this event wraps up.”
· If you’re going to the networking event with a group of people—fellow students or employees—try to resist the urge to stick with the people you know. You’ll get more out of the event if you make the effort to branch out. If you’re very uncomfortable or really need extra support, you can have a wingman. Hopefully, in time you’ll feel more comfortable networking solo, but having a friend with you can be a bridge to that point.
· At networking events, it is perfectly fine to go up to someone or a group of people and just say “hello.” You don’t need an invitation! If you see someone standing by themselves, take initiative and approach them. They’ll appreciate the effort.
· If you are nervous about what to talk about, remember that people, especially lawyers, love talking about themselves and their work. You don’t have to be the Riddler and pepper people with rapid-fire questions, but showing genuine interest in people is a great way to get a conversation started. It might feel a little unnatural at first, but people expect that at networking events, and they’ll appreciate your interest.
· Be genuine and authentic.
· Be honest about yourself and what you want. If you know what you want, say so. I've said "I am working on developing a practice in XYZ." Tell people what you do and where you do it. So much of professional development is letting people know what services you offer. I am not suggesting that you brag or focus your conversation on this. But, you’ll make more lasting connections if you let someone know what you do. As an example, I was at a networking event and spoke with a lawyer in Boulder who does family law. I shared that I lived in Gunnison County. A few weeks later, he called me up to ask for a referral to a residential real estate appraiser in my area. I was happy to pass along the names of a few people I had worked with. The lawyer clearly remembered me from the networking event and reached out for a favor. Now, I have a connection in Boulder that I can draw on if I ever need to.
· If you have a business card, hand them out. I wouldn’t hand out your resume unless you really think it is appropriate for the event, but I would have one prepared and polished so that you can follow up with someone later.
· Get business cards from everyone you speak with and after the event, write down the date and place where you met that person and one or two details of your conversation. This will help you put a name with a face and jog your memory about what you talked about. Getting business cards is pretty worthless if you’re just left with a stack of names with no context.
· If you had an interesting conversation or felt a great connection with someone you met at a networking event, follow up. You can write a short email to the effect of “I enjoyed meeting you last night at the networking event. Thanks for taking the time to explain XYZ. I appreciated hearing your perspective on XYZ. I hope we can connect again sometime.” Boom. Short, easy, appropriate.
· Networking isn’t about asking for a job. But, if you think it is appropriate, you can send your resume to someone after you’ve met them. I like to say something like “I’ve attached my resume to give you a better idea of my background and skill set.” If you specifically referenced a job search in your conversation, you could say something like, “if you ever hear of a job opening in (Tulsa) or (natural resources litigation), I would definitely appreciate if you’d keep me in mind.” I’ve had people make that request of me, and I have always been happy to pass along opportunities.
· Most professionals are on LinkedIn and a growing number are on Twitter. You can make an online connection by inviting them to your network on LinkedIn or following them on Twitter (with the caveat that I recommend this only if you have a semi-professional presence on social media). I don’t actually think LinkedIn is all that helpful (or maybe I am just not using it effectively), but it sort of functions as an online business card holder….all your professional connections are in one place with their resumes displayed.
· The legal community is filled with incredibly generous people who are happy to share their expertise with you. The longer I practice, the more I am impressed with this feature of our profession. Use it to your advantage. If you ask for help in an appropriate and respectful way, chances are you’ll get it!
I hope this is helpful. Networking is a vital part of building a law practice and can be an enjoyable way to grow relationships.
Here are some upcoming events through the Gunnison County Inns of Court and the 7th Judicial District:
May 9, 2018, 5:30, Garlic Mike's in Gunnison: Colorado Supreme Court Welcome Reception with 7th Judicial District Bar Association
May 10, 2018, Gunnison High School, Gunnison: Colorado Supreme Court Oral Arguments
June 15, 2018, Montrose: All-day CLE symposium presented by 7th Judicial District Bar Association
June 28, 2018, Gunnison: CLE presentation on data privacy and cybersecurity with Phi-Hang Tran
My Road to Freelance Lawyering
I recently gave a presentation to a bar association about freelance legal services and after the presentation, a few lawyers asked me how and why I came to have this niche practice. Freelance lawyering is a choice well outside of the mainstream, but I have been making non-traditional choices throughout my legal career. In many ways, freelancing is the logical culmination of my choices and preferences.
I graduated from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law in 2011. Before law school, my husband and I lived in ski towns, and after graduation we were eager to return to the mountains of Colorado. After several years in his job, my husband was looking to make a change. The two of us basically made a pact that we would both start looking for jobs in a few Colorado ski towns. We decided that we would move wherever one of us first landed a job. I assumed he would get a job first, based on his industry experience and strong network in the places we wanted to live.
Right after taking the bar exam, I saw a posting on the Colorado Bar Association jobs board for a small law firm in Gunnison, Colorado. My husband and I had recently visited Crested Butte (the next town over from Gunnison) on a ski vacation and were blown away by its beauty and character. I naturally jumped at the opportunity to work in such a special community. I was pleasantly surprised to get an interview then an offer with the firm. Much to my surprise, I landed a job before my husband and we decided to move to Crested Butte.
Here, I made my first and second non-traditional career choices. Most of my friends took clerkships, continued with internships with federal agencies, or started with larger firms in Denver. Most of my friends began specializing in one or two areas of the law—family law, criminal law, bankruptcy, estate planning, etc—right away. I packed my bags and ventured to a general practice one lawyer shop in rural Colorado.
As a lawyer in a small firm in a small town in rural Colorado, you have to be a “jack of all trades.” It was sink or swim and I was quickly given substantial litigation responsibility. It was honestly like drinking from a fire hose! The upside was that I very quickly honed my legal research skills across a wide range of substantive areas.
I practiced general civil litigation full time for about two and a half years. In spring 2013, I had my first child. My firm offered me a flexible work schedule and I reduced my hours. There, I made my third non-traditional career choice. Some of my friends from law school were having children, but I didn’t know any that practiced law on a part-time basis. I continued working reduced hours/flexible schedule for another two years.
When I had my second child (after a scary pregnancy and premature birth), I decided to take a career break. Here was my fourth non-traditional career choice. I knew this was in my plans, but it was a total leap of faith for me to walk away from practicing law. It was an open-ended career break, but I did intend to return to practicing in the future when I felt ready to do so. At one point, I told someone from Attorney Regulation Counsel that I was taking a break from the law. I was told that the statistics on reentering law practice were “grim.”
For the first year of my career break, I was content to focus on my family and honestly did not miss the law world. About the time of my youngest child’s first birthday, however, I started to want to have a professional presence in my life again. I turned to my former employer and let him know that I was ready to take on some work. My old boss would regularly give me legal research or writing projects. I was able to help another busy lawyer, keep my skills sharp, and work on my own time. I really loved it. I might have happily continued on that track, but my old boss was wrapping up his law practice and heading towards retirement. Over time, he sent me less and less work. I knew I needed to figure out another option.
A year and a half into my career break, I was ready to think about how I wanted to reenter practice. I did a lot of soul searching. With two young children, I just wasn’t ready to return to working full time. Even if I was, there are very, very law jobs available in my small town. I was wracking my brain to figure out a way to work part-time, or at least with a flexible schedule, from my small and remote town, and while focusing on my strengths. I love legal research and writing and working with other lawyers. I do not as much love working directly with clients and the doing the daily grind against opposing counsel.
After some dead ends and doors closing in my face, a light bulb went off in my head. Why don’t I continue doing the contract work that I love, just on a larger and more formal scale? I started reading everything I could about contract/freelance lawyering. I read freelance attorneys’ websites, blogs, and books. I spoke with other lawyers. I read ethics opinions about this business model.
There are a lot of trade-offs to living in a small town several hours from bigger population centers. There are real barriers to starting and sustaining a professional career in a place like Crested Butte. By having a virtual practice serving lawyers and clients throughout the state, I may have found a way to develop a career on my terms in a sustainable way.
I took the plunge and started a solo practice in September 2017. I formed Coleman Law to offer litigation support and legal research and writing services to Colorado lawyers on a freelance basis. I now help solo and small firm practitioners sustain and grow their practices.
I am so happy that I made this choice. I get to focus on research and writing. I get to use litigation skills, but in a behind the scenes capacity. I absolutely love helping other lawyers. Although I work with lawyers across the state, I often work with lawyers in small town Colorado. I love serving these communities. I am very fortunate to put my skills and experience to work in this way!
I am so pleased to announce that I will be teaching POLS 282, State and Local Politics, at Western State Colorado University for Fall 2018. I truly love civics education, and I am really happy to help the next generation of Political Science and Education majors learn more about their government and how to effectively engage all levels of their government. I am looking forward to connecting with the faculty and srudents of Western!
On March 16, I had the opportunity to meet with some of the lawyers of the Northwest Colorado Bar Association in Steamboat Springs. I gave a CLE presentation on "Ethical Considerations in the Use of Freelance Legal Services." I especially love giving this presentation to lawyers in rural Colorado because they are mostly solo/small firm practitioners--and that's a group that can really benefit from freelance work and extra support from time to time. I also especially love giving this presentation in another ski town!
The CLE covers:
- basic terminology and arrangements within the freelance legal services context
- disclosure to the client
- confidentiality issues
- conflicts of interest issues
- billing for freelance legal services
- working with freelance lawyers in other jurisdictions
- fee agreements with freelance lawyers
Thanks again for having me!
In previous posts, I covered the challenges and opportunities of being a ski town lawyer and some of the business models I have seen ski town lawyers adopt. Now it is time to talk about mindset and the tips and tricks to get you a ski town lawyering gig!
If you’re serious about breaking into the ski town lawyering market, you need to adopt the right attitude. Going into this process with some perspective will make a difference, I think.
Your Compensation is not Monetary
I’ve already discussed how attorney compensation in Colorado outside of the metro areas is pretty severely depressed. Don’t get me wrong—lawyers in ski towns can and do make a good living, but average attorney compensation just doesn’t compare to Denver rates. That can be a bitter pill to swallow.
It really helps if you realize that part of your compensation is not monetary. I try to remind myself daily that ‘privilege has nothing to do with wealth’ and that I am incredibly privileged to live and practice law here.
My last law office was on the bus route to the ski area and I could be skiing within minutes of leaving the office. I can access hundreds of miles of hiking and mountain biking trails within a few miles of my driveway. If you live for outdoor recreation (and I assume you do, if you’re looking to be a ski town lawyer), there’s simply no substitute for living in the middle of millions of acres of public land.
There are other ways living in a ski town makes up for your lower compensation. In general, I’ve found ski towns to be pretty livable communities. The pace of life is slower, people get to know each other, the schools are great, and everyone has made similar choices and tradeoffs to get to live here long-term.
Have the ‘Figure it Out’ Gene
A lawyer who practiced in rural Colorado for many years told me that you just have to have the ‘figure it out’ gene. As I discussed in the last post, lawyers here are mostly generalists. As a ski town lawyer, you are tasked with developing a pretty wide range of legal skills and competencies. You have to decide for yourself whether you can live with that.
Unfortunately, you might not always be welcomed with open arms by the established legal community. In every ski town, there’s a contingent of old-times who resist change and fresh blood (even as they profit off of the increased business from an influx of new residents and visitors). In fact, I am sure there are ski town lawyers who are miffed that I am daring to write this blog post!
I’ve definitely found them to be in the minority, but they are out there. My advice is to not take it personally and to seek out connections and mentors who will welcome you into the community.
Realize What You’re Getting Into
I alluded to some of the challenges inherent in living in a ski town. Like many things, a blessing can also be a curse. Yeah, everyone wants snow in February, but will you still be stoked for it in late May? Because it WILL snow in late May. Yeah, the town is charming and cute, but will it still look that way when you’re tired of eating at the same five restaurants you can actually afford? Yeah, it’s a nice community, but what about when your town is overrun with tourists? What about when your town literally shuts down in late April and everyone else goes surfing in Mexico for a month?
I don’t mean to discourage aspiring ski town lawyers, but these are really things you’ll deal with. To the extent that you can recognize these realities and demonstrate that you can deal with them, you’ll be better off. I live in one of the coldest places in Colorado (-25F is not at all uncommon) and it seems that every firm has a tale of an associate who baled after one year because they (or their spouse) couldn’t deal with the cold.
There are a few really concrete steps you can do to help you break into the ski town lawyer job market. Here are some of the things I recommend:
- Contact every single lawyer you know in ski towns and let them know you want in! Every year, I get a few phone calls or emails from lawyers (some who I know and some who I don’t know) with questions about ski town law practice and I am always happy to speak with them. I doubt I am the only one. The purpose of this is not to ask for a job. The purpose is to ask questions about practicing in a ski town, demonstrate interest, and establish that you’re serious about this transition. After a pleasant meeting over a cup of coffee or a beer, you can give them your contact information and ask that they keep you in mind if they ever hear of law openings in their community.
- Contact every single person you know who knows someone who practices in a ski town. A friend of a friend of a friend is a friend indeed. Again, this is about networking more than looking for a particular job.
- Show that you recognize limitations of working here. If you’re lucky enough to land a job interview in a ski town, I think it really helps if you can demonstrate that you understand the culture of ski towns. This means understanding access to justice issues, rural clientele, small towns, the aforementioned challenges, etc.
- Establish some connection with the community. I think this is probably the best advice that I can give you—get involved in the community. If you’ve previously lived in a ski town, have friends or family in a ski town, or have ties to a ski town, you’ll set yourself apart from lawyers who just want to come and ski.
- Regularly check the Colorado Bar Association’s Jobs Board and the Judicial Branch website. First, by checking regularly, you’ll get a sense of the practice areas needed in ski towns. Second, you can jump on good ski town lawyering jobs as soon as they come up. I see law jobs in the Vail Valley and Roaring Fork Valley listed fairly often on the CBA jobs board. You’ll also see listings in towns that aren’t “ski towns” strictly speaking, but are within an hour or so of ski resorts or incredible backcountry skiing.
- Be involved in your community. One of the best ways to generate business and referrals is to be visible and involved in your community. If you’ve already made the leap and moved to your dream ski town, this advice is especially applicable to you. Join a board, volunteer, serve on a county bar or commission, be active in your faith or recreation communities. Volunteer to coordinate or give CLE presentations to the local bar association (join your local bar association!).
I hope this series on ski town lawyering is helpful! If you're looking to become a lawyer in a ski town, I am happy to offer whatever help I can (gotta pay it forward)!
Ski Town Lawyering: Nuts and Bolts
Fantasy: "I’ll be general counsel for a ski company!" "I’ll be the premier ski accident and injury lawyer in Colorado!"
Reality: “I’m getting evicted from my trailer. I need a lawyer.”
When people tell me that they want to be a ski town lawyer, I sometimes take that with a grain of salt. What do they really want? What do they think ski town lawyering is all about?
The reality is that Vail’s corporate counsel isn’t in a ski town (the main corporate offices are in a Denver suburb), and hardly anyone handles ski accident litigation on a large scale.
Having busted these two fantasies, what do ski town lawyers do? How does one hack it as a ski town lawyer?
The answer is: there are a lot of ways to be a lawyer in a ski town. In this post, I’ll explore some of the models I have seen ski town lawyers use to support themselves.
Model #1: You Are A “Real” Lawyer (Congratulations!)
This model is the most traditional of the ways to practice law in a ski town. Here, the lawyer is what the general public thinks of when they think “lawyer.” The lawyer has a brick and mortar office in the ski town or surrounding area. The lawyer probably does some advertising, either on the local radio station or in the local newspaper. They generally accept the clients that walk through the door. They’re a solo practitioner or in a small firm a few partners or associates.
I said in an earlier post that ski town lawyers are generalists, and this is especially true in this context. In this model, lawyers might advertise expertise in a few practice areas. Here are the substantive practice areas that I see the most need for in ski towns:
· Homeowners Associations
· Land Use
· Real Estate
· Water Law
· Domestic/Family Law
· Criminal Defense
· Probate and Estate Administration
· Estate Planning
· Small Business
· Civil Litigation
The advantages of this model are that you pull clients from a lot of different areas and can cast a pretty wide net. You’ll meet a ton of lawyers and lay people in your area and community. You can build a reputation for yourself and start to put down roots.
The disadvantage is that you’ll really feel the bust part of the boom-and-bust cycle that inevitably comes. You’re a generalist, so you have to be competent in many areas and you’ll need to be extremely proficient in legal research. Unless you have an “in” to one of the established firms in the area, you might find it difficult to get your foot in the door. Starting your own practice if you’re new to the area is really risky.
Model #2: Institutional or Organizational Clients
The second model that I see working for ski town lawyers is to have an institutional client or work for one. I see this mostly in two contexts: the criminal law world as a District Attorney or Public Defender and the municipal law world as County Attorney or Municipal Attorney.
In some ways, this might be the easiest way to get your foot in the door as an aspiring ski town lawyer, especially as a DA/PD. The Colorado Public Defender’s Office has offices in Dillion (near A-Basin, Breck, Keystone, and Copper), Steamboat Springs, Salida (Monarch Mountain), Glenwood Springs (Aspen, Snowmass, Buttermilk), and Durango (Purgatory). Some of these are not “ski towns” in the strictest sense but they’re within reasonable striking distance to world class skiing.
The drawback about working in the PDs office is that you have little control over your first assignment and you could find yourself working in an office about as far from skiing as you can get while still being in Colorado. My sense is that you have much greater control over this as you gain experience and seniority, but I can’t describe the process with any confidence.
Besides criminal law, municipal law is a great avenue for a ski town lawyer. Counties are vested with certain functions, including providing Health and Human Services programs, so child protection is an important component of being a County Attorney. County Attorneys also advise the Board of County Commissioners and county boards/commissions, such as the Planning Commission. County Attorneys have to be familiar with open meeting laws, public record laws, land use, contracts, employment law, and a host of other topics. The same goes for Town Attorneys. Depending on the size of the municipality, it might employ lawyers in house or it might contract with a law firm to provide representation.
The good thing is that I do see these jobs advertised fairly regularly. The bad thing is that, depending on the county, there might be a grand total of one lawyer serving as County Attorney and that same lawyer has served in that role for 40 years. It seems to me that this is pretty mixed bag in terms of opportunities and turn over, so I think you’d need to be open to a variety of locations if you’re seeking these types of jobs.
Model #3: Get a Contract
The Colorado Judicial Branch has several state agencies with a specialized legal focus, including the Office of the Child’s Representative (Guardian Ad Litems), Office of the Respondent Parent Counsel (lawyers for parents in dependency and neglect proceedings), Office of the Alternate Defense Counsel (criminal defense lawyers for when the Public Defender’s Office is conflicted out of representation).
These offices generally engage lawyers as contractors to provide services to their constituent clients. Each office has different criteria and processes for selecting lawyers.
The hourly rate for this type of work is comparatively low, but it’s a great source of income for a ski town lawyer. Many ski town lawyers have, at one point in their career or another, gained a contract with a state judicial agency and have kept fairly busy through that work.
Model #4: Part-time/Remote/Specialized Lawyering
For whatever reason, there seems to be a higher percentage of lawyers in ski towns working part-time or remotely.
More and more employers are open to considering remote options. If you can land a gig with this set-up, go for it and move to your dream town!
I said earlier that ski town lawyers tend to be generalists. Although that’s generally the case, if your location doesn’t really matter to your practice, you could set up shop in a ski town. If you’re a specialist and have an established reputation such that your ability to pull in clients does not depend on your location, this could be a good model for you. I see this working for lawyers who have worked for a long time in a larger city and established some niche practice there that they can later transfer to a ski town.
Model #5: JD Advantage
In this model, the lawyer also works outside of practicing law, albeit in a field where having a JD may be beneficial or advantageous.
I’ve known many lawyers who have served as executive directors or policy-oriented staff members of nonprofit organizations, especially ones that intersect with the law in some specialized way, like environment or education.
Real estate is another cross-over area. If you want to make money in a ski town, be a ski town real estate agent during the boom time.
Politics is an option for ski town lawyers. I know ski town lawyers with private practices who have served as Mayor, Town Councilor, County Commissioner, or in the state legislature.
Teaching is a great way to supplement practicing law. Some ski towns are lucky enough to have community colleges or universities. Colorado Mountain College has campuses in Leadville, Steamboat Springs, Aspen/Roaring Fork Valley, Breckenridge, Dillon, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, and the Vail Valley. Gunnison (near Crested Butte) has Western State Colorado University. Durango (near Purgatory) has Ft. Lewis College. I know many lawyers who have served as adjunct professors in political science, environment/natural resources, business law, or some related area.
This obviously isn’t for everyone and might not be what you think of when you think “ski town lawyer.” But it is definitely a viable option and you’ll draw on many of the same skills as you would practicing law.
Model #6: Not At All A Lawyer (Alternate Income Streams)
More than a few ski town lawyers have alternate income streams. Almost everyone in a ski town has a main squeeze and a side hustle, and lawyers are not exempt from this. How much of your work involves practicing law and how much involves that side hustle can vary pretty widely.
I know coffee shop owners and property managers and innkeepers and project managers who are lawyers in a ski town.
There’s no one right way to be a ski town lawyer. These are just some of the models I’ve seen friends and colleagues adopt. If you’re serious about becoming a ski town lawyer, start Googling law firms and lawyers in ski towns to get a feel for the kind of work they do. Get a feel for the major institutions and employers in the area. Start calling and emailing lawyers and offering to take them out for coffee or a beer.
In the next post, I’ll discuss the mindset you should adopt as an aspiring ski town lawyer.