The Offbeat Path: Solo Practitioner

Welcome back to the Offbeat Path! This month's interview is with Kari Hong, a fantastic solo practitioner in California (though not for long!) who is becoming a law professor. Enjoy!

Kari's background, family, and personal life:

I grew up in Northfield, Minnesota, a small Midwestern town that took great pride in its community spirit and two liberal arts colleges that it had within its border.  I was always interested in social justice issues, spending my middle school and high school years writing letters to the editor about various political issues.  I have an older brother and younger sister, who along with my parents, gave me love, perspective, and support.  I went to Swarthmore College (which I loved), and after living in San Francisco for four years, went to Columbia Law School.  I clerked for a district court judge and then a Ninth Circuit judge right after law school.  As will be explained later, I took a non-traditional path in my legal career, starting up my own practice.  After six rewarding years of solo practice, I am now going to be a law professor at Boston College Law School, starting in August 2012. 

As for my personal life, I am married to a woman who at age 40 decided to go to medical school.  As a result, we moved from the Bay Area, to Portland, Oregon, and to Loma Linda, California to follow her medical school and residency.  We have been together for 9 years and have a son who is 2 and half years old.  We will be moving to Boston in July 2012.

A quick overview of Kari's practice:

I truly love my practice.  In six years, I never had a bad day.  Even the lowest low (and the aftermath of the mistakes that were made) never made me regret my decision to run my own practice.  My practice has changed over the years.  Most recently, I have been spending my time filing state and federal criminal appeals and Ninth Circuit immigration cases.  My specialty is appellate law (in particular Ninth Circuit practice) and I have developed a focus on the immigration consequences of criminal convictions.  For a couple of years, I dabbled in district court trial practice for a corporate client.  After the birth of my son, I decided to focus mostly on appellate work, which is much more family-friendly work.

How did you become a solo practitioner working in these areas of law? Was this your first job out of law school, or did you have other positions before this one?

I clerked for two years and then started my career at a large corporate law firm in San Francisco.  After 7 months, I quit my firm job.  Looking back, I cringe at my hubris.  But I was lucky enough to be navigating the start of my career in an economy where the housing bubble was still growing and the employers were bidding for new lawyers.  There was a lot I liked about my firm job.  I had mentors, interesting work, was assigned to pro bono cases, and was allowed to bring in my own immigration Ninth Circuit case.  I quit, though, because I was not happy with how I was being trained to practice.  For better or worse, I was the kid on the bench who just wanted to get into the game to play.  I wanted more control over how I was spending my time, more control over my research methods.  I wanted to determine which arguments were being raised. I wanted to be the one arguing to the appeals panel.  I also had multiple interests.  I published an article on family law and wanted to continue my academic interests while practicing.  I am happy I listened to this impulse, but definitely have spent a lot of time nurturing mentors and trusted colleagues whom I can call and discuss ethical, legal, and practical issues that arise in legal practice.

I split my time working for two solo practitioners.  I spent 3 days working on appeals and habeas petitions for a criminal defense attorney who focused on death penalty cases.  I spent 2 days preparing Ninth Circuit briefs for an immigration attorney.  After a year of working for both, I incorporated my own practice and started taking on my own clients.  At the two-year mark, I went out on my own (which was timed with a move to Portland, Oregon to follow my wife who started medical school). 

I was always interested in immigration law.  Before law school, I worked as a paralegal for an immigration lawyer and fell in love with the area.  When clerking, I developed an academic interest in criminal law.  As a solo, I was able to receive work from state criminal appeal panels, which became a steady revenue source.  I also had enough confidence to take private clients to pursue immigration cases.

Were you always interested in working in criminal defense, immigration law, and civil litigation? If not, what areas of law were you initially interested in, and how did you wind up practicing in these areas?

After college, I started as a paralegal for a San Francisco immigration lawyer.  I worked for four years, focusing on asylum claims.  I also worked during a time when immigration law drastically changed, allowing me to witness the multiple adverse effects of the new law on non-citizens.  I never left the field. 

As for criminal law, I was drawn to it for its intellectual aspects.  Practicing criminal defense, also has been unexpectedly rewarding as I feel it is my spiritual work—to learn to not judge my clients, to appreciate the work of the prosecutor, and also learn how to be a zealous advocate for my client. 

I really enjoy the mix of the two fields.  

What is your day-to-day job like? What are your favorite aspects of your job? What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

The practice is always changing.  The first two years were spent building my reputation (e.g., developing a profile among my peers to receive referrals) alongside the demands of practice.  I gave many more talks at the beginning of my career to advertise to other attorneys that I had an expertise in immigration and criminal law.  For the past 3 years, I have not done anything to promote my practice and new clients kept calling. 

On any given day, I will split my time working on briefs, preparing filings for immigration court, and fielding calls from clients.  I also spend time on the phone with colleagues, discussing issues that arise in our practice.  In Portland, I would meet with clients on a regular basis.  In Loma Linda, I shifted my practice away from hearing work and mostly communicate with clients over the phone.

There is so much that I love about being a solo practitioner.  I love the mix of cases (immigration and criminal), I love appearing before the Ninth Circuit, I love being able to set (or waive) the fees for particular clients based on their circumstances.  I love being able to be reasonable and friendly with opposing counsel and not having to play games.  I love the satisfaction that comes from winning a case.  I love the rewards that arise from managing expectations in a high-risk case so that, when a loss occurs, the client is prepared for the outcome.  I also love the flexibility and the fact that I work when I want to work.  Even when I was working 80 hours a week, I was happy as a clam.

As for challenging aspects, the most difficult part I had about starting out was setting high enough fees.  I made the mistake of charging clients too little.  I also made a mistake in not collecting payment from a large client that ran up a huge debt.  I had to walk away from that loss, an incredibly hard lesson to learn. 

I also had to learn how to diversify payment sources.  Most clients pay, but some do not, and some do not on time.  I had to figure out by trial and error how to diversify my income stream to guarantee that the amount I needed for my overhead and expenses was coming in each month. 

I also struggled at the beginning on how to learn how to practice.  I was running into district court, trying to figure out what motion to file.  There is no substitute for experience.  Fortunately, I learned a lot from each mistake I made and was lucky enough that nothing irreparable came from any mistake.  That said, I am a much better lawyer today than I was 5 years ago.  Conferences, written materials, and friendships with colleagues have been invaluable in helping me figure out how to master the legal aspects in each field.

Do you think that law school prepared you well to be an attorney, or have there been many things that you’ve had to learn that you think could have been addressed during law school? Do you think that law school prepared you well for working as a solo practitioner? If not, how can law students who are interested in opening a solo practice prepare to do so?

This is a difficult question.  I am about to embark on a new chapter in my career, teaching at a law school.  I have been thinking about this question as I prepare my own courses.  There were many things about practicing that law school did not prepare me for (e.g., billing issues, how to file my first complaint, how to start my own practice) but I am not sure a 3 year education could have—or should have— done that.  I do believe in the importance of learning how to think and write like a lawyer.  I see law school as the time where we all are learning a foreign language.  I think it is significant that the three months we spent on contracts law in our first year can be boiled down to a 4-hour lecture for the bar.  However, I believe that the material can be boiled down because we had to spend so much time learning the difference between a motion for summary judgment and motion to dismiss, a holding and dicta, an appellant and appellee, etc. before we could understand the basics in contract formation.  I do believe that the practice skills I picked up as a practitioner were picked up because I was a practitioner. 

That said, as I teach, I plan to sprinkle in some tips and also make my students write.  I want them to know that the letter they write to a client is different from the brief they write to the Court and the memo they write to a colleague.  I think a successful lawyer learns how to write to different audiences and executes the writing styles efficiently.  That is a skill that I will incorporate in my classes that I will be teaching.

As for solo practice, I think just knowing it is out there as an option might be enough to inspire law students.  It is not for everyone.  But I think it is for more than those who are in fact pursuing it.  For most, hanging out a shingle as a first job may be too daunting.  But after 3, 5, or 10 years of practice, it is probably a more attractive route for more lawyers.  I think the best thing for a law student or lawyer to do is to find solo practitioners in their field of interest and take them out to lunch.  Find out what they did, and with the benefit of hindsight, what they would have done differently.  It is a great field in which to be practicing.  I think having a JD is a tremendous gift because all of us can always recreate our job or field of expertise, and over the course of a career, will probably do so more than once.  Perhaps the key to happiness is simply to remember that the option is out there and simply have the courage (or craziness) to pursue it.  It might not work out, but if it does, the rewards will be great.

What has been the most meaningful experience in your legal career?

I cannot think of one.  It ranges from winning a published Ninth Circuit case, to winning a case that I never had a chance of winning, to getting a phone call from a client’s mother who thanked me for caring—and this was after the case was lost.

If women are interested in pursuing a career in criminal law, immigration law, or civil litigation generally, what advice would you give them? What advice would you give women who are interested in opening a solo practice?

If you want to do it, do it.  If you make mistakes and stumble, you will learn from them.  Life is too short to be unhappy at work.

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