Going rogue: year one. A new call who started his own firm.
Introducing...The Law Offices of Michael McCubbin, owned and operated by none other than Mike himself, a 2010 UBC law graduate who`s out there doing something different. The firm, established November 1, 2011 and located in Vancouver`s historic Gastown, is going strong as it approaches its second year anniversary.
Wait a minute - 2010 grad did you say? And he started a law firm in 2011? Yeah, I know. I gave my head a shake too. That`s my year of call. And I don`t feel anywhere near prepared to start my own firm now, never mind right after articling. As we sat down for coffee, Mike confessed that when he first contemplated it, neither did he (which I found fascinating considering how far he`s come today). So let me tell you a little of his story, and how he was able to build a thriving legal practice in downtown Vancouver…
Mike started out articling at Community Legal Assistance Society. After getting called in the spring of 2011, he didn`t have an associate position to transition into, and so…he bought a one-way ticket to Norway. He decided to travel until either he got a job, or his money ran out, or both. While he was abroad he took some time to figure out what he wanted, and although he had been applying for jobs at different firms in Vancouver, three weeks into his travels the idea of starting up his own firm started to take over.
He told me that he had always thought going solo was something unattainable for a new call, and that he would have to practice for 5-10 years before giving it serious thought. But the more he thought about it the more he realised that for him, the best time was now. Doing it now meant any mistakes would be his own, he told me, whereas in ten years he might have other obligations to factor in such as a mortgage and a family.
What ultimately solidified the decision in his mind was a conversation he had with his father. Mike described his father as a conservative Scottish engineer, always the voice of reason when it came to Mike’s (a little bit out there) plans. But when Mike suggested the idea of starting up his own legal practice, his father’s words were not discouraging, in fact he told Mike he thought it was a great idea.
So he had dreamed the dream. And then came the challenge. Living it. He knew there was going to be a lot of learning, planning, and doing things he had never done before if he wanted to get there. Mike explained he spent the next four months reading materials available online on how to start a law practice, organizing, filling out all kinds of paper work, paying dues required by the Law Society, and taking care of practical matters such as finding and renting office space. Four months, you say? That’s it? Yes, except, on top of that he did it all without setting a foot back in Canada until four days before it was time to cut the ribbon.
On October 27, 2011 Mike returned to Vancouver, and on November 1, 2011 the magic began. He was officially in business.
But there were a lot of things left to take care of to become fully operational – bank account, trust account, office software, office supplies (including, buying a $20 laser printer off Craigslist - note the cost of the printer required for a small paperless law firm like Mike`s vs. the cost ($500+) of even a small workstation printer that would otherwise have been necessary).
He reached out to a few contacts and obtained a legal aid certificate, but by the end of that first week he still didn`t have his first client.
Then on November 8, 2011 everything changed. He got a call from David Eby, the Executive Director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
Mike had taken an interest in the Occupy Vancouver movement, and had earlier emailed to see if there might be any opportunity to assist the members in defending their rights. And it was happening. The City was applying for an injunction to evict the occupants. There was a court appearance at 2:00 p.m. that day. They needed someone to appear to seek an adjournment so that counsel for the occupants could be appointed and get up to speed. He was being asked, did he want to appear??
He hesitated for half a second, and accepted. He told me that in that moment he was more scared of what he would think later on if he rejected the opportunity than of any hard wrap he might obtain from the Court. He knew he would regret it if he didn’t, so he took up the challenge.
The next few hours were a whirlwind in the pouring rain (it was November in Vancouver after all). He ran out to get a few business cards from his printer (which were still being made, so he had to ask that a few be cut right in front of him as he waited). Then he was off to the Art Gallery where the occupants were camped out all around. He was in search of the group’s representative, who was to become his first client. And, as often happens in the craziness that flows from following your dreams, life gave him a break. The first person he spoke with was the group’s representative, Sean O'Flynn-Magee. After a short discussion he was retained on the spot to seek an adjournment.
And then he faced his next challenge: the hearing itself. After speaking with counsel for the City, he learned they would be contesting the adjournment he was seeking. Having had no time to prepare, he explained the circumstances to the Court, including the fact that he was retained half an hour ago on the Art Gallery lawn, and that the group was currently appointing counsel. The occupants were granted an adjournment.
A week-long adjournment to prepare for what would be a three day hearing against the City (who had 5 lawyers and 3 assistants working on the file) meant that the work had only begun. And for Mike it meant great opportunity. Although other counsel was appointed to represent the occupants, Mike was able to stay involved in the case and was retained in his own right by a woman participating in the movement, to ensure that women's rights had a voice as well.
Needless to say, Mike’s involvement in this high profile case gave him some great experience and publicity. And the Law Offices of Michael McCubbin started getting a few more clients. His marketing efforts were focused mainly on word of mouth and getting referrals from other lawyers. All kinds of things came his way, and he became quite the generalist, taking on cases ranging from personal injury, to criminal, to family law, and whatever else came in the door. He took on some legal aid files, as well as a number of pro bono and low bono files, even taking on an appeal from a complex 20 day tax fraud trial, pro bono.
He was able to do this, he told me, because his overhead was so low (he estimates he saves $1,500 - $2,000 per month by being a paperless office). And that is remarkable considering his total monthly expenses were approximately $2000 - with rent being the largest expense, followed by Law Society dues, and then other office expenses. He did not have a slush fund to fall back on, but as he only needed a few clients per month to cover costs, it wasn`t necessary. He told me that in those early start-up months, he only had to dip into his line of credit on one or two occasions.
Five months in he was making real money. Six months in he was profitable. And after about a year he was actually starting to refer cases away.
Mike did not sugar coat the experience, however. He confided that it was a lot of hard work, estimating he worked 10 hours a day, six days a week that first year. And a lot of that time was spent doing work that would have been much better to have done by an assistant. In fact, he estimated that half of his time was spent on office administration and ensuring that he was complying with Law Society regulations.
He also spent a lot of time just learning the practice of law - all of the unspoken rules, the ways of doing things that are just not taught to us in law school.
“The learning curve was as steep as this wall”, Mike told me as he ran his hand up the wall beside us. He gave as an example, a time he was retained to speak to a sentencing hearing at the Main Street Courthouse on a failure to appear conviction. After researching the issue he had armed himself with the best law to support his client’s position, and instead of being rewarded for his efforts, he got an amused look from the Judge and a few snickers from lawyers in the barristers lounge. Apparently, no one brings case law to a failure to appear sentencing hearing in the downtown east side – who knew?
He was so busy with day to day business administration and learning the practice of law that he did not have time, in that first year, to focus on other important things such as business development, strategic marketing, office management, innovative office systems, mentorship, and specialization.
The day to day consumed him, and he was looking to do something about it…and he did...but because Mike had so much of value to share I couldn`t fit it all in one post. So you`ll have to check back next week to find out just what he did to take year two to the next level!
For now, I will leave you with the advice Mike said he would give any young lawyer considering striking out on their own. And that is: know what you want. Think about what kind of lifestyle you want. Have a good sense of your core, of what you want to do as a lawyer. And get educated on the realities of what you are getting into to make sure it really is what you want.
That is some great advice. And as you can imagine, Mike had a lot more advice and practical tips for young lawyers...so I thought, why not invite Mike to come and share some of that advice with you all at TYS IDEAL work arrangement event next Wednesday? I threw it out there...and, I am so grateful, and excited to be able to tell you, he accepted!
So I hope you will join us in person next week when we get really clear about what we want in our career AND how to get it. And don't forget to check back here, for the continuation of Mike`s story in Going rogue: year two…
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