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Young solo practitioners forge careers in stagnant job market

Saman Saba started her own real estate law practice a year after graduating from law school and also works as a Realtor. “I’m nowhere near where I want to be but I’m definitely a lot happier and doing a lot better financially than if I had worked with another law firm,’ she says.

Saman Saba started her own real estate law practice a year after graduating from law school and also works as a Realtor. “I’m nowhere near where I want to be but I’m definitely a lot happier and doing a lot better financially than if I had worked with another law firm,’ she says.

Saman Saba graduated from the University of Baltimore School of Law in 2014 and soon felt the impact of the economy. While she landed a job with a real estate law firm, she was laid off after less than six months because there was not enough work for her.

A solo practitioner she then worked for encouraged her to start her own firm. So Saba launched The Saba Law Group LLC in August.

“It’s always kind of been in the back of my mind that I would actually have my own practice,” said Saba, who comes from a family of entrepreneurs.

Saba is not alone, as more and more young attorneys have turned to hanging their own shingle.

“The economy has dampened the job market for lawyers and has really made it difficult for them to find jobs,” said Steve Manekin, an accountant who provides services to law firms at Ellin & Tucker in Baltimore.

Manekin is a frequent presenter of “Hanging out a Shingle” for the Maryland State Bar Association, where he has seen crowds double since around 2007, mostly because of increased attendance by recent law school graduates.

“Once the economy went downhill… law jobs were hard to come by,” he said.

Enjoying independence

Julius Blattner took advantage of the MSBA resources for solo practitioners when he launched his practice after graduating from UB Law in 2012 and struggling to find employment.

Though he recently received his first unsolicited job offer, Blattner said he now can’t imagine not being his own boss.

“I like the independence I have to choose my own clients and the cases I take,” said Blattner, who now has three other lawyers working at his Towson-based firm. “I’ve never actually worked for a firm so I don’t even know what that would be like.”

Blattner also offers other new attorneys the opportunity to start their own practice but with the infrastructure and support services required already in place. The setup is low-risk for new attorneys, who are only responsible for their own marketing.

“All they’d have to do is run their own practice and I’d take care of everything else,” Blattner said.

Some attorneys ran their practices until they found jobs elsewhere, while others eventually started their own independent practice, Blattner said.

“I think it’s eye-opening for attorneys who want to start their own practice just how difficult it was to do that,” he said.

For Gary Damico, a 2013 UB Law graduate, his autonomy as a solo practitioner is important. Damico began his practice in Baltimore the fall of 2014.

“I really, now more than ever, own what I do for a living and derive a lot of joy from it,” he said.

Damico said he started his career at the right time and found an early revenue source through the Appointed Attorneys Program, launched by the Maryland Judiciary in 2014 to provide representation to indigent defendants at their initial appearance.

“The most important part of it was meeting other attorneys,” he said.

Damico participated in the program for a year and also spent time on the phone getting placed on panel attorney lists for public defender offices.

“I chose, in law school, to really forego a lot of real courtroom experience,” he said. “I felt that I couldn’t step outside without getting some great experience and getting my feet wet and that was my mechanism.”

Challenges and growth

Manekin said he tries to help attorneys understand the ramifications of starting their own practice, both personally and financially.

Banks are more reluctant to loan to new businesses, he said, so having startup capital for the business as well as saving money whenever possible are important.

“You want to build your foundation of your own money so when receivables are aging or cases aren’t settling right away you have the ability to dip into a pot of money that’s your own rather than going to a bank to borrow it,” he said.

For Saba, that meant becoming a Realtor in addition to practicing law. She splits her time between real estate law and sales at her law office in Marriottsville and a real estate office in downtown Baltimore.

“For the time being, it’s working for me and my clients really seem to like it,” Saba said of her dual profession. “They feel like they’re getting more protection.”

Saba said when settlements go through, all of the money goes back into her young business. As she approaches the one-year anniversary of her business, Saba said she is looking back at what has been most profitable and what can be improved.

“I’m nowhere near where I want to be but I’m definitely a lot happier and doing a lot better financially than if I had worked with another law firm,” she said.

Blattner said he spent a lot of his time when he first started his firm teaching himself how to be a small business owner because he did not have that background.

“After graduating law school, they don’t teach you anything about bookkeeping,” said Blattner, a contributor to The Daily Record’s Generation J.D. blog.

Now, Blattner said, he has systems in place and is able to build a staff to take care of some tasks that aren’t billable to clients.

“Right now I have a base foundation and it’s about going back and tweaking it and making it better,” he said. “It’s really neat to watch the building process.”