On Being a Mompreneur: Lawyer Edition

Feb 22, 2013 by

The funny thing is that I haven't even read this yet.  But I have the feeling that, nonetheless, Seth Godin approves of my plan.

The funny thing is that I haven’t even read this yet. But I have the feeling that, nonetheless, Seth Godin approves.

As I sit here, typing this blog post, I am suffering from some serious writer’s block.  It’s not for lack of topics to blog about, as I am chock full of those.  The block is being caused by my apparent inability to focus on any one topic long enough to put together a coherent post.  It’s like a bandwidth problem, I suppose:  too many bits of data all trying to get through at once, causing them to be squeezed out very slooooooooooooowly.

I will be honest here and admit that this is how I start out most of my weekly CTWM posts.  However, this week, I can’t help but feel like my bandwidth problem is being caused by a specific chain of events.  So, allow me to recap here some happenings of the past month or so:

- I received confirmation that my proposal to speak at the 2013 Transgender Lives conference about legal issues concerning transgender students was accepted, meaning that I now have two separate education law speaking engagements booked for this spring.

- I received the latest of the many potential client referrals I always get, which are always plaintiff-side, and which I always turn down for that reason–although I always pause and consider, what if next time I say yes?

- Quite eerily, I happened to come across a lot of articles online about working moms who leave their jobs shortly after the birth of a second child.

- I talked to our daycare about a possible part-time rate.

- I started working with a sales rep on a free trial of a legal research database, including discussions about different (hopefully lower?) rates for solo practitioners.

- I parted ways with the law firm where I have been an associate for about 4.5 years, during which time I gave birth to my two kids.

- I kicked into high gear with my plans to start a solo practice.

Wait, what just happened there?!  Oh, so that could be why my head is so fuzzy and I have a million thoughts competing for space at any given time.  I’m going through a career overhaul and a major life change!

Well, not an overhaul really.  I have been a lawyer for over 8 years, and practiced education law as a school board attorney for approximately 5 of those 8 years.  So, to start a solo practice representing parents trying to navigate the public schools, particularly those dealing with the special education system, should not be that drastic of a change for me.

And yet, it is most definitely an enormous change.  It’s tough going from a steady paycheck to, um, no paycheck at all, at least not until I obtain some clients, hopefully ones who can pay me.  And it feels strange to walk into my child’s daycare every day in jeans, and then head out to buy groceries, or home to start laundry, and then, you know, work on getting my business up and running.

And with regard to the very few people to whom I have revealed my plans so far, it is tough, very tough, to face the inevitable questions and concerns from well-meaning friends and family.  I mean, everyone is supportive, but it’s a qualified kind of support:  What if you don’t find clients right away?  Maybe you shouldn’t start looking for clients yet — what are you going to do, meet them in your living room?  What does your husband think, is he stressed out about it?  Will you be able to break even, let alone make a profit?  All of these polite inquiries are really demanding that I answer the same, really big question:  What if you fail?

I only have one answer to that, and it doesn’t seem to explain things to people’s satisfaction:  I won’t fail.  I won’t, because I can’t.

It’s easy to say that, however, when your definition of success is to maintain the sort of lifestyle you want (the word “humble” comes to mind), rather than bring in oodles of cash.  I mean, would I love to do something revolutionary in the practice of law?  Yes, absolutely:  my vision is to provide affordable yet powerful advocacy for children with disabilities.  This is not an original concept, but it is a truly revolutionary one, especially given the fact that so many lawyers cannot find work, yet the vast majority of people who require legal services cannot afford them.  But about that lifestyle thing … yeah, what I also want to do is use the knowledge and skills I have obtained over the years and start working for myself, instead of working for someone else.  And it just so happens that my reasons for wanting to work for myself include my desire to go off the clock at 4:00 p.m. and make dinner for my family — even if it means I will need to go right back on the clock at 9:00 p.m.  And yes, I know, I know … as a solo, I run the risk of being even busier than I was as a law firm associate, that is, if I want to “make it.”  But again, to “make it” in my world means learning to get by on a severely reduced income, while doing work I’m passionate about.  I can stay in an environment in which I am unhappy, but secure, forever, or I can grow some wings, take flight, and risk pulling an Icarus.  But what’s clear about this scenario is that I’ll never fly at all if I stay stuck where I am.

So right now I am taking all the information I have absorbed in the past few years about entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, and yes, mompreneurs, and I am attempting an experiment in hanging my shingle.  Like any other kind of “-preneur” out there, I want it to be a successful experiment, and I think know it will be, because I choose to define what success means for me by my own standards, and not by anyone else’s.

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Melanie Dunn tries her best to raise a family and nurture a marriage while working as a special education attorney, representing parents of children with disabilities. Her two daughters, a preschooler and a toddler, were born at home two years apart, and breastfed into toddlerhood. She is a mompreneur who loves discussing the intersection of the practice of law with the practice of parenting. Melanie also geeks out over difficult questions of gender roles, employment discrimination, and the challenges faced by parents in the workplace and in the public schools. She is a crunchy mom advocate for attachment parenting who nonetheless dresses up for work everyday.

17 Comments

  1. kriste

    Standing ovation. You will be amazing.

  2. I am in love with this idea for you. I can’t wait to see what lies ahead. Wishing you the best of luck!! (And, if I can be supportive in any way, please let me know!!)

  3. Randi

    It’s your destiny! Meant to be. I know it, I feel it, I believe it FOR YOU. You will be GREAT and you will help so many people who really need the help.
    Have you tried using the Google legal search? I am told it’s quite good, and that THAT is the reason all the other legal research databases are discounting like crazy.
    When you are ready, send out announcements or share your phone #/email with all of us. I will keep an eye out for potential clients.
    If there’s anything I can do to help, please don’t hesitate to ask (even if you want me to look up cases on Westlaw for you).
    Oh — please tell the naysayers to shut their collective pieholes. They mean well, but how about a little bit of REAL support? Tell them you can go to the clients’ houses to interview them (which they will think is great service, since of course they have CHILDREN that need babysitters if they have to go to you). Tell them it will take a while to make a ton of money but some things are more important than that. Tell them you’re excited about this and please stop raining on your parade. OK, I’m getting bitchy now — I’m sure you’ll be a lot nicer to those “supportive” people. And think of Dumbo and his feather — if you believe you can fly, you will fly!

    • Melanie

      Thanks Randi. Others have mentioned how great the Google tool is and I will definitely check it out. I feel like this is a really exciting time to be a solo, which is something I never would have considered even a few years ago. You can pretty much run things from a smartphone now — although I will definitely be encouraging plenty of face to face contact, due to the nature of the work.

  4. Michelle

    I love this Melanie! Wonderful, wonderful post. I know in my heart that you absolutely will not fail. You are smart, capable and hard working and you will go very far. Thanks for sharing this personal story with all of us.

  5. Cora

    Looks like today you are choosing to move forward. Cheers to you, you’ll be great!

  6. Elise

    We’ll be here cheering you on at every turn! Fantastic!

  7. I’ve been in a similar situation before – after a year of clerking at the appeals court and then practicing in a big law firm for four years, I’ve had enough, and decided to start my own law firm. It was a scary move, and I was very nervous, so I totally understand how you feel. However, I’m happy to say that this was the best career decision that I have made so far. I’ve been running my firm with an office in Hartford for just over two years now, and things are going well! I’m busy enough to stay in business (and make money) but at the same time, have the flexibility to leave early when needed or take days off to care for my two girls. It is very challenging because I do have to work nights and weekends sometimes to make up for the week-day flexibility, and it is difficult to manage my own practice and then care for the family, but it is very fulfilling at the end of the day. I have to say I’m happy to be where I am today…If you need tips from someone who was once in the same boat, feel free to contact me!

    • Melanie

      Thanks, that is awesome! I keep hearing amazing solo success stories and it’s really motivating. I do have lots to figure out, but I’m going to try to put together a business plan and then seek advice on the specific things I need help with. I will definitely be in touch with any questions!

  8. Alexis

    As a special education teacher who can’t always speak up around the table for what the student should be asking for or getting, I LOVE that you are stepping up to change your practice. I cannot wait to hear the outcome. I’m sure you will be fabulous and the hard work and unpredictability will result in amazing things.

    • Melanie

      Alexis, thanks for your perspective and for the encouragement. You raise a great point: in my former role as a school board attorney, I got this sentiment “behind the scenes” from special ed teachers and other staff a LOT. In theory, each member of the PPT (or IEP team, if you’re outside CT) is supposed to be able to weigh in equally. However, we all know that the district bends over backwards, ahead of time, to make sure the school-based members of the team are all saying the same thing to the parents, or that only the sped director or another administrator is allowed to speak on behalf of the team. I’m not completely cynical about the process, but having seen this happen, I can see how parents can be disadvantaged by it, AND I can see how individual staff may feel like their hands are tied when it comes to following marching orders versus doing their jobs well.

  9. Pamela

    Congratulations on your brave decision. When I was in law school, I did a year long internship with Connecticut Legal Services’ Children at Risk Unit, which works primarily on representing children in disputes with BOEs. I don’t know their policies on referrals to the private bar, but it’s possible that they could be a source of referrals because they have strict income limits that result in turning people away. The head of the unit is Catherine Holahan, who is based out of their New Britain office.

    • Melanie

      Thanks! Her name sounds familiar. I know there are some opportunities out there for pro bono work, and possibly referrals based on the eligibility limits for legal aid. And your point is another reminder of the factors to consider in setting fees for this kind of work. On the one hand, I don’t want to price myself at a rate that makes me inaccessible, especially for families who need the help and can’t pay for it, but also don’t qualify for legal aid. On the other hand, I also recognize that I can’t price myself so low that I’m barely breaking even on costs. Just another piece of the business I will need to figure out I guess!

      • Pamela

        I am sure that it will take some trial and error to figure out all of those details. I don’t think that every referral would be someone living just over the limit for their services because I think that a lot of people contact them without knowing about those limits. I work for a different non-profit now in a totally unrelated field, but I frequently refer clients to the private bar for many reasons. I always prep them to understand that the attorney will not be free and explain the benefits of hiring someone to help them when I think that is what’s needed. Some of the private attorneys that I refer to offer a sliding scale fee system based on the financial situation of the client. Hope this is useful.

      • Rachel

        Hi, Melanie. You don’t know me personally, but several years back, I went through similar soul searching. I actually started my legal career at Berchem, Moses & Devlin in education law and felt much of what you were feeling. I ended up leaving the practice of law (though I use it every day) for an employer that is much more flexible. AND I feel like I make more of a difference, which is much more satisfying. When I was in the CT School Law circle, I remember several attorneys switching from board-side to parent-side. Nicole Bernabo’s name comes to mind. She might be another great resource for you. And reaching out to Catherine Holahan is a wonderful idea. She is an amazing person and incredibly down to earth. (As an aside, she is also married to Senator Chris Murphy.) I wish you tons of luck! Given your experience with 2 successful firms, and knowing first hand from my own experience the kind of insight you have into the process, the families you will represent will benefit greatly.

        • Melanie

          Hi Rachel. Thanks a lot for your comment, it really means a lot to me. I feel like I do know you because your name has come up before due to our BMD connection! I have met Nicole as well. We are such a small community — Connecticut lawyers in general, and the school law circle in particular. Thanks again for dropping in on my little corner of the internet! :)

  10. stephanie

    That’s awesome! Go Melanie!

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