Off the Beaten Path: JAG to Solo to Small Firm

February 18, 2016

by Matt Moody

We at Vault focus mainly on the life of lawyers at large and midsize law firms, but many law grads decide to work for the government, in a small firm, or as a solo practitioner. Ian Holzhauer has done all three in less than a decade of practicing. Ian’s career has included a stint as a JAG in the Air Force, launching a suburban Chicago solo practice, and joining an established small firm.  Here, in his own words is Ian’s perspective on his career path:

Growing up, I had no lawyers in my family or my family’s circle of friends.  Even though I had never talked to an attorney, in my imagination, they were people in a great position of trust.  Clients hired attorneys when they were in difficult situations, when they needed wise counsel and tough advocacy.  As a kid, I dreamed about one day learning about the law, having a small office with my name on the door, and helping clients get through their legal challenges.  

A decade after I first got the idea to become a lawyer, I began my 1L year at Georgetown.  Many of my peers came from legal families; I did not.  Somehow, one week into class, nearly everyone around me seemed conversant in the names of the country’s most prestigious law firms, literally none of which I had heard before.  Most of my peers pursued big firm employment, which made some sense.  However, for me, it was unclear at what point in a big firm career I would actually be talking to clients, making strategic decisions, going to court, or doing any of the things that caused me to go to law school in the first place.  Although I did well academically, I honestly felt a little lost about my career choice. 

One day I saw a uniformed JAG LLM student, and asked about his job.  He explained that I would receive automatic responsibility upon joining.  The idea of serving my country appealed to me, and so did the idea of immediately handling cases.  After much thought, at the end of my 1L year, I committed to the Air Force. 

I am sure you have heard the adage that you should not expect your career to be like what you see in movies.  Contrary to this general rule, my career as a JAG often was like what I saw in “A Few Good Men” and similar legal thrillers.  As a 25 year-old, I started handling felony jury trials.  I learned about high-tech forensic techniques and sat on “the other side of the glass” during suspect interviews.  When I later became a defense counsel, I visited clients in jail, got adverse witnesses to admit they were lying in open court, and tried cases with guns and high speed car chases.  I was assigned to a tropical island not once, but twice, and logged over 50,000 miles travelling between Guam, Japan, Korea, and Hawaii defending Airmen in courts-martial.

I loved almost every minute in the courtroom.  But the weeks leading up to trial were grueling, especially since I had young children.  After seven good years, my wife and I said farewell to the Air Force and moved to my hometown of Naperville, Illinois.  Again, I did not apply to work at any law firms, but chose another non-traditional path, this time to run my own practice.

I cannot tell you how many times other attorneys said, “I could never go solo; you must be brave.”  Truthfully, I was more than a little scared, but running a solo practice made me realize just how capable I was of managing my own time and money.  If business was slow, I could allocate more time to networking and meeting prospective clients.  If business sped up, I cut advertising.  If I had a lot of calls about probate, I could allocate time for a probate CLE.  If my kids had daytime activities, I shifted work appointments to the evenings.  If you are conscientious, spend time and money wisely, and don’t give up easily, I would encourage you to give serious thought to solo practice. 

One benefit of practice in the solo and small firm community is the chance to quickly build a reputation, and to benefit from word-of-mouth.  As long as I treated clients and colleagues well, they returned the favor in spades.  After two months, I was getting referral business from prior clients and had a mostly full schedule.  I have a friend from law school who opened a similar practice and now does over a quarter-million dollars a year in word-of-mouth business, largely because people just know he is a good guy.  I am constantly amazed how many people are looking for legal services, but stay quiet because they don’t know who to call.

Although I enjoyed solo life and was beginning to really thrive, I eventually merged my practice into an established small firm.  This opportunity came out of the blue, given that I have never sought out law firm employment in my life!  However, one day, my eventual employer reached out to me after hearing my name through a mutual acquaintance (again, word-of-mouth).  The prospective firm had an excellent reputation in our community.  Importantly for me in my career development, the two partners offered me a lot of autonomy as their sole associate.  After much deliberation, I accepted.

My day consists of face-to-face meetings with individual and business clients.  A little over half of my time is spent on estate planning and business succession matters, which I particularly enjoy since some of our clients have been with our senior partner for close to forty years.  The bond they have is the kind of bond I hope to have with my clients in forty years, having served as trusted counsel through the ups and downs of their personal and business lives.   I’m proud to be building those relationships now.

In short, I get to be the kind of lawyer I envisioned when I was that kid who had never met a lawyer, dreaming of someday having my name on the door and being part of “the practice.”

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