Jessica Rooks, a small-town solo practitioner focused on family and estate law — and a self-professed type-A personality — has charted an aggressive path for her success.
In talking to Rooks, whose office is in Kirksville, it seems she has had her life mapped out since she was a kid. Part of Rooks’ penchant for planning comes from a desire to live life on her terms, including spending time with family.
Rooks was a panelist this month at The Missouri Bar’s annual meeting, in Columbia, during an event for new and transitioning attorneys called “Stepping Up to the Bar: Resources for Success in Your Legal Career.”
Toward that end, she shares some of what worked for her when planning to become a solo practitioner, first and foremost of which was get humble, do a lot of homework, ask questions and network, network, network.
“The first thing I would tell people is that you can definitely do it,” Rooks says. “It’s not impossible, and it’s completely doable right out of law school.”
Having said that, she adds, it’s not the traditional path.
“A lot of people decide it’s sometimes easier to gain experience on someone else’s dollar, and that’s not always a bad way to go,” Rooks says. “But I was non-traditional and didn’t want to postpone what I already knew I wanted to do.”
For her, $3,000 was the bare minimum to get started. That included the cost of securing office space, which in a rural community is more affordable than in a city. Next, is basic office equipment: computer, printer, copier, fax machine and office supplies.
While Rooks struck out on her own, other options exist, including office sharing, with a resource on The Missouri Bar’s website, www.mobar.org/jobsforlawyers-sharing.aspx, which has several dozen listings for such opportunities throughout Missouri.
Next, Rooks says, is getting money coming in the door when you have no clients. Thus, she looks for opportunities, including doing debt-collection for large companies in that field, and for court-appointed openings, including being a guardian ad litem for children and adults. Additionally, some public defenders outsource some of their work, which Rooks did not pursue as she has no interest in that area of the law.
“Be aware of what your community needs, and then go out and look for ways to fill those needs,” Rooks says.
She says she finds she needs a minimum of $1,000 a month to run her office.
“I am as busy as I can be at this point, and financially it’s a roller coaster, so you have to be prepared,” Rooks says. “Some months, there’s just enough to cover the bills — and that’s before I get paid. And some months, there’s enough to cover six months of bills, so you have to be really disciplined as you get through those feasts and famines.”
Kate Busch, director of career development at the University of Missouri School of Law, says the top two resources she recommends to those wanting to strike out on their own are: other lawyers who practice in the area in which you want to practice and other lawyers in your geographical area.
“The best thing we can do here at the law school for those wanting to become solo practitioners is to put them in touch with those who have gone before them,” Busch says. “We can’t develop a client base for our graduates, but we can put them on the right path.”
Here are some resources provided by The Missouri Bar:
• The Practice Management Resources Web page has a wealth of information covering all aspects of starting a practice, including technology, personnel issues, fees, marketing and more: www.mobar.org/lpmonline/
• The Lawyers in a Changing Economy Web page provides information on how to survive and thrive in this economy including how to branch out into new practice areas: www.mobar.org/resourcesforachangingeconomy
• In the members-only section of the website, see the Practical Skills Online Sessions. Experienced lawyers provide written content on how to handle common procedures such as a name change or traffic ticket. The bar also produces “how-to” online presentations with audio and graphics along with forms and other resources to aid new attorneys or those looking to expand their skill set.
• Stepping Up and Stepping Out: New Lawyer Experience. MOBarCLE offers this program dedicated to CLE programming specific to new lawyers. The next one is scheduled for Nov. 1 in St. Louis.
• Solo and Small Firm Conference: Law students and new lawyers often attend this annual conference, which offers track programming specific to practice management for the solo or small firm. For example, UMKC students who are in the law school’s class geared toward starting their own practice attend the conference to learn from and network with successful solo and small firm lawyers from across the state.
Rooks says, for her, small-town lawyering has been a dream come true.
“I saw a real need for family planning in my community, to help people protect their lives’ work,” Rooks says. “There’s a lot of blessing and opportunity to be found in the rural communities.”