THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED Trio to chronicle transition from law students to firm owners

Zach Roberson, Carlos Hernandez and David Smith are KU Law students who plan to open their own law firm after graduation in May 2012

Editor’s note: Zach Roberson, Carlos Hernandez and David Smith (left to right above) are 3Ls at the University of Kansas School of Law, set to graduate on May 12, 2012. Following graduation and the bar exam, they will be opening a law firm in Olathe, Kan. In a series of blog posts, they will record the steps they take as they move past graduation and the bar exam and toward their goal of starting their own firm. Although their ultimate goal is the same, each one of them comes to the partnership with slightly different hopes and motivations.

We decided to write this blog because we think it will provide helpful insight for law students who are considering starting their own firms. Just as we have been able to learn from the mistakes and successes of others, we hope to provide law students with tips and suggestions that they may use to successfully “hang their shingle.” Because we recognize that our experiences will change as we get closer to the date when we open our doors, we will provide periodic posts to fill everyone in on what’s going on.

This wasn’t a plan that came together particularly quickly. We’ve been discussing it since our 1L year, but in mostly general terms – things like, “I think we could make it work” and “if we had our own firm, its primary focus should be on improving the community by helping people.” I suppose the important thing is that we kept discussing it, and we began to find that our conversations were becoming more and more specific. By the beginning of our 3L year, we had identified specific segments of the northeastern Kansas population who needed help, and we began to formulate a plan to get this help to them. By fall break, we were fully committed to the idea of starting our own firm. Speaking for myself, things became easier after that. Obviously, we had (and have) many things to do before we open our doors in Olathe in late 2012, but the knowledge that all three of us were completely invested in this endeavor meant that I could completely devote myself to research and networking.

Once we decided to go ahead with starting a firm, we knew that we needed to solicit advice from professors and experienced attorneys. We have been very fortunate in the sense that the overwhelming majority of people we have spoken to have been extremely helpful. In particular, Professors DeLaTorre, Kautsch and Valdez had some great ideas, as did Dean Mazza. We have also spoken with numerous established attorneys in Olathe, Kansas City and Lawrence, and the advice they have provided has been invaluable.

That’s how most of our time is spent these days: networking with area attorneys and KU Law professors. We feel that it’s extremely important that we have people to call when we need advice, and the only way to establish those connections is to get out and meet people. I would like to see our firm establish strong ties in the northeast Kansas community and develop a reputation as a firm that genuinely cares about its clients. As long as we treat every client as if he or she is our only client, I’m confident that we will have success.

During most of law school, I was planning on going back to El Paso, Texas, and practicing there. I have had several internships there, and finding a job there would not have been hard. But last semester, Zach, Dave and I began seriously discussing what it would take to start a law firm in northeast Kansas. We each did our own research to determine what kind of law office the local community needed. Just like any venture, you need to go out and see the market, talk to people and figure out what legal services they need. We found that the Hispanic population in Kansas City and the surrounding area is underrepresented. The Kansas City area is in desperate need of bilingual attorneys who can practice family law, immigration law, employment law and criminal law.

Zach and I talked to several attorneys from different areas of law, and they all said the same thing: “We need bilingual attorneys in the community.” The Kansas City Hispanic community has been growing steadily, but the number of bilingual attorneys has not grown with it. I know that if we make helping people our firm’s top priority, we can really help the community.

After making that assessment, we decided that we should open a law office in the area. The next step involved talking to professors and attorneys to see what they thought about the idea and what steps we should take moving forward. We had no idea how helpful professors and attorneys were going to be until we started asking them for advice. The first professor we talked to was Professor Kautch. He was extremely helpful and, perhaps most importantly, had a positive outlook. He said, “The most important thing you can do when you are opening a small office is keep the overhead low. Don’t rent a large office for $3,000 when a small $1,200 per month office would suffice.” Professor Valdez was very helpful, too. She practices in Wyandotte County, and she said that there is a strong need for bilingual attorneys who practice family and employment law.

I would like for our office to be seen as a place where people go to have their problems solved. If for some reason we can’t solve a person’s particular problem, I hope that we’ll be able to send that person to someone who can. I want us to be known as problem-solvers.

I’ve spent the past year interning at Douglas County Legal Aid. I’ve almost exclusively handled municipal court misdemeanors. It’s been mostly drunk driving, driving while suspended, disorderly conduct, and battery. Alcohol can be a dangerous thing. Legal Aid only accepts clients who get by on 125 percent of the poverty line or less – the neediest in the community. Some clients are homeless. So far, I’ve learned that these clients, like everybody else, are a mixed bag. Some folks will tell me everything that happened in great detail. Others have more … inventive memories. Dealing with these clients has taught me a great deal about human nature; most people will tell you the truth once they’re comfortable with you.

Unlike many interns, legal aid interns actually get to interview clients, file motions and go to court. Our supervising attorneys (they’re wonderful) basically give us a legal “training wheels” experience. Going in front of an actual judge for the first time can be a nerve-wracking experience. I’m glad I’ve already got that out of the way.

Perhaps the primary reason we’re starting this firm together comes from the most treasured American ideal: the desire to master our own destinies. I don’t want to be stuck doing legal research all day to write memos for clients I may never meet. It’s better to actually interact with people and tell them face-to-face what I can do for them, how I will do it, and when.

First and foremost, I hope we can achieve a good, solid name for ourselves as respectable and dependable lawyers. Our initial niche will be the Hispanic community, and I believe that providing them with excellent legal advice will present us with a noble and lofty challenge. I don’t feel that our efforts to reach them will necessarily limit our appeal to other Olathans. If we do good work, clients will come.

— Originally from Rowlett, Texas, Zach earned his B.B.A. from Texas Tech University in 2007 and his MBA from Wayland Baptist University in 2009. Carlos is also a native Texan, born and raised in El Paso. He earned his B.A. from the University of Texas at El Paso in 2009. David was born in Dallas and raised in Lenexa, Kan. He earned his B.A. from the University of Kansas in 2009.