Founder of a Major Law Firm – Mentor, Don Pray
This mentor built a highly respected, thirty-person law firm. After three decades as managing partner of his firm, he decided to leave to run a billion dollar charitable foundation that he formed for one of his clients. At this foundation, Don worked with colleges to develop innovative programs to help teach the principals of entrepreneurship to students and helped create other programs to teach young people how to build their own business. But he did not start his career expecting to become a lawyer. His undergraduate degree was in petroleum engineering. Don decided to pursue law after working as an engineer because he wanted the opportunity to run his own business rather than work as an employee and felt law offered him the best opportunity to achieve his goal. In this article, Don discusses what is required of you to become a successful lawyer and how to go about building your law practice. His article should be read by anyone considering the law as a profession as well as anyone interested in learning the basic principals of starting and managing your own business.
I grew up in a family that did not have a lot of money so I had to earn money for myself. My first job was a newspaper route delivering papers and collecting money each week from my customers. The paper route taught me some of the basic principals of business. I paid for my papers and had to collect from my customers to recover my investment and have a profit. When I graduated from high school, I was able to get scholarships that partially paid for most of my college education. But I also worked summers in the fabrication shop of an oil and gas equipment manufacturer building heat treaters. With that job and my scholarships, I was able to make enough to pay my college expenses and graduated in 1955 with a degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Tulsa. I had enrolled in Air Force ROTC while I was in college as part of my military obligation. After graduation I was sent to a Strategic Air Force Command base in Arizona as a second lieutenant. The base had 10,000 people and I was put in charge of keeping the troops entertained. This included managing programs like the Airman’s Club, various athletics programs, the base theater, the library and the riding stables. These duties gave me the opportunity to manage work with a variety of people including some very talented non commissioned officers. The interpersonal and organizational skills I learned working at the base became important when I started building my law practice.
After two years of full time duty in the military, I went to work for Continental Oil Company, which later became Conoco. I spent three years there drilling wells, studying reservoirs and developing training programs. But at the end of that time I was told that I was being transferred out of state to a part of the US where I did not want to live. I knew that at some point I wanted to run my own business and not work for a large corporation all my life as an employee. So rather than accept the transfer, I decided to go to law school, a career where I thought I could build my own business. I worked hard, was a member of the Law Review and graduated first in my class in June of 1966.
After graduation, I was invited to start a law practice in Tulsa with another young attorney who had a successful practice in Oklahoma City and an experienced oil and gas attorney who had had recently retired from a large oil company. He had established clients he was able to bring with him that helped us get started. We worked together for two years. While I gained a lot of valuable experience, that partnership didn’t work well for me and I moved back to my hometown of Tulsa to start my own firm. The fact that I had graduated first in my class and was a member of the law review brought me referrals from other attorneys in smaller towns who needed a lawyer who specialized in oil and gas, title work and estate planning. These were the three areas where my firm developed a recognized expertise. As the practice grew, I began to help a number of wealthy clients do their estate planning including one businessman who owned 45 daily newspapers along with other investments. I eventually helped him form a billion dollar foundation. After thirty years as managing partner of my own law firm, I left to manage this foundation.
At the foundation, I established criteria for capital donations. Some of the capital projects the foundation funded were food banks, a Boy Scout headquarters, a large university sports complex, an art museum as well as college programs to help promote entrepreneurship. The foundation gave grants of over $500 million in the first ten years. We later decided to pay all the capital out rather than manage it as a perpetual foundation. The foundation is expected to give out grants totaling $2 billion by the time it is wound down in 2017. When I retired from the foundation, the Board told me that they would make a large donation to any project that I wanted. I chose to make that donation to the law library at the University of Oklahoma, which is named for me.
What You Must Do To Succeed in Law School
I was not the smartest person in my class and I did not do that well my first semester. My average was just a B minus. After that semester I went to a professor who gave me a C in his class and asked him what I needed to do to improve. He sent me to the library to read a number of books on how to study and prepare for law school exams. In law school you only take one test at the end of the course so you have to be fully prepared. There are no second chances. I prepared myself by writing briefs on all the cases in my course work, doing outlines and keeping good notes on the lectures and making notes about what I read in my textbooks. When it came time to take the tests, I studied my own briefs, outlines and notes. The night before the exam I did not study and tried to relax just like a good athlete before a game. Stress and anxiety can affect your performance. But if you are well prepared, you will be relaxed because you have confidence that you will perform well.
To be successful in law school, you must have a good work ethic. When I went to law school we had classes in the morning and afternoon and a class on Saturday morning. There was little time for socializing. I concentrated on my studies and focus on my goal, which was to rank as high as I could in the graduating class. As I mentioned before, class rank is important. The large, prestigious firms only look at the top graduates. If getting into one of these firms is your goal, you must realize that you will have to graduate with a high class ranking. Your class rank is also important if you decide to go out on your own. If you rank high you will be better known in the profession and get more referrals from other lawyers that will help you build your practice. It will also help you promote yourself and attract new clients. You should make an effort to begin building your professional network while you are in law school and do like I did and work on the Law Review.
Setting a Direction for Your Career
Once you graduate you will have to make a number of decisions that will determine your career path. First, you can go out and start your own practice or do as I did and join one or two other attorneys. You biggest challenge starting a new firm will be getting business. One of the ways I got my name out in the community was by joining organizations like the Rotary, Kiwanis, Toastmaster and volunteering. I eventually was on the Board of the University of Tulsa, the Performing Arts Center and a hospital. I became good at bringing business into the firm and gradually moved my clients over to younger lawyers and went out and got more. In this way, I was able to build a large firm of thirty attorneys. Lawyers who are good at bringing in new clients are called “Rainmakers”. You have to be able to be your own Rainmaker if you want to start your own practice. Some lawyers try to build a clientele with yellow page advertising and television adds. But this is expensive for someone just starting out and is not the way most lawyers became successful.
If you graduate with a high class ranking, you might be one of the limited number of graduates recruited by a large law firm or you might apply to one that particularly interests you. But these firms only have a few openings and only recruit the graduates who have distinguished themselves in law school. There are some advantages to joining a large firm. You will normally start at a good salary so you don’t have to go out and immediately build your own clientele. But you will be expected to be completely dedicated to your job and will be working a lot of hours. You have to be able to balance work and your family life. In these large firms, there is generally a thinning of the herd with only a few being asked to become partners while the rest leave. This is a lot like the way large accounting and investment firms work. But some people who start at these firms gain experience, build their reputation and then leave and start their own practices.
When you are starting out after law school it is also important that you keep an open mind and consider jobs you can find that will give you some experience. That could include working in a DA’s office or in the legislature or for local government. But you do not necessarily have to work in the law. Being a lawyer requires you to learn how to look at a problem, come up with the best solution and then implement it. This is much like the analytical approach I took as an engineer to solve problems. Many employers recognize that you can apply the kind of problem solving skills you learned in law school to many aspects of business. I can point to several successful business executives who graduated from law school and then began a business career and never practicing law.
You also have to be flexible and open to all possibilities. I specialized in certain areas of the law because those were the type of clients who first walked in my door. It is often that way for other attorneys. For example, I know of one law firm that has developed a sizable state wide practice over the years representing school districts, something many people would not have considered an area of the law where you could specialize and build this large a practice.
Key Things to Consider Before You Decide on a Career in Law
- You must be “Driven to Succeed” to be a good law student. You are competing against every other law student for the highest position in the class.
- You are going to have a heavy workload especially as you begin your law career. Make sure are willing work sixty or more hours a week and can balance your family life.
- You must be outgoing and able to bring in clients if you want to start your own practice. Make sure this fits your personality.
- You have to interact well with people including other lawyers not just clients. Everyone approaches problems a little differently based on their experience and you have to be able to balance these different view as you decide on the best solution to a problem for your clients.
- You have to be a good businessperson to be able to successfully manage and grow your own practice.
- You must be curious and have the intellect to solve problems for your clients.
- It is important that you enjoy the law. Before you commit to the law as a career, try and get some experience like working as a clerk at a law firm so you can see what a lawyer does and you have a chance to watch the interaction between lawyers.
How to Prepare
You should take classes like history and social studies where they teach about the government in high school. When you go to college for your undergraduate degree, I feel lawyers should have a broad liberal arts education and be well rounded. Where you go for your undergraduate degree matters and should be a college or university that will help you get into a good law school. Also understand that maturity matters to be successful in law school. I was one of the oldest law students in my class.
When you choose a law school, look at the placement rate for that school. The law school where I graduated at the University of Oklahoma had a 93% placement rate last year. But lawyers graduating from many law schools have a much lower placement rate with some being below 50%. So where you go to law school is an important consideration. There are a number of sites on the Internet that publish law school placement rates including the American Bar Association. There are also annual surveys done by magazines like US News and World Report. The top twenty schools in these surveys all had placement rates around 90% or higher. Some of these are private schools that can be very expensive so also look at state supported schools. Many have good programs and much lower tuition.
I enjoyed my career in law because I liked interacting with a variety of people, solving problems for my clients and the satisfaction that came from building a successful practice. Like most businesses, building a successful law practice requires you to be committed and willing to work the long hours that are required. You should also know that how well you do in law school can be a big factor in how successful you are when you begin to practice law. The higher your class rank, the more doors will open to various career possibilities. Likewise, the wide range of placement rates for law schools in the US makes it important that you attend a school where you know there is a demand for their graduates.
While law is a crowded profession, just remember this bit of advice that someone gave me. There is always “Room at the Top” for outstanding lawyers.
US Bureau of Labor Statistics for Lawyers
There are currently 759, 800 lawyers employed in the US as of the Bureau’s latest survey completed in 2012. Demand for lawyers is expected to grow by 10% between 2012 and 2022, which is the average for all job categories.
Median pay in the survey was $113,500. The lowest 10% earned less than $54,310 while the top 10% earned more than $187,200.
The median annual pay for the top five industries in which lawyers in the survey worked were as follows:
Finance and Insurance $134, 940
Federal Government (excludes postal service ) $134, 690
Legal Services $116, 630
Local Government (excludes edu. and hospitals) $87,140
State Government (excludes edu. and hospitals) $79,220