Starting a solo law practice can be a tough road

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Young lawyers starting out usually can’t afford to open a private practice because of the crushing law school debt they face after graduating. But some find a way.

One lawyer in Cedar Rapids and another in Williamsburg admit there are few who go it alone because of expense and debt. But both said they couldn’t have without a safety net — a partner.

Zach Crowdes, 33, who opened his practice in 2012 at 425 Second St. SE in Cedar Rapids, has an “eat what you kill” philosophy, meaning he didn’t want to share his profits with other associates at a firm, but it wouldn’t have been realistic without support from his wife, Courtney, who had a good job and could provide health insurance for both of them.

“She covered the bills in the beginning,” Crowdes said with a big smile. “I looked at it as an investment. The school debt is a heavy burden to carry. I didn’t have any family here, no client base of any kind. I was starting from scratch.”

Crowdes, who graduated from Creighton University School of Law in Omaha, Neb., shares office space with his mentor, Mike Lahammer and three other private practice attorneys.

Jessica Hlubek, 30, of Shafer and Hlubek, at 204 W. State St., in Williamsburg, said she didn’t want to “second chair.” She wanted to be the one arguing the case in court, but she also needed help to acquire that independence.

Hlubek took some advice from a mentor to consider joining a rural practice that needed a trial lawyer.

“I always say I didn’t go far from the law school to find it,” Hlubek joked. “If you go down Melrose Avenue and follow it out (of town), that highway comes straight up State Street in Williamsburg.”

Hlubek in 2013 joined Bill Shafer, who had an established firm for more than 20 years but he had a void she could fill. Shafer focuses on tax issues, bankruptcy, financial insolvency needs for farmers and other agribusinesses matters — typically issues not fought over in court. And Hlubek wanted to pursue civil litigation and criminal trial work.

Crowdes and Hlubek confirmed it was difficult in the beginning.

Crowdes said Lahammer gave him some cases and a few other lawyers passed along some they didn’t want. He started advertising online and eventually got referrals from clients.

“The biggest obstacle was lack of experience,” Crowdes said. “I guess I had a baby face and it was difficult convincing people I knew what I was doing. I had no family here, no client base of any kind.

“It’s a dose of reality. You have to have realistic goals.”

Lahammer said he was impressed by Crowdes’s poise, intelligence, maturity and drive.

“I could tell that he was serious about starting his own practice, and had the work ethic required of all private practice attorneys,” Lahammer said.

Lahammer, who owns the office space that Crowdes and others share, said he initially gave Crowdes free rent for a few months to help him out.

Crowdes also was second chair for Lahammer on some felony cases, which gave him good trial experience.

Hlubek said she also started out with no clients, even if she was joining a partner because their practices are separate and different. In the beginning, she mostly spent her time at the office renovating and painting the upstairs to add a conference room and office space.

“I needed the conference room with this big long table because I knew I would have depositions for trials,” Hlubek said, grinning and spreading her arms out to show the length of the table. “And I did. I’ve done about 20 depositions at this table.”

She admitted she didn’t anticipate the amount of time it took to start getting cases.

“I mean, I knew it was going to take some time to get my practice rolling, but it was just a little scary in the beginning,” Hlubek said.

Hlubek, as with Crowdes, didn’t know anybody in Williamsburg. She grew up in Clinton, but she saw the opportunity.

“My mentor, David Baker (Cedar Rapids lawyer and former Iowa Supreme Court justice), told me to get to know the community and Shafer knows everybody,” Hlubek said. “Bill took me to the Kiwanis, I became a member of the hospital board and got on the list for court-appointed attorneys.”

Baker, who teaches trial advocacy at UI College of Law, said Hlubek is “so bright” and couldn’t be a lawyer sitting in the back office going through documents. She wanted to be in the courtroom, arguing a case, he said.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for young lawyers to go into a small, rural town,” Baker said. “They will be like a primary physician who encounters a wide range of problems, and can make a comfortable living at it.”

Baker said the rural areas still are having a difficult time getting young lawyers such as Hlubek.

Hlubek said it didn’t take long for the community to notice her. What also helped was her best friend, Buster, a boxer who is partially paralyzed and uses a wheelchair for his hind legs. Buster garnered her more attention while walking around town.

Crowdes mostly handles criminal defense, a lot of drunken driving cases, family law and some personal injury cases. He doesn’t have any federal court experience, but that’s one of goals to practice in federal court.

Crowdes said lawyers begin learning their profession once they start practicing and working on different cases to gain experience. Nobody learns to practice law in law school, he said.

Hlubek handles any trial work — civil and criminal. She admits she “loves to argue.”

For any lawyer considering a private practice, Crowdes and Hlubek both suggest finding a mentor who will spend time sharing their knowledge and expertise.

Hlubek added it’s also important to get involved in the community and get acquainted with the other lawyers in the local county bar association because they may be your biggest sources of support.

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