Considering a Career in Equine Law?

At Equine Legal Solutions, students and young attorneys frequently contact us to ask what they can do to pursue a career in equine law.  Some are hopeful that a law school degree + equine experience = a lucrative new career as a horse attorney.  However, it’s not that simple.  First, you need to graduate from a reputable law school, which takes at least three years. Then, to develop practical skills, you need to spend at least several more years as an associate working for a senior attorney.  Only after you have become an experienced, well-rounded lawyer can you begin to develop your equine practice, either within your current firm or on your own.  During all of those years, you need to remain very active in the horse community so that you can gain and maintain a deep understanding of the industry.  Sound expensive, time-consuming and difficult?  It is! 

Are You Cut Out to Be a Lawyer?

Before you decide to spend the time and money to pursue a law career, consider whether you are well-suited to the legal profession.  There are many different legal specialties, but successful attorneys have many of the same qualities.  First and foremost, they are excellent communicators.  Whether you are writing an email to a client or drafting a brief in a court case, it’s essential to make your points clearly and succinctly.  Talented attorneys are typically very good speakers, able to convey their key arguments with conviction and in the proper tone. 

Successful attorneys are perfectionists.  As an attorney, a big part of your job is to anticipate and cover all contingencies, which means you must be exceptionally detail-oriented.  Time management and efficiency are critical, because not only do you bill your clients by the hour, you must also be an expert at tracking and meeting deadlines. Even a seemingly tiny mistake can result in malpractice, so all of your communications must be perfect, every single time.  All communications must be completely free of spelling errors, odd pagination, grammatical mistakes and other hallmarks of incompetency.  Surprisingly, many resumes that we receive at ELS, from both attorneys and paralegals, contain grammar and spelling mistakes, often right in the cover email.  No matter how impressive the applicant’s other qualifications are, resumes with errors go right into the “deleted items” folder.

In the practice of equine law, you spend a lot of time meeting with people and talking on the phone.  Therefore, your personality matters.  In addition to being a skilled communicator, you need to have excellent listening skills.  Patience is an essential component of listening skills.  On a daily basis, an equine attorney must listen attentively to half-hour-long, rambling tales of woe and, while the prospective client is talking, determine whether they have a viable legal case and whether it fits within the type of case suitable for your practice.  Because horses are like children to many horse owners, an equine attorney often needs to be empathetic and kind, ready to reassure a client in tears or help defuse an angry caller.  At the same time, you need to be able to say “no” firmly when the situation warrants and separate yourself from the emotional issues.

Getting Into Law School

To get into law school, you need to be a good student with excellent grades from a well-respected college, and you need to be a good test-taker.  The LSAT is the law school entrance examination, and unless you score well on it, you will not be admitted to a top law school, no matter how good your grades are.  Test-taking is important throughout law school, because semester-end law school examinations are typically the sole basis for your grade in a given course.  Test-taking is also an essential skill for passing the bar examination, which is required to practice law.  If you plan to practice in more than one state, you will likely need to take (and pass!) more than one bar examination.  Bar examinations are grueling two-to-three day tests consisting of multiple choice questions and sometimes an essay component.  John F. Kennedy Jr. famously failed the Massachusetts bar examination, and many other less famous law school graduates fail the bar every year. If you tend to clutch on tests or have trouble finishing them in the allotted time, law school and passing the bar will be extremely difficult for you.  Unless you pass the bar, you will be unemployable as an attorney.  Taking more than once to pass the bar will be a lifelong black mark on your career, as often it is possible to tell from the date of an attorney’s bar admission whether they passed the bar on the first try. 

Choosing a Law School

In selecting a law school, your primary consideration must be your job prospects upon graduation.  What is the school’s placement rate, and even more importantly, does it place graduates into the type of job that you want?  If you plan to practice with a nationally-known law firm, you should choose a national-level law school with a history of placing graduates at nationally-known law firms.  Many law schools boast respectable placement rates, but further examination reveals that not all graduates are employed as lawyers after graduation (i.e., they could be flipping burgers!). 

Geography is an essential consideration in selecting a law school.  You should decide, before law school, where you plan to settle upon graduation.  In job-hunting, it helps tremendously to have strong ties to the local area, such as having grown up there.  If you are trying to settle in an area to which you have no historical ties, you will need to attend a law school that places a large percentage of its graduates in that locale, and you will need to have a very strong academic record. 

Where do law schools place their graduates, and how closely does that match up with your personal goals?  Small local schools tend to place their graduates in the immediate surrounding area.  State-level schools tend to place their graduates in-state (and in the immediate surrounding states).  National-level schools place their graduates nationally, but with some regionality based upon where their alumni are.  For example, Rachel Kosmal McCart, ELS’ founder, graduated from Duke University School of Law.  Although Duke is located in North Carolina and is a national-level law school, it places many graduates in New York, Washington, DC and Atlanta, simply because those are locations in which many of its alumni are working.  Rachel had no ties to New York City, but she landed her first job after graduation at a major New York firm based upon Duke alumni connections.

How important is the reputation of your law school?  Your law school must be well-known and well-regarded in the geographic area where you plan to practice.  Why?  Throughout your career, your reputation as an attorney will be colored by where you went to law school.  Potential employers and clients alike will ask where you went to school, no matter how long you have been practicing.  In addition, when attorneys initially become involved in a case, they typically look up the qualifications of opposing counsel and form an opinion of that attorney based upon their qualifications.  You want your school to be a star in your crown, not something you have to explain or overcome.  Therefore, you should choose the law school with the best reputation in your chosen geographic area.  If you can’t get into the best law school in your chosen geographic area, you may want to reconsider your choice of geographic area and/or your choice of going to law school.  If you attend a substandard law school and are at the top of your class, you will have a harder time finding a job than if you attended a top law school and finished in the middle of your class.  And this will be true throughout your career, not just when you are looking for your first job.  There is a distinct hierarchy in the practice of law, and attorneys and clients seek to hire attorneys whose qualifications and experience they respect. 

This discussion of top law schools may remind you of the old joke, “What do they call the person who finished last in his class at Harvard Medical School?  Answer:  Doctor.”  However, grades are essential, regardless of where you go to law school.  When seeking your first job, your law school grades will be the single most important factor in your employability.  Without good grades, you won’t be invited to interview for positions, so you’ll never have the chance to impress potential employers with your other qualifications.  “Good grades” means at least the top half of your class and more often, the top 10%.  Therefore, you can’t relax and coast once you have been admitted to a top law school. You will be competing for top marks against the smartest people you have ever known, and you may find, possibly for the first time in your academic career, that you are average.

How about night school?  In general, top law schools do not offer part-time programs.  Local schools may offer such programs, but be sure to evaluate all of the above considerations regarding placement and reputation as they pertain to the part-time program and not to the law school in general.  Much like “executive MBA” programs, part-time law degree programs may pale in comparison to the quality and reputation of the full-time J.D. program at the same school.

What about equine law course offerings?  They are an interesting preview of what you might encounter in the practice of equine law, but should not be a key consideration in selecting a law school.  Rather, you should select a school that offers excellent instruction in the basic first-year law school courses, such as Contracts, Civil Procedure and Criminal Law, as well as electives in practical subjects such as Alternative Dispute Resolution.

Your First Job

Law school is not a trade school.   Rather, law school teaches students how to think like lawyers.  Attorneys learn almost all of their practical skills on the job.  Therefore, your first job is essential in your development as an attorney.  Often, a law student’s first job after graduation is with the same law firm where they served as an intern during the summer between their second and third years of law school.  In selecting an employer, you should choose a law firm that is skilled at providing training for young attorneys.  Typically, this does not mean formal training programs so much as it does one-on-one teamwork with a senior attorney.  Law firms assign young attorneys to work with one or several senior attorneys as part of a team in a practice group.  In very small law firms, it will likely be obvious who you will be working with, but in larger law firms, you should ask the question.  In many cases, large law firms have designated attorneys who interview candidates, and therefore the people who interview you may be completely different than the people you ultimately work with.  Ask to speak with associates who work for the partner or senior associate with whom you will be working, and ask them directly what it is like to work for that person.  Find out whether they are permitted to have a responsible role in cases, or whether they are relegated to more menial tasks.  Is the senior attorney available when they need help, or does he or she turn them loose with little or no direction?

Personality matters.  As a junior associate, you will be spending 50-90 hours a week working, so you must be certain that you like the firm and the people, both associates and partners.  When making a decision between two employers, listen to your instincts about where you feel the most comfortable.  If the interview with a potential employer seemed long, imagine spending six days a week with them.  Do not be swayed by perks such as dry cleaning services and free meals.  Often, generous on-site perks are a mechanism to keep attorneys in the office and working.

What about practice area?  A good equine lawyer is a good generalist, skilled at both contract drafting and dispute resolution.  Therefore, in selecting a law firm for your first job, you should select a firm that will provide training in at least these two areas.  At small law firms, all of the attorneys may be generalists.  The larger the law firm, the more specialized the lawyers will be.  However, even in a large law firm, you can gain diverse experience if the firm has an established practice group rotation program (as long as the rotation is not, say, between aircraft finance and environmental litigation).

Finally, if you are working in a smaller firm, practice development is a consideration.  Will you be permitted to bring in your own clients?  This may seem like a strange question, but in many law firms, young attorneys’ only role is to serve the firm’s existing clients.  If you are permitted to bring in your own clients, on what terms?  Again, this may seem like an odd question, but most firms have strict financial and subjective criteria for new clients and new matters.  If your prospective client or their matter does not meet the firm’s criteria, you won’t be permitted to do the work. You may find, too, that prospective clients in the horse industry are not able or willing to pay the rates that your firm charges.  It is not accidental that most equine attorneys work for smaller firms with lower overhead.  And forget about moonlighting – not only will your firm’s malpractice insurance not cover you, you won’t have time to take on any work outside the firm. 

Your Horse Qualifications

In the practice of equine law, your horse qualifications are at least as important as your legal qualifications.  Many horse owners are fortunate enough to have never needed an attorney before, so they tend to select an attorney whom their friends recommend.  And no surprise, horse people’s friends are other horse people, so they tend to know attorneys who are active in their horse community.  Your clients will expect you to know all the same people that they know.  Equine law is a relationship-based business.

When talking with an attorney about their legal matter, most horse people are very perceptive about whether the attorney really understands their issues.  Many times, prospective clients have come to ELS explaining that they had already spoken with a local attorney, but that they didn’t feel comfortable with that attorney because he or she “wasn’t a horse person,” so they called ELS.  Mere horse ownership isn’t enough to build a successful equine law practice.  Prospective clients will ask, on a daily basis, what kind of horses you have, how many and what you do with them. And they care about the answer because they need to feel that you are one of them.  Therefore, it is essential to be heavily involved, on a daily basis, in the horse community that is the target market for your practice. As an equine attorney, your clients will expect you to know exactly how their portion of the industry works.  So, for example, if your prospective clients breed top-level reiners, you need to be out there reining yourself at a respectable level, and readily familiar with the players at the top of the sport.  Similarly, if you have backyard horses, but your target market is top Arabian breeders, you will have an extremely difficult time penetrating that market.  Because segments of the horse industry change so rapidly, having once had experience in a particular market segment is not sufficient – your knowledge and experience must be current.  Oh, and beware of name-dropping, as most horse people are down-to-earth folks who know a poseur when they hear one!  You don’t want to be “all hat and no cattle” as the classic expression goes.

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