Every law firm has a day one, a starting point. Lawyers call this moment, “hanging your shingle.” The origin of this strange phrase isn’t quite as unusual as you would think. Back in the 1800’s it was not uncommon for lawyers to use shingles as signs. A lawyer who opened a law practice would paint their name on the shingle, hang it above their office doorway and wait to see who comes in.
In an era of Zoom meetings and Google, this concept seems incredibly antiquated. However, in many ways I consider myself very fortunate to have gone to law school in the pre internet era. “Back in the day,” so to speak, a lawyer would have to run down to the law library with a bag of coins for the copy machine to research case law. Nowadays, a lawyer can get a legal case law question answered in microseconds using a natural language search. In the 1990s, however, an aspiring lawyer would have to read through case after case until they would find what they were looking for. I’m happy that I am a product of that era.
And that’s why it seemed like it wasn’t such a wild idea to rent a little office and hang my shingle. I had no web site and perhaps I owned two suits. I went to a sign company and hung my little sign above my office door which was located across the hallway from a local justice court. That court has long since been shuttered and the entire legal system in Arizona has been modernized and changed. But, back then, a lawyer with a dream and enough money to rent a little office could start out and see what happens.
The office I rented had been vacant for quite some time. The local justice of the peace was known as a very stern judge. It was a court that many attorneys avoided. It was not uncommon for lawyers to find themselves being punished for relatively minor infractions that most other judges wouldn’t even notice. As such, this little office was a great deal.
My office had previously been a probation department location and it smelled horribly of cigarettes. Fortunately I moved in during a spell of good weather and I propped the door open to get some fresh air moving around. Soon enough, people who had some negative outcomes in front of the justice of the peace started to come into my office looking for legal advice. And the rest is history.
I think about that judge all the time. I owe a debt to that court for teaching me the value of precision. My first appearances in front of the court were very stressful. My first case was a case that I took on for free. It was a homeless vet who came into my office after being levied a large fine for not appearing in court when he was supposed to earlier in the month. I walked back into the court and recalled his case. After thirty minutes of back and forth or so we walked out with his fine zeroed out.
The lessons I learned from my little North Phoenix office still apply to this day. We still help hundreds of clients every year for free. We have an open door and never charge for consultations. I also insist that my attorneys and staff respect and precisely follow the local rules of any court that they appear in, even if those rules seem unreasonable or unneeded.
Every once in a while I drive by that old office building and think about the day I hung my shingle. I’ve learned so much since I first started. However, I’ll always fondly remember those first few months there with my door open waiting to see who would walk in.
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