Mitchell went from an Air Force JAG officer to starting his own company. In this interview, we talk about starting your own business - in this case, a law practice - and how important it is to have sufficient savings (or supplemental income) in order to do so. In starting his own law practice, Mitchell had to network and sell himself a lot - he gives practical advice for Veterans on how to approach this. If you’re interested in either entrepreneurship or the legal field, this is a terrific interview for you.
Mitchell John Howie is the owner of the Law Offices of Michell J. Howie. He has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Trial Lawyers and Top 40 under 40 by the National Trial Lawyers. He is also ranked as One of the Top 10 under 40 in criminal law by the National Academy of Criminal Defense. He served in the U.S. Air Force on Active Duty as a Judge Advocate General for over four years, and currently serves in the Reserves. Also has worked in the Texas House of Representatives and has served as a special assistant to the US Attorney's Office.
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Transcript & Time Stamps:
Joining me today from Huntsville, AL is Mitchell Howie. Mitchell John Howie is the owner of the Law Offices of Mitchell J. Howie. He has been recognized as one of the Top 100 Trial Lawyers and Top 40 under 40 by the National Trial Lawyers. He is also ranked as One of the Top 10 under 40 in criminal law by the National Academy of Criminal Defense. He served in the U.S. Air Force on Active Duty as a Judge Advocate General for over four years, and currently serves in the Reserves. Also has worked in the Texas House of Representatives and has served as a special assistant to the US Attorney's Office.
Can you talk about your transition from active duty?
When I was in law school, I didn’t know what kind of a practice I wanted to go into. I thought I wanted to go into transactional law but I also had an interest in litigation. That ended up leading me to the military because it offered the opportunity to practice many different areas of law. Once I was in the military, I realized that I was much better suited for litigation than transactional law.
In general, whether you are in the military or outside of it, the areas of law that you can practice are criminal defense, family law, estates, and personal injury law. I decided to stay more in the criminal and family law areas because those are normally the areas where litigation occurs.
How did you decide to stay in the Reserves?
When I was on active duty nearing the end of my tour, I was offered an opportunity to travel around and serve as a litigator for crimes occurring within the Air Force. But I had a wife and kid so the amount of travel that would have involved was not appealing. So I decided to get out and still be able to serve in the Reserves without having to move the family around every couple years.
What was it like starting your own law practice?
I mentor a lot of younger JAGS who want to be their own boss when they get out of the military. You don’t have a ceiling in what you can earn but you also don’t have a floor. Still, if you have an entrepreneurial mind and want to be your own boss, this is the way to go.
The cautionary advice I would offer is that you have to have at least a year of savings that you can live on before you leave active duty. I was fortunate that my wife was working full-time as I built my business up. So you have to think about how you will support yourself if you go down this road.
If you take the steps that you need to take prior to transitioning and start establishing a web presence to promote your business, a year worth of savings to keep you going after you separate should probably do it. If you’re not able to lay that groundwork, you will need to save more money to support yourself.
How did you find your first couple clients?
When my wife and I decided to leave the military, I was pushing for Austin, TX because I had prior experience working in that area. I had a connection that I was potentially going to work for. But during that time, we came down to Huntsville because I have family in this area. My uncle is also a lawyer and he told me that he would refer me some clients that he didn’t have time for. So Huntsville ended up winning out over Austin.
I also got on the local court appointed list and was able to get clients that way as well. From there, it was a lot of networking and establishing a web presence.
How can veterans effective approach the idea of selling themselves during the transition process?
Especially coming from the military, it can be hard to sell yourself. But in entrepreneurship, you have to understand that it doesn’t come from a place of selfishness. Just get out there and be yourself and talk to communities of people that can help you learn about the industry you want to get into. Don’t look at it as self-promotion. Look at is an opportunity to build your business and benefit more people.
Once you’re able to get a base of people that you’ve done a good job for, they will refer you to other people.
What is the most difficult aspect of owning your own business?
Starting out, you’re petrified that you’re not going to be able to generate income for your family. Once you start getting a steady flow of clients, it becomes more about perfecting your craft.
The uncertainty of owning your own business can be challenging. Sometimes I wonder if I will continue to be able to build a revenue stream. You don’t know for sure that the phone will continue to ring so you need to keep making sure you’re offering a valuable product to your customer that they are finding benefit from.
What is a typical day like for you?
Right now I have 60 unread emails. I’m obsessive about getting my unread email as close to zero as possible because I don’t want people waiting on me for a response. I believe that it’s extremely important that lawyers respond quickly to inquiries from their clients.
That becomes more difficult during trial because you’re not able to constantly be checking your emails. Every waking minute is spent preparing for that case, analyzing the facts, interviewing witnesses, etc.
The bulk of my time is spent being with clients, going to trial, and trying to keep up with various communication from my clients.
What does the preparation for a trail look like?
It depends on what case you’re preparing for. For example, if you have a client that isn’t being paid alimony. First, I had to get the documents to prove that he was able to pay the alimony that he owed. There’s a lot of reading and reviewing documents that goes into it. In criminal law, you need to analyze the statute and apply your case to that statute to see where it fits in.
There’s also a lot of plea bargaining that happens with criminal defense. Frequently, I’m talking with prosecutors about various plea bargains for my clients. The majority of these cases end up settling.
You dabbled in politics for a time. How was that experience?
The reason I wanted to do it is the same reason I wanted to go into the military - I wanted to serve something larger than myself. During the campaign, my wife unexpectedly became pregnant. We didn’t think there was any way that I was going to be able to continue running my business, running the campaign, and still have time to spend with my family. So we made the decision at that time to pull out of the race.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
When you’re getting out of the military and starting your own business, you just need to go for it. Don’t let fear hold you back from the career or industry you want to be in. Don’t let anyone deter you. If you don’t to separate from the military completely, you can continue in the Reserves.