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Career Day

Career Day: The ‘Primary Care Lawyer’

By Jenni Gritters

Melissa Hall runs Smol Law, a “primary care” law firm in Seattle.

What does a “primary care lawyer” do?
A primary care lawyer is a generalist lawyer who represents individual people. Most of us will experience a range of legal issues over our lifespans, but they generally won’t be severe. However, when these issues are severe, you’re going need a specialist. And you’re going to need someone to tell you that you need that specialist. That’s me.

How do you charge your clients?
My business model is based on how small-town lawyers survived, with a client roster that pays me monthly, on retainer, to be available for general questions. I only know one other person besides me who’s practicing law this way!

How did you start working in this kind of practice?
I was a geographer for a long time. [One] job I had was figuring out where to put grocery stores. Then I went to law school to do land use law. Later, I moved to Washington state and had to retake the bar exam. In the course of relearning all of this basic, broad information, I had the idea of setting up a general practice to help people figure out where to get started if they had a legal issue. I wanted to do the diagnostics.

If your gut reaction is, “That’s BS,” you probably have a legal question.

What kinds of issues do people usually ask you about?
My wife is transgender and I helped her with basic name change stuff; it’s not hard, but there is a lot of technical detail throughout the process. Now, I work with members of the LGBTQ community on name change and “unrelated kinship” issues, where their family is not legally recognized as family. I also work with single-person businesses that don’t have a lot of legal resources.

At the end of the day, most people I work with have everyday problems where there are clearly defined rules and answers. But you don’t necessarily want to Google the rules and hope that you’ve made the right analysis. I do a lot of recommending: Go to this link, register for this, this is how the bureaucracy around this problem works.

What legal advice does everyone need to know?
First, I think people tend to view legal documents as magical spells instead of records of agreement between two people. I see a lot of people signing documents they don’t understand. Please ask questions about anything you don’t understand in a document!

Also, don’t do business with people you can’t trust. Sometimes, people believe you can write a legal document and work around the fact that someone isn’t trustworthy. But in the end, anyone can cause you a loss. The law works best with two people who are dealing in good faith, but might have different memories.

One more thing: I think a lot of people don’t even know when they would need to see an attorney. My rule is this: If your gut reaction is, “That’s BS,” you probably have a legal question.

What do you love about your job?
I feel lucky because I feel good about what I do. Most of us go to law school out of a belief that we can actually help people, but a lot of lawyers end up not doing that. I’m the person who has that dream legal career.

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Jenni Gritters is a writer based in Seattle.


Illustration by Verónica Grech.

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