Black Lives Matter: How Dafina Started Her Own Law Firm
Dafina Sharpe tells us her story into how she started her own law firm, the racism she was victim to and how she overcame the challenges she faced.
Dafina Sharpe, Esq, Attorney and Financial Blogger at Dollars Plus Sense
My story into starting my own firm:
I got into law because my mother valued education and encouraged me to continue my studies after college. I was the first and only lawyer in my family and I was excited at the potential of having a high-paying career. In the back of my mind at the time, I thought “lawyers and doctors make a lot of money” which I know now (at least for lawyers) is not true. When I first graduated from law school in 2008, I was making around $30,000-$35,000 a year.
When I moved back to NYC after law school, I was working as an associate for a small immigration law firm. What triggered my desire to start my own law firm was when I saw the retainer agreement in the client’s file. I saw what my boss was charging clients, and I knew what he was paying me ($35,000) to do pretty much ALL the legal work.
At that moment I thought to myself “Wow! If only I could find clients of my own, I would be making WAY more money.”
Although that desire sparked within me, I was never brave enough to go out on my own. I liked the security of having a job and knowing how much I was going to make every week (even if my salary was low) …but God had different plans for me.
One day I asked my boss for two months off to study for New York’s bar exam (at the time I was licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania and New Jersey). Since immigration law is regulated by federal law, I could use my PA or NJ licence to practice. However, I didn’t want to be restricted with the type of law I practised and so I wanted to get my NY law licence.
I wouldn’t say the journey was easy, but after two years, we were able to build a successful law firm.
My boss didn’t need me to have a NY licence and when I requested two months off to study for the bar he said: “Okay, you can have the two months off to study, but I can’t guarantee your job will be here when you get back.” I knew that was a nice way of saying “If you leave, you can’t come back.” But I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I figured I would just look for another job when I was done studying for the bar. However, as fate would have it, one of my colleagues at the small law firm wanted to start her own law practice too. When I was leaving, she approached me about the possibility of maybe starting a law firm together.
Like I said before, the desire to have my own firm was always there, but this time it was less scary to me. I was “fired” so I didn’t have that job security anymore and I also had a partner to take this leap of faith with.
I wouldn’t say the journey was easy, but after two years, we were able to build a successful law firm. Today, my partner has branched off and started her own firm. We’re both still very good friends and consult with one another when we need advice or have legal questions.
My Tips and Advice:
If I had any advice to give young minorities and those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds it would be this:
1) Don’t go into the practice of law JUST to make money. You’re not guaranteed to make six-figures when you graduate and you may feel frustrated that you worked so hard to graduate (maybe have a ton of student loans) and you’re not being compensated well enough. Go into the practice of law because you truly have a passion to advocate for those that can’t advocate for themselves. If you have a passion, the money will come.
2) FIND A MENTOR! I know this can be hard especially if you’re the first or only lawyer in your family (like I was). But what that means for you is you have to work harder at networking. Don’t wait until you graduate from law school to find a mentor either. Go to as many events as possible where you know lawyers will be. Most lawyers (especially lawyers of colour) will make time to talk to you and give you advice because we’ve been where you are now…we understand how hard it can be.
If you’re not in the top 10% of your law class, most of your success is going to come from WHO you know…not WHAT you know (and please believe that white guy in your class is using all of his contacts to get ahead). So, make networking a TOP PRIORITY.
3) Don’t let where you come from stop you from achieving your dream. I was born in East New York, Brooklyn, and was raised most of my life by a single mom. I was lucky that my mom pushed my sister and me to be successful. She set high expectations for us. So, if you don’t have that person in your life to push you, you should set high expectations for yourself. Especially if you’re from a rough neighbourhood, use that as motivation to want to get out and do better for yourself.
Finally, the only way we can beat systematic racism in law is to work on achieving our dreams, and once you’re in a position of power, use that power to empower other people of colour.
If you’re coming from a background where your parent(s) can’t afford to help you pay for college/law school, look into getting grants and scholarships…as a last resort, you can take out student loans.
Finally, the only way we can beat systematic racism in law is to work on achieving our dreams, and once you’re in a position of power, use that power to empower other people of colour. As a black woman, I understand that the odds are NOT in my favour, but I’ve been blessed enough to beat those odds—and that’s why I started my blog Dollars Plus Sense. I knew once I was able to improve my finances, I had a duty to help other women and people of colour that may have struggled with money as I did. My goal was (and still is) to inspire and help women improve their finances and close the wealth gap in America.