Successful lawyers make their living by asking the smart questions.
But 26-year-old attorney Megan Will said she got where she is now by fearlessly asking the dumb questions – questions such as: “How do I get a business line for my phone?” or “How do I get paid for a case?”
Then again, most 20-something law graduates don’t open their own law office immediately after passing the state bar exam.
The 2005 Somerset Area High School and 2012 Duquesne University law grad, who recently set up shop in her hometown of Somerset, spent time not only working under criminal defense attorney Bruce Antkowiak but also building a local mentor network through the former Somerset County District Attorney Jerry Spangler’s office and other area law firms.
She said the familiarity and nostalgia of her old stomping grounds – as well as the eagerness of the far more experienced local practitioners to pass on their knowledge and answer those dumb questions – was what prompted her to return home and open The Law Office of Megan E. Will, 202 E. Union St., in October 2012.
She said her mind was made up just two days after passing the Pennsylvania bar exam.
“I was going to move home, I was going to start this and it was going to be face-first in the ground or both feet in the deep end and swimming just fine,” she said.
“I was living in Pittsburgh and the job market up there for lawyers or anybody with legal training is absolutely terrible,” she said.
It was a leap, but she was assured by local attorneys under whom she worked that there was plenty of room for new courtroom talent in the market. They also mentioned, however, that opening up a new firm right out of the gate is rarely done, if ever successfully, by a fresh law grad.
“I was like, ‘Great – that’s not ominous,’ ” she said with a sarcastic wit very becoming of the bright and well-articulated young attorney.
But Ebensburg lawyer Tim Burns, who said he felt comfortable handing over some of his cases to Will after being socked by a death-row inmate and landing in the hospital in May last year, said he feels there’s plenty of up-and-coming litigators in the area – and Will’s one of them.
Burns, a fellow Duquesne alumnus, was speaking at the university about practicing law in a small town when he met Will.
He said he normally advises law grads to have a few years experience with an established firm – and a good handle on the practical aspects of law – before wading into the field. But Will, who estimated she at one point had six different jobs in six different practice areas during law school, had already set her sights.
“She expressed a great interest in starting her own practice. She seemed to be very ambitious,” he said. “It just struck me – her desire – it reminded me of how I was, starting out.
“In a place like Johnstown or Somerset, an attorney has to be a little more of a ‘jack of all trades,’ ” he said. “In big cities, it’s easier to specialize. When you’re in a small town, you have to be able to handle different types of law.”
Will said her humility has served her well in that regard. She said she strives to be upfront with her clients when she feels in over her head or unconfident about her representation.
“I don’t want to be accepting things that I’m certainly not able to handle,” she said. “I will find somebody else who can help you. I’m the first to ask questions.”
She said that’s paying off with the trust of her clients. Will said she makes a habit of asking why they chose to call her office. They almost always say it’s because they know she’s just starting out – they feel she isn’t as jaded as the older, more seasoned attorneys and might be more sympathetic to their case.
And Will said business has been good, in spite of the generally accepted notion that the legal field has become woefully oversaturated.
“The response has just been beyond what I thought it would be,” she said.
Burns said he feels many young attorneys pick the bigger, urban markets under a misguided conception that the local economy can’t support them.
He said he disagrees with that mentality.
“I think some are just afraid they might not make it on their own – they’d rather work for someone else,” he said. “You have to put the hours in and you have to hustle and get your name out there, but there’s always room for more.”
Will, who recently became engaged to heavy equipment operator and fellow Somerset Area grad Benjamin Flowers, said she chose to make room for herself in Somerset because, simply put, there’s no place like home.
She said she enjoys the nostalgia of the myriad year-round festivals the area has to offer – like the Ebensburg Potatofest or Somerset’s Fire and Ice Festival.
She said they’re fun and familiar beacons of culture that the big city lacks.
It’s that familiarity – with her neighbors, professional colleagues and the Laurel hills – that made her want to dig in.
“I loved Pittsburgh as a 22-year-old single person, but that was it. Beyond that, I’ll visit,” she said. “I want a yard, I want space, I want to walk into a bank where I see the same teller all the time.”
This story is part of a continuing series featuring young professionals who decided to build their careers in the region. If you would like to submit a local professional to be featured in this series, email their contact information to JDennis@ TribDem.com.
Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/ JustinDennis.