GPSolo Magazine - April/May 2006
In the Solution
Solos and Isolation
Solo practice is joyously good. Mostly. You are your own boss, choose your own clients, and set your own hours. This independence, however, can also lead to overwhelming solitude and isolation. To some extent, every lawyer is conditioned to be focused, driven, and emotionally detached. The training process begins as early as law school. The resulting risk is that we detach professionally from our clients, peers, and colleagues, and that we detach personally from everyone else, including sometimes even ourselves. Eventually, we can feel incredibly isolated, and this isolation can intensify in solo practice. Suddenly, the joys of independence are overshadowed by the burdens of coping with the loneliness of law practice.
The good news is that we can learn to manage and even change these feelings, and as a result, become happier and healthier, both personally and professionally. Despite the inertia you may experience, getting connected both within and outside of the law is easier than you may think.
Resources Within the Law
Within the profession, there are multiple avenues for fostering relationships.
Bar associations. As readers of GPSolo, you may know the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division is a great place to start. Nearly all state bars have similar divisions or sections. And don’t forget city and county bars, which actually may provide closer contact with lawyers in your immediate area. One of the best ways to introduce and involve yourself without a large commitment is to attend a local bar luncheon; many organizations offer brown-bag lunches on current important section topics.
CLE classes and seminars. Most states have mandatory CLE requirements. With the advancements in technology, however, it has become easier to satisfy these credits from your desk, via the Internet or conference calls. Push yourself to attend an off-site CLE in your practice area. If possible, attend a daylong or overnight conference that includes social events, such as luncheons or receptions; this will allow you to network with others in your practice area. Don’t let shyness or a lack of social confidence hold you back; these events often have a momentum of their own that will draw you in.
Alumni associations. Law schools depend on alumni to act as ambassadors by networking with current students through campus events, panels, and local bar activities. This is a great way to reconnect with professors or other friends and former mentors from your school and to be a voice of experience to those who may be in your shoes one day. Far away from your law school now? Many alumni associations have chapters located throughout the country that host events for local graduates.
Inns of courts. American Inns of Court, adopted from the traditional English model of legal apprenticeship, are designed to improve the skills, professionalism, and ethics of the bench and bar. Inns of Court help lawyers to become more effective advocates and counselors with a keener ethical awareness by gathering members to learn side by side with the most experienced judges and attorneys in their community. Visit www.innsofcourt.org to find an Inn in your area.
Lawyer assistance programs (LAPs). Some LAPs, such as the program in Massachusetts, offer support groups specifically for solos and small firm practitioners; check with your state LAP to see if such a group is available. If not, your LAP will be able to suggest other helpful resources, or it may respond by launching such a group itself.
However you choose to do so, establish and nurture professional relationships. Not only will these connections ease your feelings of isolation, but they may also help your business, including through mutual referrals.
Resources Outside the Profession
Outside of the law, there are also multiple ways to connect with other people.
Friends and family. Family and friends are your first line of defense. Take time to connect—or reconnect—to those with whom you already have a relationship. These support systems are crucial to personal and professional well-being. And, no matter how long it has been or how distant you feel, these relationships need only to be rekindled. Send an e-mail or pick up the phone, even if your time is limited. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is and how delighted that acquaintance may be to hear from you. If you feel an explanation is in order, honesty is best—a simple statement about having been overwhelmed with work is sufficient.
Hobbies. Whatever your passion or interests, there are ways to engage in them along with others. If you enjoy painting, take a class at your local university or arts center. If you run or bike or play tennis, join a road club or local league. Remember, there are clubs and groups for all types of activities: reading, gardening, cooking, sewing, or woodworking. Ask yourself what you enjoy, make time in your schedule, and do some research to find groups in your area.
Service and volunteer organizations. One of the best ways to help yourself is by helping others. In every community, there are hosts of service and volunteer organizations that involve people from all backgrounds and professions and that need your help. In smaller communities, consider Kiwanis, Lions, and Knights of Columbus groups. For volunteer groups, your local United Way will provide lists of groups that need help—find one that serves whatever need you feel passionate about. There are also multiple websites that list volunteer needs by subject area and zip code; try www.volunteermatch.org or www.1-800-volunteer.org.
Involvement in nonlegal activities is a great way to meet folks outside the law—potential clients and potential friends. It’s also a great way to serve the community and to help others in need.
The practice of law can be all consuming—but only if you allow it to be. Nearly every sole practitioner faces or has faced feelings of isolation. You are not alone. Reach outside of your comfort zone and connect with others. By reaching out, you may help someone else with the same feelings even more than you help yourself.
Ellen M. Jernigan, JD, is executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, a private, nonprofit Massachusetts corporation that is the state’s sole lawyer assistance program. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.