GPSOLO September 2009
When Uncle Sam Calls
I always believed the day would come. In the U.S. Army Reserves, we referred to it as when "the balloon goes up." But, when it came, I was far less prepared than I would have been for any court appearance. The war for my Reserve unit started in January 2003, when we were placed on alert.
According to Reserve folklore, we would receive one or two months’ advance notice in the event of a call-up, but in fact we received less than five days’ notice. The alert arrived via e-mail late on a Thursday and required me to report for duty at my Reserve center 180 miles away by 6:00 AM the following Monday. I had to close my practice, say adios to my family, and prepare my house for an extended absence, all by 0600.
Our superiors had hinted that we should expect a mobilization. So by January I had taken preliminary steps. I con-firmed with two small firm lawyers that, yes, they could accept whatever cases I had. They agreed to take my plaintiff employment cases. I found a third lawyer to take my commercial litigation cases, which included my best client.
All three lawyers did very well for my clients. I did not ask them to accept my cases without any screening. Rather, I expected that they would arrive at their own judgment regarding client and case acceptability. I did ask that they agree to accept each client with the financial arrangements already in place. They all quickly agreed.
SoloSez, the ABA’s Internet discussion forum for solos, proved to be a valuable resource. One or two "Sezers" sug-gested I try to sell my practice. But, faced with the then-uncertain prospect of where and how long we might be serving, I was far more concerned with taking care of my clients and speeding quickly to my rendezvous than with seeking re-muneration before my departure.
Before leaving, I was determined that I would draft and send to each client, each opposing counsel, and each court a letter explaining the circumstances of my departure. I also felt that I needed to prepare a memo for each file detailing outstanding issues and recommending next steps. Drafting these letters and memos took most of Friday and all of Sat-urday. Sunday was devoted to getting a cell phone on short notice and packing for the unknown.
My Reserve unit’s mission was to prepare and execute computer war games for other Reserve units. Call-ups for any Reserve unit were rare prior to 2003. Call-ups for a computer unit were even rarer, so preparation and packing were a challenge. If I had known I would return on occasional weekends, I might have closed my law office with more deliberation.
I relied on a very bright and dedicated paralegal to carry out my instructions and guidance over the next few weeks. My cell phone served as a critical link to her as we transferred files and communicated with lawyers and staff.
Some issues could not be anticipated. I did not expect one client to insist that she would not look for a new law-yer. She believed that so long as I remained her lawyer, her case could not be dismissed. I tried to explain to her that the protective legislation she was thinking of (then called the Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act) applied only to cases where the service member was a party in the legal proceeding, but not to cases where the service member was the lawyer representing a civilian party in the proceeding. But she remained firm.
I had my office closed by the end of March. It was difficult to let go of my most precious resource, my phone number for the previous 14 years. But closing the office also brought some relief. Now I could focus on my part in the war. The pressure of filing and prosecuting lawsuits was always significant, but preparing other units or your own unit (later I was sent overseas myself) for war is far more intense. I felt that I had to forget the practice of law for a time so I could focus on sending my brothers and sisters to war as well prepared as possible. I particularly ap-preciated my choice when one of my colleagues would tell me of his travails. He was a sole practitioner who kept his practice going during our initial seven-month mobilization. He experienced the worst situations, from a pregnant secretary to opposing counsel who would talk to no one but him. He had to practice war during the day and then practice law via phone at night. It was not an easy juggling act.
I went back to civilian life ten months later. I found a "real" job working for a nonprofit agency. I was later called back to duty and sent overseas. Now, I am returning to solo practice. But, to this day, I will never forget the huge challenge of preparing for an unknown war and closing my "baby" of 14 years all within the span of five days.
Tom Crane is a sole practitioner in San Antonio, Texas, and a member of the U.S. Army Reserves. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.