Volume 20, Number 3
April/May 2003

BEING SOLO

Real Life, Solo Style

By David Leffler

David Leffler maintains a solo law practice in New York City, where he assists his clients in the formation, growth, and sale of their businesses. He can be reached at lefflermailbox@aol.com.

I sometimes wonder what it would be like if one of those new reality television shows portrayed the life of a solo attorney. Picture yourself starring in this program. Attorney Martinez wanders for hours in a computer store trying to figure out whether she should take the plunge to buy a multifunctional printer and which is the best model for her solo practice. Attorney Wexler works all afternoon preparing the first draft of an acquisition agreement and screams in agony when his computer crashes, losing the last hour of his work; he has no idea whom to call about this problem since he was not about to hire a tech support staff for his solo practice. Attorney Sullivan has an animated conversation with a client who has a problem with her invoice; she would love to pass this problem off to her bookkeeping department, but unfortunately that is just another of the many hats she wears as a solo attorney. And finally, Attorney Takahashi’s landlord figured out that he could get more money renting to a plastic surgeon than to an attorney, so our brave solo attorney has less than two months to find a new office space.

Not the basis for a hit show you say? Why not? There isn’t enough to keep an audience captivated, and certainly not with commercial interruptions? Well, perhaps not.

But on the hunch that reading an entire issue of GPSolo devoted to risk may have driven you to shivering under your bedcovers, I thought you ought to read something that focuses on what good things you are doing for your clients instead of all the potential disasters that may await you. It may not be worthy of a reality television show, but it definitely ranks high for a Being Solo column. And face it, you certainly could call yourself a survivor.

Chances are that as a solo attorney you never do take the time to focus on the good because you are too busy every day taking care of clients, dealing with paying all of your bills, scurrying to get out your monthly invoices, trying to figure out which is the best printer for you to buy now that your old printer finally gave up the ghost with an undignified “squeak,” wondering whether you should finally hire a paralegal or even—gulp!—a junior attorney, and perhaps even one cold winter’s morning dealing with a flood in your office owing to frozen pipes.

Well, spring has finally arrived and I say that it is time for you to take a mental break—sort of a mental “spring cleaning.” Why do I get to tell you to do this? Because no one else will.

Take a moment to think about your clients that consider you a lifeline, a savior, and perhaps even the best friend they ever had. Your hard work does not go unnoticed.

Oh, really, you ask, what about those clients who are always complaining? No one can keep everyone happy. Not even you. Whatever job you might have, be it a lawyer, a doctor, a plumber, a cashier, a bus driver, or a high school teacher, someone will not like the way you do your job, no matter how well you do it.

But a solo attorney’s life can get mighty lonely sometimes. You may only hear the complaints and not recognize or remember the appreciation expressed by many clients.

I was surprised after getting one client through a particularly difficult contract negotiation to hear her say, “David, you are like a Zen Master.” I felt lucky that we had made it through the deal; there were times that I felt stretched to my limits, working to keep everyone focused on the goal without alienating one or more parties while still adequately representing my client. It made my day to hear her say that. On days when a client does not say that I am like a Zen Master (and there are plenty of those), I remember what my client said and know that I am still the same person that generated this compliment.

So I have an assignment for you. On a legal pad or on your word processor, set out three columns. The first is for the client name, the second for a brief description of the matter worked on, and the third is for the compliment given by the client. List at least one example for every year that you have been an attorney. Okay, you can stop at 20 if you have practiced more years than that.

This will be another tool in your solo attorney’s tool chest. On those days when you feel that nothing is going right and that you are a horrible lawyer, take out this list and read it through, from top to bottom. Then ask yourself if the person who generated this list of compliments could ever be described as a horrible lawyer.

Remember, we all face a crisis of confidence now and then; the important thing is how we deal with it. Hopefully this tool will make facing it easier. 

Do you have ways of coping with the unique challenges of being a solo attorney? Send me an e-mail about them and I will try to include the best suggestions in a future column.

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