One of the points stressed at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute, held every March in Chicago, is that planning and purposeful action are a leader’s best friend. Success does not usually occur by accident. Likewise, success is not often experienced in just one year. These concepts are especially true for associations focused on the solo and small firm practitioner segment of their membership.
What do solo or small firm lawyers need? What do they want? How do you involve them in the work of the association? These are all good questions, and they are questions that every association has asked at one time or another. It does not matter whether it is a voluntary association or a mandatory association; a good number of the members are likely to be solo or small firm practitioners. Since this segment makes up such a large percentage of many bar associations, bars would be remiss if they did not seek to include, attract, involve, and assist solo and small firm practitioners.
But each time bar leaders make this a focus, they find that there’s not a “one size fits all” solution. Bar leaders often ask the ABA Division for Bar Services how to be of service to this segment of the association’s membership, so this issue of Bar Leader will give you some important tips on what solo and small firm lawyers want and need most.
Many bar associations have put support of solos at the top of the list. This support can take the form of law practice management programs, lawyer referral services, or lawyer assistance programs. All of these programs are ones that can be of use to any lawyer, regardless of practice setting, but might be of particular use to solos. Including LAP in that list is not meant to suggest that solos are necessarily more prone than others to drug and alcohol abuse or depression and anxiety. But it is true that many solo and small firm lawyers work in isolation, so it is important that they know there is help if they need it.
In an effort to support solos, some bar associations have even undertaken research on the correlation between disciplinary actions and practice setting. Often, a disciplinary issue arises when a lawyer is simply overwhelmed by the nuts and bolts of running a practice. Again, the association must be careful not to suggest that disciplinary problems are inherent in solo practice, but showing a willingness to study the subject, and perhaps to provide tools or programs to help practitioners avoid such issues, can be a valuable way to support solo and small firm practitioners. Some bar associations that have practice management assistance programs make it part of their mission to educate and assist so that a lawyer doesn’t unknowingly get into trouble.
Some associations develop programs specifically designed to include or involve solos in the work of the association. Leadership training and leadership academies come quickly to mind. It is often assumed that solo practitioners will not have time to be involved in bar activities. While there certainly are time limitations, participation in bar activities, including at the leadership levels, is feasible.
But associations have to make the business case for involvement in the association. Involvement in bar activities provides for connection with colleagues and erases the feeling of isolation solos sometimes experience. Involvement in association work can expose the practitioner to others in his or her practice field. Involvement might even raise the practitioner’s visibility. Reviewing the work of the association to be sure that the number, length, and location of meetings do not unwittingly preclude participation might be another way to up involvement in the association.
For mandatory organizations, some might assume that this is a nonissue. In fact, willing, happy members are vitally important to a mandatory bar association. Taking members for granted is one of the most dangerous things that a mandatory bar association can do. Furthermore, mandatory bar associations need to attract solo and small firm practitioners to ensure participation in the work of the association and to deliver the products and services that these lawyers might find useful, if only they knew about them. Members won’t serve on committees and boards, or turn to the bar for the different tools and services they need, if they do not view the association as useful, relevant, and valuable.
For voluntary associations, attracting and retaining solo and small firm practitioners may not be seen as different from the general proposition of attracting members, but given the sheer numbers of solo and small firm practitioners, it is a “market” that is attractive and valuable—and well worth finding the solutions that seem to fit best.