Solo but not alone: Bars seek to include solo and small firm practitioners

Volume 31 Number 6

By

After putting the finishing touches this past winter on a group health insurance benefit for solo and small firm practitioners, the Washoe County (Nev.) Bar Association is turning its attention to ideas such as free CLE offerings and discounted membership aimed at that same group.

Executive Director Christine Cendagorta is hopeful—but wary.

“It’s a tough group to reach,” she says. “It’s probably half of our members, and it’s also the biggest group that hasn’t joined the bar. I’ve really puzzled over what it is they want.”

Cendagorta is not alone. Whatever their size, bars have often struggled to offer programs, services, and leadership opportunities to what is the country’s largest segment of lawyers. Some bars have enjoyed successes, while others have found it difficult to attract and keep solo and small firm members.

The challenges, however, have not dampened the spirits of many bars that are continuing their efforts to reach out to solo and small firm lawyers. From technology to a little TLC, many bars are working to make bar association life more relevant and attractive to a large population of lawyers that is poised to become even larger in the years ahead.

The numbers: Anything but small

In the most recent statistics compiled by the American Bar Foundation, 48 percent of all attorneys in private practice (who account for three out of every four lawyers) were solo practitioners in 2000, and another 22 percent were in firms with two to 10 lawyers—a 3 percent increase over 1990’s figure.

While the increase was small, and updated statistics haven’t been gathered, bar leaders and observers say anecdotal evidence shows more solo and small firm practitioners cutting across all demographics. A number of factors continue to influence the increase, according to John Macy, chair of the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division. Among them:

| Senior lawyers seeking to continue practicing after reaching mandatory retirement age, often at ages 60 or 62, at large firms (see “The new senior lawyer: Is your bar ready?” May-June 2007, page 8). | Lawyers in midcareer, often seeking a lifestyle or work environment change after several years at a medium or large firm. | Lawyers who have lost their jobs at larger firms. | Increasingly, many say, new lawyers are pursuing solo or small firm careers right out of law school.

 

Three times a year for the past 14 years, the Maryland State Bar Association has held a seminar on how to start and build a law practice, says Patricia Yevics, director of Law Office Management Assistance for the bar. “It’s full every time,” she notes.

Over that time, Yevics has seen how member interest in solo practice has evolved. “[In 1993], people were going out on their own because there were no jobs at firms,” she explains. “Now, there are more people who really want to be solo practitioners. The younger attorneys, especially, are much more entrepreneurial from the get-go.”

The electronic water cooler

The biggest change Yevics has seen in that time, the one that has had the greatest impact on solo and small firm lawyers, has been the technology boom. “Technology has really leveled the playing field,” she says. “Clients are much more comfortable with using e-mail and cell phones.”

Linda Oligschlaeger, membership services director at the Missouri Bar, agrees. “Most lawyers are tech-savvy. They have their PDAs, cell phones, and laptops,” she says. “They have everything with them wherever they go. If they want to go home in the evening and spend time with their families, they can do that and do work whenever they want.”

Technology and a bit of technological help, in fact, is one of the best ways bars can connect with their solo members, leaders say. “The solo Listserv is one of the most active ones we have,” Yevics notes. “They find it invaluable. They share all kinds of information. We try to post as much as possible.”

Members focus much of their attention on technology-related topics, Yevics adds, including discussions of which software to use, or solving a particular issue with a program. “They act as each other’s help desk,” she says.

Other bars report similar popularity. Macy says the ABA’s Solosez Listserv has 2,500 members from across the country, earning it the nickname, “the electronic water cooler.” Larry Houchins, executive director of the Mississippi Bar says the solo Listserv is also among his bar’s most popular. “It allows them to electronically walk down the hall and ask a question,” he says.

Like many state bars, the Virginia State Bar recently launched an online legal research tool as a member benefit (it chose Fastcase), according to Tom Edmonds, the bar’s executive director. “A third of our members signed up, and it was predominantly small firms and solos,” he says. “We think we’ve helped a lot of people at this level.” (For more information on technical help for solos, see “Tech support: Bars help solos and small firm lawyers with technology,” page 21.)

Benefits, and connection

Tech aid certainly helps, but it’s just one piece of the membership puzzle for solo and small firm practitioners. “As I travel the country and ask them about what they need and why they get involved in the bar, it’s almost always connected to some benefit,” Macy says. “Whether it’s reduced cell phone rates or reduced high-speed Internet connections, they’re looking for some help.”

A Mississippi Bar task force report on solo and small firm practitioners came back with a direct request, Houchins says: “They said, ‘We need basic services. We don’t need another meeting to go to.’ ”

The Washoe County bar successfully added new solo and small firm members earlier this year with its new offering of general health insurance as a member benefit, according to Cendagorta. Now, she’s working on plans for four CLE events aimed specifically at solos—and free for new members—and a plan to offer solos a 16-month membership at a 12-month price.

While many solo and small firm practitioners are loathe to add another meeting to their schedules, that’s not the case for hundreds of lawyers in Missouri, according to Oligschlaeger. Her bar’s Solo and Small Firm Conference began in 1996 as a one-day “experiment” with 250 attendees and is now one of the most popular such conferences in the country, with attendance capped at 900 last year for the two-and-a-half-day event.

“It started with some practice management and quality of life issues. There was no CLE,” Oligschlaeger recalls. “It’s much more complex today. We cover practice management, technology, ethics—and a lot more substantive law issues,” including CLE events.

The Maryland state bar also has to cap attendance at its annual Solo and Small Firm Conference, Yevics says, but the bar is using a little technology to broaden the conference’s reach. “Last year was the first time we tried a podcast to let more members participate,” she says. “It was a huge success, so we’re going to do it again.”

The Virginia State Bar, says Edmonds, holds up to four small conference-like forums each year throughout the state that combine popular topics such as practice management with free CLE credit and a panel discussion featuring Edmonds, the bar’s chief counsel, and the state’s chief justice. One recent conference in the state capital of Richmond attracted about 700 members, while another 200 to 300 members in the state’s rural southwest participated via satellite television.

“Because the [state supreme] court expressed strong interest in these programs, they encouraged us to do it,” Edmonds says. “We’ve gotten good evaluations from solos.”

While usually not limited to solo and small firm lawyers, lawyer referral services can be a great way to attract them, because they tend to be the heaviest users of such a service, says Janet Diaz, executive director of the Houston Lawyer Referral Service.

“We’re just another marketing tool for an attorney,” she says. “Who wouldn’t want to belong to a bar association with a service that helps bring in essential fees?”

Another vital link between the bar and solo and small firm lawyers is provided by committees—many of which are growing quickly, or are just being launched by state and local bars.

Bar Association of Erie County (N.Y.) President Stephen Lamantia—a part-time solo himself—made reaching out to solos one of his major commitments in his presidential year, which ended in June.

“When I was running for office, I asked people, ‘What are the main concerns you have?’ ” he recalls. “So many of those responses were issues that dealt with being solos and small firm practitioners.” After developing programs and CLE devoted to that group, the bar is now exploring establishing a new committee devoted to solo and small firm issues.

With 1,300 members, the Maryland state bar’s Solo and Small Firm Practice Section is the bar’s fastest-growing section. In Missouri, the bar’s Solo and Small Firm Practice Committee is the bar’s largest committee.

Fighting negative perceptions

While committees, conferences, and CLE are all good things for solo and small firm practitioners, there is still plenty more that bar associations can do to reach those members, according to the widely regarded dean of solos, Jay Foonberg.

A veteran solo lawyer and the author of How to Start and Build a Law Practice (now in its fifth edition through ABA Publishing and available at www.abanet.org/abastore), Foonberg says bars need to “go out of their way” to make solos and small firm practitioners feel welcome.

“When the solo or small firm attorney comes to the annual meeting and sees the first 10 tables reserved for the large law firms, the message is, ‘We don’t want you small firms, we want the big firms,’ ” he says. “They have the perception that the bar only cares about the big firms.”

That is a perception and an image that many bars continue to fight.

“As a solo practitioner, I felt like a minority, but we’re actually in the majority,” Lamantia says. “It is a misconception that the bar is controlled by large firms. We do rely on the large firms for financial support—but five of the last six presidents of the Erie County bar were solos or from small firms.”

Bar leaders from large firms can be encouraging to fellow bar leaders from solo and small firms. Lamantia says he was somewhat leery about how he would be viewed by bar presidents from large firms at a statewide meeting. “But when I got to those meetings, I was treated as an equal,” he recalls.

Houchins believes it’s “an issue that will always be out there” among solos and small firm lawyers, but he says the Mississippi Bar has made inroads in that perception with more services and CLE programs. A well-received program, CLE on the Road, allows local lawyers—often solos in rural areas—to meet informally with state bar leaders the day before a CLE event.

Another contentious issue of perception for some solo and small firm lawyers is attorney discipline, with many believing that lawyers in large firms are less likely to be disciplined. Foonberg says that solos “need to be assured [by the bar] that they’re not picked on at disciplinary proceedings. They don’t have the resources to fight back.”

Edmonds says the Virginia State Bar has recognized this issue and has devoted more resources to law practice management and ethics education to help solo and small firm lawyers avoid disciplinary complaints.

But perhaps the best thing bars can provide to solo and small firm lawyers, Foonberg says, are practice management advisory services to assist them in running their practices. “They want help in getting and keeping clients,” he notes.

Yevics and Oligschlaeger say practice management assistance for solo and small firm lawyers is a key part of their jobs. “We’re the place for solo practitioners to call for help, or to tell them, ‘I know where to look,’ ” Yevics says. “We spend a lot of time helping them find the answer.”

The Missouri Bar, Oligschlaeger says, provides solos and small firms with practice management assistance in a variety of ways, including a lending library, information checklists, and help with writing a business plan, setting up office technology systems, partnership agreements, and succession planning (see “LPM programs: An inside look,” page 12, for more information about practice management assistance programs).

But as some bars have learned, services such as practice management assistance, benefit programs, and CLE are no guarantee of increased bar membership or participation among solo and small firm practitioners. Seemingly, there simply is no magic bullet.

The Mississippi Bar tried and abandoned an effort to establish a solo and small firm committee due to a lack of participation, Houchins says—solos meant it when they said, “No meetings.” Similar efforts to hold a conference also failed for lack of interest. “But we do talk about revisiting it,” he notes.

Macy, a member of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s board of governors, says the bar launched its Law Office Management Assistance Program in 2005 and recently hired a director, a decade after an attempt at a similar program failed. “It just didn’t work out then,” he says.

Cendagorta says she would like to offer more practice management assistance to solos and small firms, “but that’s expensive to offer. We’d have to hire someone.”

Solos and leadership

As Houchins has found, pitching bar involvement to solos can be a tough sell; consequently, while solo and small firm lawyers tend to dominate the membership rolls of state and local bars, they don’t always dominate the leadership roles. “It’s very difficult for a solo to be president of a bar association because of the time demands,” says Lamantia, who credits his semiretirement as a prime reason for his presidency.

With travel and all-day meetings being a part of the bar president’s job, Houchins says, “I’ve heard solos say, ‘That’s a whole day out of the office. I’m not making any money.’ ”

But Yevics says that in Maryland and in other states that are reaching out to solo and small firm lawyers, they can find plenty of leadership opportunities. She and others believe that large firm lawyers—many of whom are subject to large student loan debt and increasing billable hour requirements—are just as time-strapped as solos when it comes to bar activities.

The Missouri Bar, like many other state bars, has a governing board

that is divided into geographical districts, giving solo and small firm practitioners in rural areas an opportunity to serve in a leadership capacity, Oligschlaeger says.

While bars offer a variety of services, opportunities, and philosophies to reach out to solo and small firm lawyers, finding what works still remains a bit of a hit-or-miss mystery.

Just ask Christine Cendagorta.

“I don’t know why one group is joiners and comes to lunches and participates, while there are some who have been here for 30 years who don’t,” she says. “But we keep trying.”

 

BLOG? BLAWG? A GLIMPSE INTO SOLOS’ ONLINE WORLD

 

Solo and small firm practitioners—as well as bar association staff—can look to their computer screens to get legal information, practice tips, and personal insight into the world of solo and small firm lawyers.

Besides Listservs, blogs offer another technological avenue for lawyers and bar associations to explore via the Internet.

Sheryl Sisk Schelin, a solo in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., has six blogs, ranging from practice specialties to her “labor of love,” The Inspired Solo. That blog provides insights and anecdotes on practicing solo.

Schelin says that a prime purpose of the blogs is to promote her practice by getting her name out on the Internet. Blogs can be more effective than a static Web site, she says, because they often will appear higher on Internet search engines.

“What I get from [blogging]—besides its place as a centerpiece of my marketing plan—is the ability to carry on a conversation with potential clients, or to start one, at least,” she says. “I also love writing, in general. I enjoy the act of creating the blog posts.”

Blogs and the law were combined by lawyer Bill Gratsch to form Blawg, a clearinghouse of law-oriented blogs (also known generally as blawgs), podcasts, and news features.

“If you are a solo looking for other solos’ blawgs, you can simply browse the Solo Practice category. Similarly, if you are looking for legal technology tips and assistance, you can tap that Law Technology category,” Gratsch says. “You can search all of the posts of all of the blawgs for specific topics. There are over 100,000 posts being tracked via Blawg, so there is already a lot of searchable info, with more to come.”

A popular blog for solos and small firms is run by Jim Calloway, director of the Management Assistance Program at the Oklahoma Bar Association. The Washoe County (Nev.) Bar Association is just one bar that links to the blog via an RSS feed that provides constant updates for members.

Schelin says that local and state bar groups can take the lead in introducing lawyers to the technology behind blogs and assisting them in setting up their own. “A ‘Blogging 101’ introductory CLE could be successfully mounted during a lunchtime meeting,” she adds.

A selection of blogs and Web sites | www.blawg.com—An information clearinghouse, in addition to a blog. | www.inspiredsolo.wordpress.com—Sheryl Sisk Schelin’s “breath of fresh air” blog for solos, a place to relax for a few moments and learn something, too. | www.jimcalloway.typepad.com/lawpracticetips/—Jim Calloway’s blog provides a variety of tips, links, and sources of information, as well as an opportunity to subscribe to his feed. | www.myshingle.com—This Web site is geared toward solos and small firms and “boutique firms” that compete directly with large firms. | www.susancartierliebel.typepad.com/build_a_solo_practice/—Lawyer and consultant Susan Cartier Liebel offers blogs, posts, and a host of information aimed at helping lawyers start and build solo law practices. | www.compujurist.com—Nerino Petro, advisor to the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Law Office Management Assistance Program, offers practical advice and his own two cents on all aspects of running a law office. | www.reidtrautz.typepad.com/reidmyblog/—Among many other useful resources, this blog from practice management consultant, author, and speaker Reid Trautz offers an impressive listing of links to other helpful blogs and Web sites. | www.pa-lawpracticemanagement.com/—Pennsylvania-based practice management advisor Ellen Freedman delivers her advice with a distinctively funny voice.

 

—R.J.D. (Stephen P. Gallagher also contributed to this list.)

Advertisement

  • About Bar Leader

Twitter Bar Leader
  • Contact Us

Bar School: Customer Service: Telephone Etiquette

 

MAF Survey