The world has never been as small—or as populated—as it is right now. Practicing law as a solo or small firm is now the “in” way of practicing law, and solo and small firm lawyers’ flexibility and economies of scale have never been as important as they are right now. The American Bar Association General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division (GPSolo) has never reached out and included as many people, both those who pay dues and those who don’t, as it does right now.
Next month, GPSolo will hold its 25th annual Spring Meeting in the same venue where it held its first, back when Alan E. DeWoskin, my father, chaired the General Practice Section: St. Louis, Missouri. We’ve invited every living past chair to attend this meeting, and never before will as many past chairs be gathered in one place, at one time, to salute and celebrate GPSolo and what it represents.
In 1958, President Eisenhower proclaimed May 1, previously known as May Day, Law Day USA as an opportunity to honor the role of law in American society. Many bar associations use Law Day as an opportunity to reach out to the community, spreading the word about our legal heritage. The ABA Division for Public Education began offering its help to promote public understanding about the law, creating a theme each year for Law Day and publishing a planning guide. The 2011 Law Day theme is “The Legacy of John Adams, from Boston to Guantanamo”, and one sole practitioner from Ponca City, Oklahoma, mentioned in that lanning guide stands out, taking his place among these lawyers who represented William Freeman, the Haymarket 8, and the Scottsboro Boys—Brian Hermanson. At the expense of his private practice, he put together the team for the defense of Terry Nichols when the state of Oklahoma prosecuted him for his role in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and when he was finished, he went back to solo practice in Ponca City. What’s so special about that? Brian Hermanson was a longtime and very active member of GPSolo who went from leading a small firm to taking on a big world.
After years of taking a bad rap, solos and small firm lawyers are finally getting the respect they deserve. They’re no longer the Rodney Dangerfields of the legal profession. Solos and small firm lawyers have long known the benefits that their kind of practice delivers to their clients, themselves, and the community, but recognition by the legal profession of those benefits has come only recently. Sole practitioners have long been underrepresented in the ABA, and despite the ABA’s many efforts to bring them into the ranks of membership, they continue to be underrepresented in leadership positions. Many of them don’t like to deal with bar association politics, some feel that their contributions aren’t appreciated, and others sense that they’re knocking their heads up against that glass ceiling. For more than a few, bar leadership seems as relevant to their lives and practices as carbon paper and a cable address. A good number extend their focus beyond the horizon of a bar association calendar and leadership initiatives, reaching out instead among themselves in cybercommunities like SoloSez, leveraging social media, creating their own programs, and bucking the tide.
We all know that solos and small firm lawyers enjoy a level of flexibility that’s just not available to those who practice in law firms. They’re the early adopters not only of new technology but also of approaches to the practice of law. Technology has never been as accessible and affordable as it is right now, news travels faster than ever, and solos and small firm lawyers can change their course with ever-greater speed. Necessity breeds new approaches more efficiently than battalions of strategic planners who must navigate past management committees.
Taking off on the concept of the traveling garden gnome, Flat Stanley became a schoolchildren’s literacy project, where a cutout figure of Stanley Lambchop, a completely flat boy, was sent from one place in the world to another, gathering up information and reporting back on his experiences. Embarking on his adventures by ordinary snail mail, he now travels through the ether by e-mail and even as an iPhone app. Just as this one-man diplomatic corps made schoolchildren’s worlds smaller and more accessible, GPSolo can do the same for solos and small firm lawyers, making their practices across the globe appear as if they were all housed in a single skyscraper—or at least in the same neighborhood. And, just as Flat Stanley became more dimensional after his travels, so, too, can the solo and small firm lawyer.