Several years ago, when my husband was a first-year associate in the corporate department of a “big law” firm, he decided to follow a strong interest and begin training to do pro bono work with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (VLA), a nonprofit providing legal services and advocacy for the arts community. One evening as he was preparing to leave the office for a training session, he was cornered by a partner who wished to speak with him about a work assignment. While they were speaking, my husband explained that he was leaving for VLA training. The partner looked at him with surprise and disdain and said, “I thought you were a first year.”
A couple of years later, another family member who was a junior associate at a big firm attempted to follow her passion and volunteer to take underprivileged children on field trips around New York City. The trips were on weekends, and she was generally able to participate. However, the organization held occasional mandatory meetings for the volunteers that were always scheduled for 5:30 pm. My relative could never commit to leaving work early for these meetings, and she let the organization know that she was unable to attend them. The coordinator was stunned. “Can’t you tell your boss you’re leaving early one day?” the coordinator asked. My relative regrettably said no, and she was fired from the volunteer service. Fired! From a volunteer position she loved and that was of great benefit to the community she served, just because she was always afraid to leave her “big law” job in time for a 5:30 meeting.
As for me, in the early days I didn’t even try to commit to regular community service. As a junior associate in a big law firm, I did some pro bono work and occasional (rare) other volunteering, but for the most part I was too committed to my schedule and worried about doing my job satisfactorily. A regular commitment to volunteer service was out of the question.
Later, after I had my two daughters, I worked a reduced-hours schedule for an intellectual property firm. Regular volunteering was difficult, but I found ways to work it into my life—I served as a nature guide in each of their kindergarten classes, I was team mom for the soccer team, etc. These activities kept me involved with my children but otherwise did not hold tremendous meaning for me. (In fact, I was unable to attend training sessions for the nature guide program because of my work schedule, so I served mostly as an assistant to my more knowledgeable parent co-volunteer.)
I became a solo attorney in late 2009, and it has been a wonderful experience for me. There are many reasons why I love the change, but of particular meaning to me is my ability to undertake outside projects on my schedule (for the most part), including my new participation on the board of directors of a children’s and community theater program.
The organization, now known as Clocktower Players, was founded in the 1970s in Irvington, New York, a quiet suburban community in Westchester County, about 25 miles north of midtown Manhattan. At the time, the founders put back into use a 400-seat theater on the top floor of Irvington Town Hall that had been built at the turn of the twentieth century. After about 30 years of running community and children’s theater, the organization hired Cagle McDonald in 2006 to be the new artistic director.
I had known McDonald since 2002; prior to this new position, she ran a small children’s theater group based in a neighboring town, and both my daughters were participants in the program. When that closed, they were happy to follow McDonald to her new home at Irvington Town Hall Theater. But my role was limited to attending and sometimes ushering performances, chauffeuring, and occasionally behaving like a stage mom.
Then in summer 2010 I was approached by McDonald to join the group’s board. I had launched my solo practice about six months earlier. And despite the hard work and challenges associated with being solo (literally on my own—I lack even administrative or paralegal help), I had already discovered the joys of the flexibility associated with being my own boss. I was tremendously interested in becoming more involved with Clocktower Players, but I was nervous about the level of commitment that would be required. I attended an information session for prospective board members and immediately realized that this was where I wanted to put my community volunteer efforts. I already knew several members of the board as well as McDonald and the employees of the organization. Everyone was very welcoming to me as a prospect. Plus, I really cared about the cause—advancing this local children’s and community theater program. And I had a sense that it would be manageable within my schedule.
How do I serve the program? Some of the activities are unrelated to my practice as a lawyer, such as acting as the “front-of-house manager” for performances and soliciting advertisements for the program booklet accompanying the Clocktower’s Annual Gala held each October. Other tasks give me the opportunity to call on my skills as an attorney and an intellectual property practitioner.
It is indeed the case that being a solo attorney has enabled me to devote more time to this work that has meaning for me. It comes down to flexibility—even if I get very busy with work, I can usually still find the time for my board duties (and other activities and commitments) by rebalancing the times that I am working. Without the need to put in face time with a boss and co-workers, I have the freedom to do just that.
Volunteering Tips for Solos
- Choose wisely. Put your time into a project or organization that has meaning for you, not just to further your practice. If it helps you build business, great. But you are probably already involved in bar committees, so grab an opportunity to take on something meaningful to you, whether or not it is in your professional area.
- Know your limits. Avoid taking on tasks that are more than you can handle or outside your area of expertise.
- Step back if needed. Everyone needs to miss a board meeting or other event from time to time. Accept that you will have conflicts and try to prioritize. Even with the flexibility of a solo, you can’t do it all.