Imagine with me for a moment, just as in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, what the lives of those in our profession would have been like if the thousands of attorneys contributing to our welfare as solo and small firm attorneys had never taken the time and given their efforts.
People interpret what happens to them only in the context of their own circumstances.
In viewing the five decades of the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division (originally the Section of General Practice), what should we say about the birth, growth, adolescence, maturity, and middle age of our organization? How should we describe our history? Do things change or stay the same?
In his “President’s Page” column for the December 1961 issue of the American Bar Association Journal, ABA President John C. Satterfield wrote:
For a number of years there has been a substantial feeling among members of the American Bar Association that there is a need for a Section on General Practice—one beamed toward the individual practitioner and “small town lawyer”. At its August meeting the Board of Governors created a special committee to study the desirability of creating a Section of General Practice. John D. Randall, past President of the Association, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is chairman of this Committee and acted as chairman of an open meeting at St. Louis when the problem was fully discussed by Association members from all parts of the United States.
President Satterfield went on to state that the Committee voted to recommend the creation of a Section of General Practice. The statement of purpose was approved. The subjects of interest and concern to general practitioners were listed as follows:
- Role and importance of the general practitioner
- Relation of the general practitioner to the specialist
- Basic as distinguished from specific law and procedure in specific fields
- Meeting competition of new lawyers
- Ethical problems of practice
- Key case discussions in various fields
- New reference works and text
- Legislative news
- Basic trial techniques
- Current legal literature of the general practice
- Law office operations including accounting, client interview techniques, economics, tax saving techniques, etc.
- The psychology of law practice
The proposed Section was considered supplementary to existing Sections. It was hoped that it would be a vehicle to interest its members in becoming members of other Sections, and to attract non-members of the ABA to become members. Above all, the main goal of the Section was to recognize the solo or small firm practitioner as a valuable contributor to the work of the organized bar.
Although the idea behind a Section of General Practice was a sound one, not everyone in the organized bar was in favor of it. Many of the ABA leaders were from large cities and large firms.
Oscar Fendler, Section Chairman 1966–1967, recalls John Randall’s role in helping the Section overcome the opposition presented by members of large-city firms: “Without somebody who had the power and prestige of a former ABA president, we never would have gotten off the ground.”
Ultimately, the opposition was small when compared to the enthusiasm that greeted the concept. By May 1962, 1,200 ABA members had signed charter memberships before the Section was officially organized. Because of the large number of prospective applicants, the Committee’s proposal to establish a Section of General Practice was unanimously approved by the ABA Board of Governors. The House of Delegates approved the action on August 6, 1962, and the next day the new Section held its first organizational meeting in the Nob Hill Theatre of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel.
Growth and Development
The Section of General Practice was created for the independent lawyers, or what Oscar Fendler called “the county seat lawyers.” One of the early goals was to “create a home for the solo practitioner and the lawyer in a small firm so that when they came to the Annual Meetings, they would feel that they were a part of the ABA, not just on the sidelines.” In other words, the voice of the Main Street Lawyer would be heard in the American Bar Association. Whenever this goal was followed, success was not far behind.
In addition to the small firm lawyers, young lawyers in the larger firms were also recruited. The Section offered them a chance to be recognized and participate in the organized bar. It also set out to attract minority and women lawyers.
Membership grew right from the start. Many members were obtained through individuals on the Committee contacting other attorneys and by notices published in ABA periodicals. The Section increased its membership by having lawyers recruit other lawyers. By the following year, membership figures stood at 1,700, and two years later they nearly doubled to 3,200. In 1970 that figure grew to 9,200, and in 1982 it stood at more than 17,000. The membership numbers dipped slightly for several years, then increased again to 21,700 by 2002, and to more than 37,000 today.
The Section did not take long to establish its reputation for representing the unrepresented. It spoke out on behalf of the general practitioner on many of the controversial issues of the legal profession, including specialization, group legal services, legal aid, no-fault insurance, and utilization of lay assistants.
The 1970s saw Section leaders such as Frederick G. Fisher Jr. and Harry Wright III carrying out this tradition of shaping and communicating the Section’s goals. The Section worked through the House of Delegates to protect the place of the small town and small firm lawyer within the organized bar.
The Section represented the interests of the small firm practitioner as it opposed new rules to limit ancillary business activities. Other actions include the 1978 appropriation of $25,000 to hire an expert to evaluate the pilot programs of the Legal Services Corporation, moving some of this funding into Judicare-type programs requiring the use of private lawyers.
In 1990 the Section garnered support and funding for an ABA Task Force on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners. The Task Force researched the special needs and concerns of these lawyers and worked to implement its recommendations. In 1995 the Task Force on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners became the Standing Committee on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners.
Owing to the work of Section officers Dennis W. Archer, John A. Krsul Jr., Donald C. Rikli, and me, the ABA in 1990 adopted Model Rule 1.17 (Sale of Law Practice), which allowed sole practitioners to sell their practices. Afterward, Rikli continued the fight to adopt the rule in all 50 states. He contacted and urged sole practitioners in each state to lobby the individual bars and supreme courts to adopt the rule. Today, 43 statewide jurisdictions allow the sale of law practice rule or ethics opinions.
As Rikli’s state-by-state advocacy shows, the Section’s lobbying efforts extended beyond the ABA itself. In 1969 the Division was able to prohibit lawyers from working with a “closed panel” beyond what constitutional law requires. That same year it created the Committee on Problems of the General Practitioner in Urban Neighborhoods. And in 1974 the Division conducted a survey to pinpoint delays in appellate procedures and suggest ways to streamline them.
The Section was also the driving force behind adoption of legislation permitting attorneys representing veterans before the Veterans Administration to be paid reasonable fees, as well as efforts to further enable multi-jurisdictional practice.
One of the Section’s most far-reaching federal lobbying achievements—the passage and signing into law of Public Law 98-473—itself began with advocacy for an internal ABA initiative: ABA Resolution 117. During the 1980–1981 Bar Year, the Section of General Practice became aware of a growing crisis of inadequate compensation for court-appointed attorneys in criminal matters at both the state and federal levels. No one can afford to practice law without compensation or with compensation that barely covers overhead—least of all the general practitioner who is, in the main, a solo or small firm lawyer. The rates for court-appointed attorneys had remained unchanged since their adoption in 1970, while at the same time the cost of living had risen by 168.4 percent. The hourly rate for court-appointed attorneys was still pegged at $30 for court time and $20 otherwise.
In response, I drafted and presented Resolution 117 to the Section Council; the Section then introduced Resolution 117 and achieved passage by the ABA House of Delegates, calling on all involved governmental agencies to meet the crisis by increasing compensation to ensure funding adequate to provide effective assistance of counsel.
The Section then obtained sponsorship for federal legislation in the form of H.R. 4307, which was introduced by Representative Robert W. Kastenmeier of Wisconsin in November 1983. The entire effort almost failed because our bill was linked to a broader bill dealing with attorney fees, which was sponsored by others and opposed by the Reagan Administration. But with the unrelenting efforts of the Section’s Federal Legislation Committee, particularly Philip Jones, Gary Slaiman, and Walter Sheble, we were able to “de-link” our bill and secure 11th-hour passage.
Our efforts culminated on October 12, 1984, when President Ronald Reagan signed into law Public Law 98-473, which doubled the rates for court-appointed attorneys to $60 per hour for court time and $40 per hour otherwise, and also doubled the maximum fees. The bill raised the attorney compensation scale in felony cases from $1,000 to $5,000 and from $400 to $1,500 in misdemeanors.
Although no one recognized it at the time, ABA Resolution 117, encouraging states and Congress to adequately fund criminal defense for indigents, went on to have a significant impact—financial and otherwise—for thousands of lawyers in our country. Millions of dollars were earned by attorneys in both federal and state jurisdictions and continue to be earned to this day as a result of our efforts. This success is one of which we can be justly proud; it is one that will redound to the benefit of our members and all lawyers who are assigned to federal criminal defenses in the future.
Section to Division
By 2004, the value of the Section—in 1996 renamed the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section—had become clear to the larger ABA. According to the ABA Standing Committee on Membership in its November 2004 presentation to the Board of Governors, the third-highest perceived value of importance to lawyers was “support solos,” only following “CLE” and “advocacy for the profession.”
In fall 2004 the Board of Governors decided to defund the Standing Committee on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners and to designate the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section as the home of the solo and small firm attorney. The Section reconsidered its status as a Section and had to determine how best to continue to serve this fastest-growing segment of the American legal community.
The Section appointed a task force to investigate the matter, and it recommended that the Section formally seek Division status. By becoming a Division within the American Bar Association, it could work more cooperatively with ABA Sections in serving solo and small firm practitioners without being viewed as the competition, and it could greatly expand the association’s membership by seeking crossover partnerships with the various substantive law Sections. This action sent a clear message to the solo and small firm lawyer population, both within and outside the ABA, that the Association cares about this underrepresented population and has created a Division to assist in meeting its needs. The Section officially became a Division in August 2005.
General practice, solo, and small firm lawyers are not the Division’s only focus, however. The Division is also the home of the military lawyer, as well as the immigration lawyer, the gaming lawyer, and those serving on the judiciary or in corporate counsel positions. As home of the Main Street Lawyers, the Division draws its members from practices involving sophisticated clientele in New York to those representing ordinary folk in rural areas. Members range from those practicing in large firms with support staff to lawyers working in home offices with no staff.
Value for Members
The Division is dedicated to providing the practical tools, programs, publications, and resources that its members need to remain competitive, prosper, and succeed. The Division sponsored its first CLE program in 1966 at the ABA Annual Meeting. It now offers more than 60 CLE programs each year, with subjects ranging from “Bankruptcy for Non-Bankruptcy Lawyers” to “60 Tech Tips in 60 Minutes” to “Setting Up a Law Firm.” In an effort to expand the reach of its CLE offerings to solos and small firms nationwide, the Division in 2006 launched the National Solo & Small Firm Conference, an annual event held in conjunction with the Division’s Fall Meeting. This gathering allows the Division to coordinate with local and state bar associations to present a wide range of CLE and other programs geared especially for solos and small firm lawyers, with a wide variety of participants from outside the Division and the ABA. The Division has also begun making these programs accessible online for the convenience of its members. In 2011 the Division webcasted 49 programs from the National Solo & Small Firm Conference, allowing members to participate without traveling to the meeting. In addition to such webcasted programs, the Division produces roughly 12 teleconference a year.
The Division also gives its members benefits that they can hold in their hands—publications providing insight into the latest developments and trends related to their practices. The Section Council discussed what type of books and periodicals it would publish during its very first meeting in San Francisco 50 years ago.
The Division’s book program has grown since it began in 1967 with a series of monographs on practice and substantive law subjects. The program picked up steam in 1985 when a new Publication Development Committee was formed. To date, the Division has published more than 40 books on a variety of subjects. Highlights include the Division’s Survivor Guide series, Mastering Voir Dire, Going to Trial, HIPAA for the General Practitioner, and Estate Planning for Same-Sex Couples, which won the Benjamin Franklin Award in 2005 for excellence in the gay and lesbian book category. The book program provides a robust source of non-dues revenue for the Division, and it has become one of the ABA’s most profitable entity book programs.
Periodicals have been a focus of the Division almost since its inception. In addition to GPSolo and its predecessors, the Division has published a host of newsletters, both print and electronic. (For more, see the sidebar “The Magazine Through the Years” below.)
The Division also hosts SoloSez, the ABA’s most active online community, which debuted in 1996 under the auspices of the Standing Committee on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners, and it now numbers nearly 2,700 subscribers, both ABA members and non-members. This e-mail list, which refers to itself as the “largest law firm in the world,” has developed its own legends, history, and culture and is unique in its participants’ fellowship and dedication to the promotion of solo and small firm lawyers.
This year the Division was instrumental in launching the new online Solo and Small Firm Resource Center. The Center aggregates content related to solo and small firms from across the ABA entities and a host of other online resources.
The Division’s many Committees are another source of value for members. The 40 substantive Committees range from juvenile law to immigration and taxation and offer members the opportunity to gain specialized information to enhance their expertise and collaborate with others sharing their interests. Committees also help plan many of the Division’s publications and CLE programs. The 25 administrative Committees ranging from bylaws to technology have set policy for the operation of the Division.
The Division has a long tradition of giving back to the community through its many public service initiatives, which provide members with opportunities to do hands-on volunteer work. Initiatives have included “Tolerance Through Education,” a turnkey program specially designed for lawyers to deliver tolerance education in third-grade classrooms, and our current initiative that partners the Division with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) to offer pro bono services to unrepresented children, some as young as three years old, facing deportation proceedings. In addition to such pro bono services, Division programs have also sought to lend a hand to the next generation of lawyers. Our law student program “How to Get a Job in a Small Law Firm” has been presented at many of the local universities throughout the nation. These are but a few of the many pro bono and mentoring programs the Division has spearheaded in its 50 years.
Recognition and Outreach
The Division has been at the forefront in recognizing the contributions of lawyers from diverse backgrounds of color, gender, disability, and sexual orientation—as exemplified by the establishment of the Diversity Fellowship Program in 1999. In 2006 the Young Lawyers Fellowship Program was introduced to promote and encourage the participation of young lawyers. Through its annual Solo and Small Firm Awards program, the Division has recognized dedication to the practice of law by general practitioners, solos, and small firm lawyers, bar leaders, and associations. Award categories include Lifetime Achievement, Solo and Small Firm Project, and Solo and Small Firm Trainer. In addition, the Division’s annual Difference Makers Award recognizes extraordinary lawyers who make a difference by breaking down barriers for women, people of color, and people with disabilities, and regardless of sexual orientation.
The names of the 50 Chairs of this Division can be found in the sidebar below. Through the years, many leaders of the ABA—secretaries, treasurers, and presidents—have come from the ranks of the GPSolo Division. The Division’s officers, council, committee leaders, and membership have been at the core of the success of the Division. Its members are active in their state and local bar associations. Many Division members are in the ABA House of Delegates. As a personal aside, let me note the fact that history was made in 2010 when my son Joseph A. DeWoskin became Chair of the Division, making us the only father-son Chairs in the Division’s five-decade history.
50 and Going Strong
As the Division celebrates its 50th anniversary, it has grown in size and influence. The Division continues to make the voice of the solo and small firm practitioner heard clearly among the organized bar. The General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division chooses to remember how it all began 50 years ago. And it remembers that it was built on the concept of service to its members on Main Street.
John D. Randall Jr. (1962–1963)
V. P. Crowe (1963–1964)
Robert T. Barton Jr. (1964–1965)
Philip H. Lewis (1965–1966)
Oscar Fendler (1966–1967)
Robert W. Merrill (1967–1968)
William J. Fuchs (1968–1969)
Richard H. Allen Sr. (1969–1970)
Robert C. Ward (1970–1971)
Clarence Ben Dutton (1971–1972)
Kirk M. McAlpin (1972–1973)
Cullen Smith (1973–1974)
Frederick G. Fisher Jr. (1974–1975)
James J. Bierbower (1975–1976)
Harry Wright III (1976–1977)
William M. Power (1977–1978)
John J. Thomason (1978–1979)
Leonard H. Gilbert (1979–1980)
Seth Rosner (1980–1981)
E. C. Ward (1981–1982)
A. B. Conant Jr. (1982–1983)
R. William Ide III (1983–1984)
John C. Feirich (1984–1985)
Alan E. DeWoskin (1985–1986)
David S. Baker (1986–1987)
Dennis W. Archer (1987–1988)
John R. DeBarr (1988–1989)
John A. Krsul Jr. (1989–1990)
Donald C. Rikli (1990–1991)
Earle Forrest Lasseter (1991–1992)
Cameron C. Gamble (1992–1993)
Wesley P. Hackett Jr. (1993–1994)
Allan J. Tanenbaum (1994–1995)
John W. Clark Jr. (1995–1996)
Robert R. Wright III (1996–1997)
Michael Earl Massie (1997–1998)
Florencio (Larry) Ramirez (1998–1999)
Sharon C. Stevens (1999–2000)
Wynn Gunderson (2000–2001)
George R. Ripplinger Jr. (2001–2002)
Karen J. Mathis (2002–2003)
William T. Hogan III (2003–2004)
Lee S. Kolczun (2004–2005)
Dwight L. Smith (2005–2006)
John P. Macy (2006–2007)
Keith B. McLennan (2007–2008)
Robert A. Zupkus (2008–2009)
James M. Durant III (2009–2010)
Joseph A. DeWoskin (2010–2011)
Laura V. Farber (2011–2012)
The Magazine Through the Years
The magazine you hold in your hands is just the latest in a long line of periodicals stretching back almost to the founding of the Division.
The initial publication of the Section of General Practice, a newsletter called Law Notes for the General Practitioner, was created as a joint publication of the Section of General Practice and what was then known as the Junior Bar Conference of the American Bar Association (later the Young Lawyers Section, and then Division), with members of both Sections receiving identical issues beginning in October 1964. Each subject area had an editor from both Sections. Each issue had two separate cover sheets, one featuring news of the Section of General Practice and sent to its members, and the other directed to members of Young Lawyers. This format continued until February 1974, when the Young Lawyers introduced Barrister magazine, which included Law Notes (renamed Law Practice Notes) as an insert.
Shortly thereafter the Young Lawyers Section leadership determined that, because of financial considerations, the size of Law Practice Notes should be reduced from 32 pages. With the hope that such drastic action would only be temporary, the Section of General Practice correspondingly decreased the number of pages in Law Notes in order to preserve the identical publications. However, after a year it became obvious that Law Practice Notes would not be expanded. Because the publication of Law Notes had been shown to be a vital service to general practitioners, the newsletter’s size was increased to the original 32 pages. For the first time, members of Young Lawyers were unable to receive a complete collection of important “how-to” and practical legal articles without also being members of the Section of General Practice.
Potential articles for Law Notes came from several sources: unsolicited manuscripts, articles requested by Law Notes editors, and articles previously published in journals of limited circulation, such as state bar journals. All materials were reviewed by the appropriate subject-area editors and the senior editors. Often significant editorial changes or rewrites were made, and the article rejection rate was approximately 70 percent. Articles were selected from inventory for a particular issue based on timeliness and subject mix.
The Section initiated a second publication, Docket Call, in July 1966. Docket Call was first begun as a one-page letter, typewritten and printed on the front and back, with various news items for Section members. By early 1967 Docket Call had expanded to an eight-page, typeset newsletter. The December 1969 issue was 16 pages, and by September 1971 it was up to 32 pages. In early 1974, Docket Call was redesigned and printed in two colors on glossy paper, with art and photos accompanying articles.
In 1984 Docket Call and Law Notes were woven into a new publication, The Compleat Lawyer. The title, a play on Izaak Walton’s 1653 classic book The Compleat Angler, represented the perspective of the Section of General Practice and the scope of the publication. The transition to the new publication was the result of extensive research into the wants and needs of Section members. The goal was a quarterly magazine that would combine articles on legal developments with practice management advice and updates on the work of the Section. In 1995 jennifer j. rose took over the reins of The Compleat Lawyer, beginning an acclaimed 13-year run as Editor-in-Chief that saw the magazine reach new heights. Under her leadership the magazine became more highly focused on the needs of solo and small firm practitioners.
In 1997 two additional magazines were added to the roster. First, to help fulfill the Section’s role as a gateway to the ABA’s various practice-area Sections, Best of ABA Sections magazine was created, presenting digested versions of articles from a variety of the ABA’s leading periodicals. Next, the Division launched the Technology and Practice Guide, providing practice management advice and nuts-and-bolts technology tips. Both these new magazines were published twice a year.
In 1998 it was decided to combine all three magazines under a single publication name. Much as Docket Call and Law Notes had been combined to create The Compleat Lawyer, now Best of ABA Sections, Technology and Practice Guide, and The Compleat Lawyer were placed under the unified masthead of GP Solo & Small Firm Lawyer. The new magazine was published eight times a year; the four issues that had been The Compleat Lawyer now alternated with two issues each of Best of ABA Sections and Technology and Practice Guide. In 2000 the name of the magazine was changed to GPSolo.
Finally, this year it was decided to combine the contents of these three, still-distinct publications, so that every issue of GPSolo would contain not only themed content that might once have been found in The Compleat Lawyer, but also technology article and digested reprints. At the same time, the publication frequency was changed to a standard, bimonthly schedule of six issues per year. A complete redesign of the magazine’s look will debut later this year.
In addition to the periodicals that eventually became incorporated into GPSolo, the Division has also produced a wealth of other newsletters, including News for the General Practitioner, Client Update, The Briefcase, and SOLO. In 2002 the Division produced its first e-newsletter, Technology eReport, soon to be joined by Law Trends and News, New Lawyer, and The Buzz. In 2011 the Division combined the contents of its disparate electronic publications (which now included SOLO) into a single e-newsletter, GPSolo eReport.
The tradition of producing informative, award-winning periodicals stretches back to the founding of the Section of General Practice, and the Division looks forward to continuing this tradition into the future, in whatever format and using whatever technology members find most useful.
Parts of this sidebar are based on “As the Section Grows, Publications Keep Members Informed,” Docket Call, Summer 1982.