BEING SOLO: Best Practice Tips from the Last Ten Years

Volume 29 Number 5

By

David Leffler is a member of the New York City business and litigation law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC and spends his time between NYC and Baltimore, Maryland. He previously was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years.

 

Yes, it’s true. I’ve been writing this column for ten years. My first column came out in the October/November 2002 edition of GPSolo magazine. That was the same year that the U.S. Congress authorized the Iraq war and created the Department of Homeland Security.

I remember in the early summer of 2002, jennifer j. rose, then editor-in-chief of GPSolo, sent me an e-mail asking if I was interested in writing a column about solo law practice. As I was a lawyer in solo practice, I figured that this would be easy to write about but truly doubted if I could come up with enough material beyond one or two years. Turns out I came up with enough ideas to keep the column going a bit longer than that.

During these ten years I haven’t gotten a single call from the media for interviews (although some state bar associations have requested permission to reprint my columns, which I was happy to give). No one has set up an online account to raise money for me like that elderly lady bus monitor who was insulted by the kids on her school bus. Worse, after I bared my soul to the world that I’m crazy about chocolate brownies (“Living Well,” April/May 2009), no one sent me any brownies.

But then, I’m not writing this column for fame or fortune or to show up in Google searches. Justin Bieber.

No, I’m reaching out to those hardworking solo attorneys who sometimes need a better (and cheaper) way of doing things, or who need to approach their law practice with a fresh perspective, or who just need a bit of encouragement.

On occasion, I do get an e-mail from a reader thanking me for my suggestions and ideas. My most touching letter was from a woman who had read the “Living Well” column I cited above. She thanked me for my “good advice” and said that she wished that she had known this information a long time ago because she tends to learn things the hard way. She expressed the hope that “maybe someone will actually read it and not have to learn the hard way.”

That certainly was very gratifying.

Over the ten years that I have written this column, I have found that solo attorneys are:

Extraordinary. Despite hard times in the practice, stressful personal issues, minimal support staff (if any), slow-paying and non-paying clients, and being the one and only place where the buck stops, most solo lawyers still maintain their professionalism and get done what needs to get done.

Dedicated. A solo attorney will go far for his or her clients, sacrificing personal time when a client is in need and risking his or her own personal finances by cutting fees or stretching out payment terms for a client who has fallen on hard times.

Resourceful. With limited resources, solo attorneys still serve their clients well.

Brave. Unfortunately, some lawyers have paid the ultimate price when a husband in a divorce case decides to vent his anger at his wife’s lawyer with a gun. A solo lawyer is particularly vulnerable in this regard.

Good citizens. I know solo lawyers who sit on boards of nonprofit organizations, coach little league, join community boards, and get involved with a host of other activities to benefit their communities, all on a volunteer basis and all without another lawyer back at the office to cover for them. I’d say that is pretty remarkable.

 

The Best of Being Solo

When I look back at my columns, I see that I pretty much have written in four different areas: practice management, technology, soft skills (human skills), and interview columns where I discussed topics of interest with practicing solo lawyers. Here, for your reading pleasure, are some that I think are the best:

Practice Management:

  • In “How to Improve Your Financial Health When Clients Don’t Pay” (October/November 2007), I describe the details of the five stages that slow-paying clients experience, which remarkably are the same as the five stages of death described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Then I lay out techniques for getting paid and avoiding the bad-paying clients in the first place.
  • Plug Those Revenue Leaks!” (April/May 2011) covers all of those practices in which you engage without knowing it that lower your firm’s revenue, such as charging below-market rates, spending too much time on non-billable tasks that can be delegated, not billing all your hours, lowballing flat fees, and taking on clients that will never pay you or will negotiate your invoice down to rates below what a summer lifeguard makes. I smash to bits all of the preconceived notions that support these types of behavior.
  • Become a Marketing Guru in Under Ten Minutes” (October/November 2010) was a lot of fun to write. I created an imaginary three-person law firm, Klew, Les & Laust, struggling over marketing their law practice. One partner leads the discussion, another partner follows, and the third keeps coming up with ideas like getting pens with the firm’s name on them. Coincidentally, being a member of a three-member law firm myself now, my law partners wanted to know which of them was the basis of this third character. I told them it was a “composite,” but they never did seem to believe me.

    Technology:

    • Although some of my technology writings over the past ten years are still relevant, a lot of what I wrote was from the era of Windows XP (remember that?), so we’ll skip a detailed list here. I was fairly prescient, however, in predicting in my December 2003 column that broadband Internet access was a must, or would be soon, and predicting in my December 2005 column that video conferencing soon would become commonplace, both in our personal lives and business lives, as it is now with Skype and many other services.

    Soft Skills:

    • How to Feng Shui Your Law Office” (July/August 2010) gave complete instructions on how to do exactly what the title says. Talk about getting value from GPSolo magazine—you otherwise would have had to spend hundreds of dollars to hire someone to do the same thing.
    • From Lawyer to Novelist, Astronaut, and Secret Agent” (January/February 2011). Need a distraction? Want to really get away from it all (as in traveling into outer space)? This article will give you some excellent ideas.
    • The Zelinsky Code” (July/August 2006) was an entire mystery that I wrote as a takeoff on the novel The Da Vinci Code. It contained six principles by which a lawyer could maintain both a practice and a life.

    Interviews:

    • In “Two Years after the End of the World” (April/May 2010), I reported on my discussions with solo lawyers across the country on how they were surviving after the financial crisis of 2008. There were some very touching stories of solos making it, notwithstanding the challenges.
    • Pets in the Office” (July/August 2009) is exactly what you think it is about. I included more than a dozen interviews with lawyers who keep pets in their offices, including one who had an African Grey Parrot. In my interviews I explore the benefits and the burdens of keeping furry things in one’s place of business.
    • One Lawyer’s Journey to Happiness and Health South of the Border” (January/February 2012) was another fun column to write. Jim Karger is a lawyer who in 2001, after 25 years of being a lawyer in the United States, sold his house in Dallas and moved to Mexico. He continues to practice in Mexico with clients in the United States, and he must travel some, but basically he is thrilled that he made the decision. He also dropped 60 pounds and is in the best shape of his life—at 60 years old.

     

    And Finally . . .

    I’ve enjoyed writing this column, but it’s time for me to unhitch my horse and ride off into the sunset. It seems to have gotten harder and harder to fit writing this column into my schedule. I wouldn’t want to write anything but a good column, and that takes time. So better I say my adieus now with a happy face than all stressed out trying to fit more hours into a day.

    I’d like to thank jennifer j. rose for giving me this opportunity. It’s been a great ride. And lastly, it has been a real privilege to write this column, and I hope that you have found some benefit in reading it.

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