Thinking of Going Solo? Think Carefully

Volume 40 Number 1

By

About the Author

Jennifer Ator is an employment litigation attorney and mediator at Hankins & Ator, P.L. in Miami Springs, FL. She often speaks and writes about practice management issues and is a member of the LPM Publishing Board and LPM Council.

Law Practice Magazine | January/February 2014 | The Management IssueOUR LAW PRACTICE DIVISION (LP) spends a lot of time and resources working to service the sole practitioner attorney, or solo. Certainly, the practice management techniques that LP teaches can be very helpful to lawyers once they have committed to opening or improving their solo practices. The first service LP can offer is assistance to make an informed decision. So this column is a friendly reminder to look before you leap and discusses three important challenges that accompany the rewards of solo practice. First, being a solo can be a lonely existence. Second, as a solo lawyer you must work harder to find people to bounce things off of or brainstorm with. Finally, being a solo means you have to take care of all the business side of lawyering yourself. There is no one with whom to share the burden.

I have watched a lot of my friends at BigLaw wring their hands over the prospect of going solo. Once they eventually made the leap of faith, they were glad they did. But, in my view, their happiness stemmed from the fact that they didn’t actually spend that long as a “true” solo lawyer, they didn’t treat their practice like a solo practice and they eventually set up firms that were not structured that much differently than their larger firm practice. Why?

IT’S CALLED FLYING SOLO FOR A REASON

As a solo practitioner, when you have a big victory or breakthrough, you don’t have anyone in the office with whom to celebrate. No one sees you spike the proverbial football in your office in exaltation or fling your phone across the room in frustration (although the latter might be a good thing). When you have an employee problem, it’s all on you to craft a resolution. Coming to an empty office every day and facing your very full inbox is never fun, but it’s even less so when there’s no one there who can relate to your frustration and inspire you to divide and conquer.

When you want to vent about how unfairly another lawyer or a judge has treated you, you have to tell your goldfish or—if you even have one—your secretary. While they may listen and offer sympathy, they can’t give the kind of feedback and validation a fellow attorney can. If you are not comfortable with being alone, having a solo practice may not be for you.

FLYING SOLO MEANS NO COPILOT OR NAVIGATOR

Once you’ve gotten past the loneliness, a solo practitioner faces a disadvantage from the lack of readily available collaborators. Two heads are almost always better than one, and a well-functioning team working together will generate a synergy when its collective work is greater than the sum of what its members could produce working on their own.
A team of lawyers vetting a legal issue has far more experience and creativity to draw upon than a single lawyer. When you are solo, you don’t have the advantage of taking suggestions, considering different options and hearing about experiences of fellow lawyers.

Those experiences span beyond discussions of what claim you should bring. They can also leverage knowledge about the strengths, weaknesses and tendencies of your opposing counsel, or the judge, or even how best to handle a difficult client. As a BigLaw practitioner considering the jump, do not underestimate the value of the collaboration you experience with the attorney in the next office or down the hall.

Collaboration even benefits the smallest details. At my second job as a lawyer, there was a policy that nothing went out the door without two lawyers reviewing it for typographical errors. While some typos still managed to get by us, we certainly caught our share on the second reading. It was, and still is, a good policy—and being solo does not provide that same luxury.

WHEN YOU FLY SOLO, YOU PUMP YOUR OWN GAS

At BigLaw, when the phones and Internet are down, you get to yell at your telecommunications department and then sit around and grumble until they’re fixed. When you’re solo, you get to cancel everything you’d planned for the day and spend your (billable) hours waiting for AT&T. In all my years at BigLaw, I never had to write a check for the water bill. That’s yet another privilege reserved for a solo practitioner.

There are a lot of document/case management companies out there, such as Rocket Matter, Clio, HoudiniEsq and VLOTech. Keeping all my information in the cloud seems too risky to me. It’s bad enough that I keep my email, and my billing and time software in the cloud. I would rather just place it in Dropbox and delete it when done. While these cloud-based software companies simulate the feeling of BigLaw, it just seems too hazardous. By putting everything in the cloud, from forms to matters to documents, it just seems like you are opening your filing cabinet for the world to see. Not that these services are not perfect for some lawyers. I reviewed the terms of service for HoudiniEsq, and it limits access to “authorized data center personal [sic].” (I am going to assume the word should be personnel.) Which is exactly my point. How confidential is information to which an authorized Houdini representative has access?

If you don’t have a secretary, and many solo lawyers do not, you have to answer your own phone and deal with telemarketers. Telemarketers are annoying, and while I have a secretary who handles them, I also have a service called PhoneTag on my cellphone to route my calls when she is not working. For less than $10 a month, PhoneTag will transcribe my voicemails and send me an email within a few minutes with the transcribed voicemail and the .wav file attached. It does not handle accents well, but it sure makes it easy to forward the message to my secretary to handle first thing in the morning.

I am not a solo practitioner per se, but my “firm” is made up of only two people: me and my partner, and we are not even in the same office. We do rely on each other, however, even as we work 90 miles apart. In other words, I am uniquely qualified to explain why flying solo is not necessarily a good idea. I fly solo, and yet I don’t, and try to get the best of both worlds.

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