General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Solo, Spring 1996

The Psychological Challenges of Solo Practice

by Amiram Elwork, Ph.D.

Were you meant to be a solo practitioner? There certainlyare obvious advantages. No one tells solos what cases to take orhow many hours to work. There are no staff meetings or officepolitics, and you don't have to share your income with others.

As Solo readers know, however, being your own boss isdifficult. Solos often find it difficult to limit the number ofhours they work or the kind of cases they take. In addition toproviding legal services, solos have to find the time to createbills, pay bills, make purchasing decisions, and market theirpractice.

In spite of this, when asked what you like best about a solopractice, you'll probably say, with complete candor, that it isthe amount of control you have over your time.

A solo practitioner also needs to deal with risk and thenegative emotions that accompany it. You alone are responsiblefor all decisions. You are exclusively in charge of the"complaint department." In addition, you have to be prepared forcollection problems and slow business months.

Finally, you need to deal effectively with feelings ofisolation.

Do you still think that solo practice is for you? If theanswer is yes, then you certainly do have the necessary desire.To be an effective and satisfied solo practitioner, however, youalso need to have the skills to overcome all of these challenges.These skills are psychological in nature.

All human experiences are composed of the following fourelements:

Stimulus --> Thought --> Emotion --> Behavior

For example, consider why you might get into the habit ofanswering or wanting to answer all phone calls regardless of thehour. The ringing phone is the stimulus. It triggers a number ofconscious or unconscious thoughts, such as: "Whoever that is, heis likely to be upset with me for not being available, and as aresult will look for another lawyer." Thoughts like this onetrigger the emotion of fear, which in turn triggers your behaviorof answering the phone late at night.

Note that only the external stimulus occurs in the realm ofobjective reality. The rest occurs from within, where subjectiveinterpretation exerts control. For this reason, a variety ofinternal reactions to the same external events are possible. Thatis why some solo practitioners feel anxious at the slightest signof a business downturn, or experience chronic fears aboutmalpractice suits, whereas other solos lead relatively happylives.

In brief, effective and satisfied solo practitioners havespecific psychological skills that explain their success. Theytend to be "solutions-oriented thinkers." They focus on problemsonly long enough to recognize them, but soon thereafter begin tothink about solutions.

In addition, they tend to be very self aware. They take thetime to understand their own negative thoughts and emotions. Theyalso continually evaluate which of their habitual reactions aremaladaptive or inaccurate. Finally, they repeatedly replace theirmaladaptive reactions with beneficial ones.

For example, if the phone rings late at night, the self-aware lawyer will tend to ask: "Is it really true that my clientswill leave me if I don't answer the phone?" She will replace theold, negative thoughts with alternative ones: "Isn't it possiblethat if I live a balanced life and exhibit how much I value myfamily, clients will respect me more and be more loyal? How can Iset limits to my working hours and still be responsive to myclients' needs?"

If you practice this technique often enough, old habits dieand a healthier way of life emerges. The technique is effectivebut difficult to implement. Still, if you want your positiveimage of a solo practice to become a reality, the effort isworthwhile.

Amiram Elwork is a clinical psychologist and Director of the Law-Psychology (J.D./Psy.D.)Training Program at Widener University.He is the author of Stress Management for Lawyers. For orderinginformation, call 800/759-1222 .


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