April 02, 2019

Leadership Coalition for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers Commentary

James R. Silkenat and Harvey B. Rubenstein

The individual lawyer, usually in solo or small firm practice, has been a starring figure in American life and in the American imagination since our country’s earliest days. From Abe Lincoln, to Atticus Finch, to the lead characters in John Grisham novels, the solo lawyer has been a talisman for righting wrongs, correcting injustices, and outsmarting the other guys.

In its early days, the American Bar Association (ABA), like most law-related organizations, was composed primarily of solo and small firm practitioners: lawyers who went to court every day or who prepared wills or contracts for the real people who were their clients. As American business life became more complicated, however, the legal profession that served it also became more complex. Increasingly large corporations and conglomerations were provided legal counsel by law firms of increasing size and structure.

Somewhere along the line, the ABA’s attractiveness to, and interest in, solo and small firm lawyers began to falter. The percentage of ABA members who came from firms with more than a dozen lawyers became substantially larger. Of the more than 427,000 solo lawyers currently practicing in the United States, only some 25,000 are ABA members (approximately 6 percent). Of the 133,500 small firm lawyers (those in firms of two to five lawyers) practicing in the United States, only 22,000 (or about 17 percent) are ABA members. With overall ABA membership at 386,100, any significant increase in solo and small firm lawyer participation in the ABA would be a huge boost and would make the organization much more broadly representative of the legal profession than it has been in recent years.

There are myriad reasons for this recent lack of strong participation in the ABA by solo and small firm lawyers. Some are the fault of the ABA in failing (except through its excellent General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division) to have programs of interest to solo members; and some are endemic to this part of the legal profession, where margins are typically thin and where time and travel budgets are under constant pressure.

With minor exceptions, the ABA has, until recently, not seen the solo and small firm lawyer as an audience to which it ought to devote special attention. This short-sightedness began to change even before the 2009 economic crisis, when a number of ABA leaders saw the solo and small firm sector of the legal community as an untapped resource, both in terms of talent and in terms of substantive contributions to be made to the legal profession and the Association.

Although the ABA’s decision to reduce dues for solos (but not yet for small firm practitioners) is helpful, the actual problem runs deeper, and, as a result, the solution must be broader. As long as the ABA is seen as an organization that ignores the problems and issues of solo and small firm lawyers, solos will continue to regard the ABA with suspicion and indifference and as irrelevant to their practices. Therefore, the solution must meet that perception head-on. The ABA must find the innovative means to support solos who have chosen to represent ordinary people with human problems. More than that, it must include realistic avenues for solos to share in important policy decisions of the ABA and in the organizational structure that gives rise to those decisions.

What is needed is an altered culture within the ABA that dares, without apology, to embrace the ABA as an effective and efficient organization supporting all lawyers struggling to exist in places where the rubber meets the road. When solos believe that the ABA stands for the principle that the American lawyer is more than a unit of work in a long chain, when solos trust that in the final analysis they are not simply the timely target of an ABA marketing strategy, and when solos understand that the empathy is real, then they will join and become an active part of our Association. Toward that end, the ABA’s Leadership Coalition for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers has been created.

The Coalition, while organizationally housed within the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division, is largely composed of ABA State Delegates and other Association leaders who are specially attuned to the needs and interests of solo and small firm lawyers. Among the goals of the Coalition are to:

  • work with ABA senior staff, including Executive Director Jack Rives, to make sure that solo issues are considered at all levels of the ABA;
  • include solo and small firm lawyers in ABA decision-making on important substantive issues such as Ethics 20/20, opposition to multidisciplinary practice, regulation of the legal profession, and coordination with state and local bars;
  • support the special technology and communication needs of solo and small firm lawyers;
  • urge the appointment of solo and small firm lawyers to ABA Standing Committees and Commissions and the election of solo and small firm lawyers to leadership positions within ABA
    Sections, Divisions, and Forums; and
  • sensitize the ABA leadership to continuing membership cost issues for this important segment of the bar.

More than anything else, the ABA’s Leadership Coalition for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers wants the ABA to be an effective and valuable home for this portion of the profession. If additional steps can be taken in pursuing that goal, many of the financial and representational issues currently facing the ABA can be greatly reduced. Our hope is that the Coalition can help speed this process along.

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