August 15, 2019 Practice Management

Building a Practice: Don’t Shoulder the Burdens of Practice Alone

By Anna Levine

Solo and small firm legal practice can be extremely rewarding. Lawyers in these settings can tailor their practices to their personal interests and strengths. They treasure the freedom from the red tape that often accompanies life at a larger firms or work in the public sector. They need not endure annual performance reviews from exacting bosses, seek approval of requests for time off, work for or with disagreeable or unethical people, and, perhaps best of all, they needn’t share their profits. What’s not to love, right?

Indeed, many attorneys who leave larger firms or government agencies for solo or small firm practice do so in pursuit of these advantages—the autonomy and potential payoff that accompany going it alone or only with a trusted and understanding few. While these advantages of self-employment or small partnerships are real, they can at times seem illusory and frequently carry heavy burdens. Solo and small firm attorneys are small business owners and, as such, they must make sacrifices. Sometimes they need to stake personal assets on their business, resign themselves to unreliable cash flow, dedicate significant personal time to their enterprises, and forego vacations and steady paychecks. They must take responsibility for administrative tasks such as financial management, hiring and firing staff, procuring technology and health insurance, and complying with state and federal tax laws, all while maintaining their own caseloads. Solo and small law firm owners must take on all these duties (or ignore them at their peril)—often without much (if any) training or planning.

Put plainly, practicing alone or in a very small group comes at a cost. Solo and small firm attorneys experience among the highest rates of bar discipline complaints. Lawyers in these settings often lack mentorship and administrative support. They can feel isolated and alone, and sometimes the responsibility seems too much to bear. Many work with vulnerable and at-risk clients. They may represent criminal defendants or parents and children entangled with state agencies for children and families. They might handle difficult divorces—where children are often the innocent casualties of unwinnable wars. Their clients can at times be angry, combative, or even intimidating. Some solo and small firm lawyers recurrently find their personal safety at risk or must routinely handle and review troublesome evidence such as autopsy photos or detailed and disturbing reports of child abuse. All this takes a toll, physically and emotionally.

For solo and small firm lawyers who deal with vulnerable or indigent parties, not only is health insurance expensive, sometimes it is inaccessible. An alarming number of solo attorneys are without health insurance. Those who forego health insurance or settle for catastrophic coverage are frequently the same attorneys who handle difficult and emotionally trying matters. Inadequate or total lack of health insurance can limit access to mental health services that would be helpful to professionals bearing this wide array of stressors.

What’s a solo or small firm attorney to do? One answer might be to call the local lawyer assistance program (LAP) or law office management assistance program (PMA)—or why not call both? Almost every state in the United States and several Canadian provinces have lawyer assistance programs. A directory of LAPs can be found via the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs (COLAP). Practice management assistance services or programs are often found within bar associations. In Massachusetts, where I work, the LAP and PMA programs are both housed within an independent 501(c)(3) called Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc.

Here are a few ways in which these programs can help solo practitioners:

  • Isolation. Clinical and other staff at LAPs can help lawyers talk about their feelings of isolation. LAP staff are deeply familiar with the unique challenges that lawyers face and can listen to and validate attorneys’ experiences and help them comprehend that they are not alone, that their anxiety or emotional distress is real and understandable. Just talking to someone about feeling lonely or alone can go a long way toward alleviating those feelings.
  • Connection/community. The flip side of isolation is connection. LAP and PMA staff can act as conduits to other attorneys who may be similarly situated or might lend an understanding ear. Many LAPs host or facilitate support groups. Almost all have some sort of ongoing lawyer recovery/substance use group. Some offer a much wider range of support groups, including workshops and groups to tackle solo and small firm stress, parenting as a lawyer, practicing law with ADHD, or navigating bar discipline, to name a few.
  • Accountability. A collateral effect of working in isolation is being accountable to no one but the client and the court. Freedom from oversight is often accompanied by absence of guidance. Lawyers who do not report to anyone have no one to question their professional judgment or suggest alternate ways of approaching a problem or dilemma. While LAP or PMA staff might not be able to help lawyers vet trial strategy or provide legal advice as to how to navigate bar discipline, they can help lawyers turn the spotlight on themselves, to guide them through tackling difficult and important questions such as:
    • What part did I play in my current predicament?
    • What is something positive I can do to improve my position today?
    • Am I avoiding important cases or personal or professional problems because I don’t want to deal with them?
    • Was my behavior on that occasion ethical?
    • Am I maintaining proper client records?
    • Are my firm finances in order?
  • Resources. LAPs and PMAs can connect lawyers with a range of resources, including books and web-based resources (webinars, podcasts, blog posts) relevant to specific topics or concerns, as well as referrals to mental health or career counselors. For the under- or uninsured, mental health staff and services available at LAPs, while no substitute for adequate health insurance or ongoing therapy, can also provide some access to mental health professionals who understand legal practice. Even for those with health insurance, finding mental health practitioners who are currently accepting new patients is not easy and frequently involves a significant waiting period. LAPs can provide some interim guidance and, in the meantime, can help identify providers who might meet an individual lawyer’s needs.

LAP and PMA programs evolved organically out of a real need for confidential support in the legal community. Services have grown and expanded due to the ongoing nature of this need. There is a profession-wide acknowledgment that lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals, particularly solo and small firm professionals, have special needs that require very particular supports. In Massachusetts, between 85 percent and 93 percent of our clients report that speaking with our clinical and PMA staff helped them to feel better, and almost none report that consulting us made their practices or lives worse. LAPs and PMA programs are here to help, confidentially and often free of charge. The financial and emotional risks of consulting us are near zero; on the other hand, the costs of going it alone, of declining to seek help in a time of need, are often great. To the solo and small firm attorneys out there asking themselves whether they should call their local LAP or PMA program, I would, therefore, reply: “Why wouldn’t you? Chances are you will feel a lot better if you do.” Taking positive steps to care for yourself and your business is surely a catalyst, if not a necessary condition, for reaping the many rewards of solo and small firm practice. If you ever feel stuck or are just looking for some extra support, remember, there’s a LAP for that.

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Anna Levine (anna@lclma.org) is executive director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, Inc., an independent nonprofit organization that seeks to promote well-being and resilience in the legal community, improve lives, nurture competence, and elevate the standing of the legal profession in Massachusetts. Anna is also a licensed attorney, and before joining LCL she served as the managing partner of a two-person law firm.