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Ask Bill

Q: Bill, I recently started a solo practice out of my home. I’m excited about it, but I’m also concerned about being socially isolated. Any advice?

FROM: July / August 2005, PAGE 14 BY: Bill Gibson

A: I shared your concern when I became a solo, but the good news is that I don’t believe you have much to worry about if you do some planning.

I work a lot as an arbitrator and mediator and have an office downtown, but when I want quiet time to read files and write opinions, I work at my house in the country. My dogs like having me there to throw the ball, but I find that I can’t stay home for more than a day or two without finding a reason to “go to town.” For me, the best excuse is simply to “go to the office.” That’s one excuse you don’t have, of course, since your office is in your house.

Carolyn Elefant is a lawyer and wrote a chapter titled “How Not to Be Lonely” for the new edition of Flying Solo , just published by the ABA Law Practice Management Section. I served as editor of that book, so I knew that I could call on Carolyn for some sage advice.

Interestingly, Carolyn says her days of being lonely as a lawyer ended when she started her solo practice. She had previously practiced for some time as a government attorney and as a law firm associate. She describes her experience in those situations as a “stunted social environment” and says the social contacts were “narrowly circumscribed,” adding that they ranged from “simply superficial to downright uncomfortable.” I’ll confess to being a little shocked when I read that, since I thought that lawyers in large firms interacted like the characters on Ally McBeal or L.A. Law. (Well, maybe just a bit like that.)

Since going out on her own, however, Carolyn’s circle of colleagues and friends now includes “a wider, more diverse and friendlier, and more supportive group” of lawyers and others from all over the country. How did she do it? By, in her words, “breaking the rules of socializing” that were ingrained in her during her law firm years. When asked for specifics, Carolyn breaks it out into five main steps.

1. Forget the Old Rules

This means the rules that artificially limit the scope of a lawyer’s social contacts, such as gravitating toward those in our “age group, professional level or practice area.” Once you forget the old rules, Carolyn says, “Suddenly, the range of social possibilities magically expands.” She adds, “Breaking out of the confines of the tight social circles impressed on our profession holds the greatest promise for meeting others as a solo.”

One of the other rules she no longer observes is being nervous or self-conscious about making connections with people more senior than herself, including partners at her old law firm. She has even asked them out to lunch! By taking such a bold step, she reports, she has learned a lot from them and also discovered that they lead interesting lives outside the law, something that she wasn’t privy to while working as an associate in their firm.

Another piece of wisdom she picked up is that “lawyers, no matter their level of expertise, are eager to share their knowledge with those less experienced.” I wish that I had known that 25 years ago when I was afraid to call on the heavy hitters in the personal injury business.

2. Make Contacts Outside the Law

“Some of the most enjoyable contacts I’ve ever made as a solo practitioner,” writes Carolyn, “have been with the non-legal professionals and personnel with whom I work. As an energy regulatory attorney, I frequently team up with engineers, inventors and project developers—some of whom are clients—while I serve with others as part of a team of consultants.” As a result of these contacts, she is now “more likely to join a trade association” or “attend a lunch for a professional society.” While attending such functions makes for good client development, it also allows her to expand her circle of friends and colleagues.

Another suggestion involves striking up conversations with non-lawyers such as support staff, messengers, temps, and even a “Fed-Ex guy or copy shop gal.” Strike up a conversation with “civilians” like these, Carolyn says, “and pretty soon you’ll feel as if you have your own little office community.” Moreover, she adds, “the mere recognition that these scattered people comprise part of a team that is your practice makes you feel that you’re part of an entity bigger than yourself—a recognition that goes a long way to combating feelings of isolation.” 

3. Join Bar Associations and Other Groups

I’ve always liked to go to meetings of bar groups where I can trade stories and even commiserate with other solos and small firm lawyers. Carolyn lists this as a way to “meet a whole new bunch of people all at once.” I share her experience that the smaller local groups “tend to be more collegial, not to mention less expensive” than the state and national associations. She suggests taking on a leadership role in one of these groups, but if you don’t have the patience to attend a lot of committee and board meetings, you can volunteer to help arrange CLE or other functions. She says you’ll create opportunities to get to know a lot of people, possibly generate some new business, and have a chance to use your expertise to make your community a better place. Sound advice, indeed.

4. Get Out into the World

I agree with Carolyn when she says, “Sometimes, sitting alone in a basement office or holed up in a corner office in an anonymous suite can make even the most reclusive solos feel cut off from civilization. The solution is not to crawl deeper into the hole, but rather to simply get out to a place where you’ll see other people.”

She recommends creating spontaneous and informal encounters everywhere from the courthouse law library to the local coffee shop. In addition, try taking your laptop or BlackBerry to someplace outside your house or office and working there for a change of scenery. I do that so regularly that there are at least four coffee shops in my part of town where the barista asks, “Having your usual, Bill?” (My legal assistant points out this is far better than having the same thing said by all the bartenders in the neighborhood.)

5. Find Friends Online

Lastly, Carolyn recommends signing up for a few of the many online discussion groups supported by state and local bar groups, the ABA (including the SOLOSEZ discussion list) and specialty bar groups such as ATLA. You might even start your own blog (and this issue of Law Practice is filled with info on doing so).

“Recently,” says Carolyn, “the 200-member Missouri Solo and Small Firm listserve kicked in several hundred dollars to help a colleague who’d been appointed by the court to prosecute an appeal at Missouri’s highest court. The solo could not afford to pay for photocopying charges or the trip out to argue the case, so the group came to the rescue with voluntary donations and offers to help review the brief.” Belonging to one of these online groups is not only a way to exchange questions and answers online, but it’s also a great way to establish communications so you can meet group members in person when traveling around the country.

I couldn’t agree more with Carolyn when she advises that “loneliness is a state of mind” you can avoid by striking out and building a community of colleagues and friends!

K. William Gibson ( bgibson@cnnw.net) is a personal injury lawyer and arbitrator in Clackamas, OR. He is the author of How to Build and Manage a Personal Injury Practice ( ABA, 1997).