Back when I worked for others, my social interactions were remarkably stratified. As an associate or a newbie government lawyer, I spent lunches and breaks palling around with other junior lawyers who occupied the same lower tiers of the employment hierarchy as I did. My sole social encounters with partners or superiors came during polite conversations at the holiday party or at awkward lunches, designed more to discuss my performance than to get to know each other. But the day I opened the doors to my law firm, I forever liberated myself from this type of stunted social environment.
When working for others or socializing in law school, we often gravitate towards those in our age group, professional level or practice area – a propensity that artificially limits the scope of our social contacts. But when you start a firm, you’re defined not so much by your age or practice area, but rather, your status as founding partner and business owner. As a result, the range of social possibilities magically expands – a twenty five year old solo just out of law school now holds business partnership in common with the senior partner at the largest firm in the city; a lawyer running his or her own firm now shares the same interests in running a business as accountants, engineers and small business owners.
I realized the shift just a few weeks after I started my practice. I had lunch with a partner at a major firm in town to discuss our clients’ mutual interest in an appeal that I was handling, which I’d taken with me when I left my former firm. Had the meeting taken place just weeks before, I’d have attended as an associate with a partner at the helm, sitting nervously on the edge of my chair and speaking only when prompted. But now, as proprietor of my own shop, I came to the table on equal footing, exchanging ideas with the partner as a colleague, rather than reciting for a superior. Today, I count that partner among my circle of colleagues and friends whom I’ve met through my practice, a circle which has since expanded to encompass lawyers and non-lawyers of all genders, races and ages. In fact, I find I have far more in common with other solos, be they 25 or 75 than with some of my contemporaries from law school and college who work in-house or at big law.
Most lawyers who work for others often feel that they’re limited professionally by the types of low level assignments relegated to them. But what you’ve probably never considered is how socially stifling a professional organization -particularly one as hierarchical as a law firm – can be. It’s not until you leave your job and begin by necessity assembling your own human back up that you realize just how much you’ve been missing.
Note: Some of this post is adapted from the Being Solo Does Not Mean Being Alone, a chapter that I authored for the ABA’s 2004 Flying Solo Book.