Back in June, I had the privilege of speaking at the Missouri Bar’s excellent Solo and Small Firm Conference. In addition to the practicing lawyers in attendance – many who were eight or ten time repeat attendees, the event was also populated by a swarm of yellow-shirted students, who as it turned out, were participating as part of a course requirement for the University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC) Law School Solo and Small Firm Institute. In fact, I met a couple of students who were so committed to solo practice that they selected UMKC over schools closer to home just to take part in the solo program.
But classes on solo and small firm practice are one thing (and to be honest, not such a big thing for me, because I really believe that so many solo and small firm practice management skills are learned on the job). The really big news, in my view, is UMKC’s launch of a Solo and Small Firm Incubator Program. From the Press Release:
The Incubator will assist recent graduates entering solo and small firm practices. It will provide affordable office space for about nine tenants, as well as practice management assistance and mentoring so that graduates can gain support in launching their own practices, while also providing pro bono or affordable legal services to the underserved Troost area corridor.
The Incubator is a natural outgrowth of existing programs, which include the UMKC Entrepreneurial Legal Services Clinic, which helps new entrepreneurs obtain legal and business services they could not otherwise afford and the Solo and Small Firm Institute, which positions law students to be entrepreneurs.
The Solo Incubator concept isn’t entirely new, though the UMKC program stands out because it supports lawyers in transactional work related to small businesses, rather than traditional low bono matters like public benefits matters or discounted fee work. The Law School Consortium is another variety of incubator program; it supports solo and small firm practitioners who handle low bono cases. But while representing low paying clients is important work, it’s not the only option for solo and small firm lawyers, nor is it necessarily an ideal option. True, doing low bono foreclosures or even court appointed work (which in many jurisdictions, is another version of low bono) lets lawyers gain valuable experience and earn a little money while doing good, ultimately, a 100 percent low bono business model is not sustainable in the long run, whether as a virtual business model or < volume practice. Solo and small firm lawyers ought to view low bono cases as starter cases, which they eventually replace with higher paying matters — at which time they may take on pro bono cases not by necessity, but by choice (or obligation if like me, you believe pro bono is a professional obligation or a way to pay it forward).
Beyond a solo incubator, what I’d like to see at the UMKC program or elsewhere is real scholarship on the role of the solo and the small firm practitioner in the profession. As I’ve written before, at least three major law school programs are devoted to the plight of biglaw, but none systematically focus on the role of solos as the drivers of change and innovation in our profession, or address what trends like globalization, the deregulation of law practice (like the Legal Services Act in the UK), offshoring or rising unemployment mean for solo and small firm lawyers. Here’s hoping that the scholarship of the solo is the next project for the UMKC institute. If it is, I’d love to be a part of it.