My Shingle

21st Century Solo, A Chain-Blog Post, Part II

by Carolyn Elefant on March 11, 2011 · 7 comments

in MyShingle Solo, Solo Practice Trends

Print Friendly

Jordan Furlong has posted a critical read for solos as well as those contemplating this adventure. Jordan’s post, which grew out of his recent guest lecture at Solo Practice University, focuses on what it takes to succeed as a solo in the 21st century. Since I’ve also spoken on this same topic (see 2:33-5:01 for rules of 21st century solo practice) and because I think that Jordan’s post deserves more attention and dissection than a couple of 140 character hosanna’s, I’m offering my quick, stream of conscious commentary here. But more importantly, I’m asking other solos to do the same, either in the comments below or in a blog post.

On GP Solo Bar Sections Jordan points out that most U.S. bar associations have some kind of a GP (general practice) solo and small firm section that lumps together groups -solos and general practitioners – which shouldn’t be included in the same category. On one level, Jordan is right: solos do need to specialize if they’re to survive. Therefore, a GP section doesn’t meet the needs of today’s solos. But did it ever? With my energy regulatory niche, I’ve never felt that a GP or consumer-oriented bar section fully meets my interests.

On the other hand – what binds all solos together is that we own and operate law firms; we aren’t simply worker bees. For that reason, I’ve always felt far more engaged and energized after attending a lunch with other solos, trading business tips and “client-from-hell” stories.

By contrast, when I meet with my biglaw energy colleagues – many of whom live comfortably off their law firm income and never bother thinking about where their next meal comes from – I just don’t feel that same kinship. Sure, they’re all nice enough, but at the end of the day, I’m the captain of my ship and many of them, even the well-paid partners, are just seamen manning the oars. Plus, there’s already too much stratification in our profession; a GP section lets me learn from lawyers from all walks of life, and with all kinds of practice areas.

Solos & the Revolution Jordan cautions that solos aren’t exempt from the revolution in the legal profession that is transforming other sectors, from biglaw to legal publishing to law schools. Who thinks solos are exempt? We’ve always lead the charge. As I said from my very first post at MyShingle back in December 2002 , solos have always been at the forefront of introducing change into our profession – for better or worse. Solos pioneered the contingency fee (that biglaw later adopted), marketing and advertising (when I started my firm in 1993, few big law firms advertised), web presence and blogging and even spam! Yet legal academics and advisors don’t study or follow or track what solos do. Many law schools now have programs devoted to the study of big firms and big structures and global practice. But solos courses – to the extent available – focus on the nuts and bolts of running a law firm. As a result, what solos do simply minimized. We’re viewed as workaday, common laborers (which is the inevitable result of focusing on skills to the exclusion of analysis and writing) rather than (for want of better word) thought leaders and visionaries.

But there’s also a more insidious reason why solos are ignored. Because we are out here on the front lines, serving as the soul of our profession, representing real people. We stand as the last fortress that stands guard against turning our profession into an automated, offshored, computer-generated operation, devoid of passion and compassion, or humanity and dignity – all of which are integral in one way or another to justice. Because solos care about the human element of law practice and live with it day in and day out, we’re often unfairly maligned by those who have an agenda – who would rather see lawyers taken out of the equation entirely. (And if you don’t believe that, wait for my next block buster post on this topic).

Jordan’s remaining four points – that solos must specialize, run sophisticated practices, collaborate and innovate – are all well-taken. From my own perspective, here’s how solos are doing:

  • Specialization: I think that most solos except those in rural or under-served communities are already specializing, though they could do more to create niches within those specializations.
  • Sophistication: Many lawyers are using some type of tech for their practice. It may be Outlook or another product that isn’t widely regarded as cutting edge, but if it works, it’s not worth changing. Lawyers have been slow to adopt document automation and I think that’s partly because to date, many programs have been costly and complicated and not sufficiently refined. Thus, it’s always been easier to modify a template than use automated document generators, though I think that will change as the programs come down in price and become more user friendly.
  • Collaboration: Here, I agree. Solos need to collaborate more. Mom-and-pop VLOs or even tax or business practices aren’t going to be able to compete with Legal Zoom franchises or a state-wide operation that offshores document preparation to India. The same is true at the high end as well. Companies like Axiom charge $200/hr, Virtual Law Partners bill at around $350 (or so I’ve been told). And these ain’t junior lawyers either – they’re attorneys with a decade of experience or more, groomed at the largest firms and in-house departments in the country. Most solos I know, even relatively junior consumer lawyers, charge far more than Axiom’s rate already. But Axiom and VLP can spread infrastructure costs and share marketing, which solos can’t do unless they band together.

As for contract law help, it’s great for gap-filling and showing capacity to handle a matter, but I’m not so sure of how effective it is for long-term growth because it’s not always available (in the power biz, we’d call contract lawyers peaking plants, whereas associates are capacity or baseload) A utility will use peakers to fill in at high demand, but it certainly won’t have its entire system reliant on them because they’re too costly. Same is true for contract lawyers – for projects here and there, they’re a bargain – but you don’t have the bandwidth. An associate represents a fixed cost – a $100,000 annual salary – so if a firm doesn’t have billable work, the associate can work on marketing. But firms are less likely to hire contract attorneys unless the work is billable – so there’s always a stop-and-start quality. As more associate positions are replaced by freelancers, perhaps we’ll see an emergence of different solutions like packaged plans with discounted rates.

  • Innovation: As I said, we solos are already innovating. Every day, we have to serve our clients and make sure we have enough business to keep the lights on. Every day, we face the possibility that the phone will never ring again. Every day, we live with the fear that every single one of our clients could leave us, and we’d have to pick up the pieces and start from scratch . And yet somehow, in a profession that is falling apart, not only do we solos manage to figure out a way to keep it together, but to thrive. If that’s not innovative, I don’t know what is.

Now, readers – it’s your turn. What are your thoughts about Jordan’s blog post? Let’s keep the conversation moving.

Previous post:

Next post: