The Somber Side of Solo Practice

I know that frequently I’m regarded as an avid advocate (some of my blogging buddies would even call me a cheerleader) for solo practice, focusing primarily on the benefits of going solo rather than the risks or drawbacks.  But in the wake of Katrina, I’m reminded of the somber side of solo practice:  how many of us solos operate at the edge, with little margin for error.

I realize that Katrina has hit all lawyers across the board, not just solos.  Ernie the Attorney’s blog has been serving as a central point for his mid sized firm which has been forced to relocate.  And from this post at Jurist

Among many other things, Hurricane Katrina has devastated
the legal system [AP report] in New Orleans, causing major disruption
of legal services across the state of Louisiana and beyond. […]  New
Orleans lawyers – approximately one-third of all the lawyers in
Louisiana – have lost all their files and are unable to access their

The problem for solos, however, isn’t so much loss of files though it’s
difficult to assess from early reports.  As one commenter (who’s also a solo attorney) to the above
story noted:

The statement that New Orleans lawyers have lost all of
their files is utterly idiotic. As far as I can tell, that absurd
remark and a lot of other hysterical drivel started with some Southern
University law professor’s email, and is irresponsibly being spread
like wildfire. As far as I know, I haven’t lost ANY of my files, and as
soon as electricity is restored I’m going to be able to access
everything in my office by a remote internet connection. My paper files
are safe and I have redundant backup, with one copy of my entire server
going home daily with my paralegal for offsite storage….

And in this article (Clarion Ledger, 9/3/02), Gulfport lawyer Hayes Johnson who runs a firm with his brother, reported that:

The law firm got about 4 feet of storm surge inside. The
front of the building collapsed, and much of the contents were ruined.
I got inside to save some business records and a few files, and believe
we will be able to salvage a good bit more (assuming it’s not condemned
and/or we can get around the National Guard to get back in there).
Results were erratic: the front door was blown in and furniture was
piled in logjams in each room; but my sport coat and bow ties were in
perfect shape hanging on the back of my office door.  I’m not sure
where Johnson Law Firm, PLLC, will conduct business from here forward,
but it won’t be at 1918 15th Street, at least for many moons.

The one place that large firms have an advantage over solos is with
respect to files that were lost.  Whereas there’s a good chance that
sophisticated large firm clients (many of whom are located in
non-affected parts of the state or country) will have copies of
documents that they provided to their attorneys in storage or even in
their email box, the smaller, individual clients served by solos and
small firms may have kept those documents in their now damaged homes
and thus, can’t provide a source of backup.

Katrina will also create financial troubles for many firms.  As midsized law partner Michael Allweiss describes in this post, the storm delayed his firm’s ability to access records, thus delaying billing and collection of fees.  This means that employees can’t be paid on time.  For small firms with small staffs, this problem is probably even more acute as they may not have a line of credit to take them through the crisis.

Still, presumably bill collection issues are temporary.  Perhaps the most serious impact of Katrina on solos is the potential permanent loss of clients.  In this piece from MSNBC, solo family law practitioner Denise Lee says:

“There’s mud all over the floor,” says Denise Lee. “There’s
slime from the ocean….We got the computer and the hard drive out, but
we didn’t have time to take the files,” she says.  Now she doesn’t know
if her clients will even be able to hire her again. “I don’t represent
insurance firms, although now might be a good time to do that,” Lee
says. “My clients are just regular working-class people.”

After all, how will a divorcing couple embroiled in a custody fight
even continue with the case when the children may have been evacuated
to a different state?  Will a small business client engaged in a breach
of contract action have the desire to press on when the defendant in
the case lost all of its assets in Katrina?  And even for clients with
the will to go forward, realistically, will they have the money to pay
their bills?  (the one class of solo lawyers who might stand to gain
are those whose disciplinary cases are pending before the grievance
office; apparently those files may also have been lost)

In the coming months, New Orleans area solos and small firms may need
to rethink and reevaluate their practices.  Perhaps some will relocate;
the Texas bar has temporarily opened the Texas bar’s doors
to lawyers forced from their offices in hurricane-impacted states.
Others may need to reconsider other practice areas and perhaps some may
even close their practices.  I’m calling on practice management and law
marketing experts to help these solo and small firm lawyers in
months to come and I’ll do my best to compile useful resources.  I also join Allweiss’ call for credit card companies to impose a moratorium on finance charges for delayed payments and I’m asking the same for legal vendors who serve the small firm community in New Orleans.

Knowing the resiliance and guts that most of my fellow solo colleagues
have, I know that it won’t be long before you all bounce back, better
than ever.  In the meantime, at MyShingle, our thoughts and prayers are
with our colleagues and their clients.

Update:  Steve Terrell of Hoosier Lawyer has this post on the Louisiana State Bar Assocation’s efforts to help lawyers impacted by Katrina – and what you can do to help out as well.