For almost two weeks now, I’ve been dealing with a family situation that has taken me out of town, spending both days and nights at the hospital.  Like many of my colleagues who responded to the MyShingle contest question, I too employ technology that lets me take my office with me on the road.  Unfortunately, great as technology is, it has its limits in that it can’t actually do our work for us, particularly when that work involves complicated legal questions that don’t lend themselves well to forms or templates.  So now more than ever, I’m coming to realize the importance of back-up — not back up for files (though of course, that’s critical), but human back up as well.

So where can solos find colleagues who can back them up?   Here are some tips for finding good back up:

1.  Don’t wait until the last minute: Perhaps the most important rule for human back up is to avoid waiting until the last minute to find it.  From the day you open your practice, you should start cultivating relationships with other lawyers, law students and virtual assistants who can step in when you’re too busy to handle a project or when life’s emergencies interfere.  Most malpractice insurers require lawyers to affirm that they have back up, or sometimes even identify a lawyer who will serve as back up.  But most solos myself included, don’t really take this requirement seriously – and they should.

2.  Make sure you can work with your back up: In most cases, the need for human back up arises during periods of high stress – tight deadlines or emergencies.  So it’s imperative that you have an easy, comfortable relationship with your back up attorneys, because you may not be at your best when you work with them.  I serve as back up for one lawyer who can be a real bear when he’s under stress and knowing that, I always remain calm and accommodating.  Likewise, one of my back up lawyers is incredibly laid back – he’s done a couple of down-to-the-wire midnight filings for me without reproach.  Realize that your back up team will see you at your worst, not your best – so pick people who won’t negatively judge you for it.

3.  Reach out to colleagues: The best starting point for human back up lies right in your own backyard, within the circle of lawyers whom you’ve worked with in the past or gotten to know through professional activities.  My own back-up attorneys come from a variety of places – some I’ve worked with at previous jobs, others I’ve met through mutual colleagues.

But while your inner circle is the best place to start looking for back up, you needn’t limit yourself either.  You may also find back up prospects through listserves or Twitter. In my own case, I identified several promising back up lawyers through  Solosez and followed up with phone calls or in person get togethers to get a sense of how we might work together.  For my energy practice, which is more specialized, I hosted a couple of meet-ups for other solo and small firm energy lawyers, where I became acquainted with several talented energy attorneys whom I’ve used not just for back up, but also to team up with to respond to RFPs.

4  Scope out the talents of younger or newer solos lawyers: Sometimes, you need back-up but you’re on a limited budget.  In these cases, it’s economical to bring in younger or newer solos who either handle contract work as a business or are willing to accept per diem projects for extra revenue.  In a crunch, however, you don’t want to pass off work to someone whom you haven’t tested.  After making this mistake of using an untested newbie with disastrous results, I now try to pass off small assignments to newer solos when neither the work nor my time frame are critical.   With “test drives,” I get to familiarize myself with new solos’ capabilities and decide if I’d like to work with them again. (Of course, I pay — reasonably well, I think — for the work).  Down the road, when I have immediate work demands, I can outsource to the solos whom I’ve deemed qualified, fully confident of their ability to handle the work.

5.  Offer your help: When you have a chance, reach out and offer to help other solos. I’ve offered to shepherd filings for colleagues or cover hearings when they’re in a pinch and most are happy to return the favor.

6.  Realize that back up will cost you…and get over it. While I’m less stressed knowing that I’ve left work in capable hands, I’m not happy about paying others to cover matters where I’d earn more doing the work entirely myself.  But I know that if I’d taken that approach, the quality of my work would suffer and my clients would pay the price.  By using my back-up, I’m still able to produce the kind of first rate product that I expect of myself (even if my clients don’t) and tend to my personal issues without having to dump my personal problems on my clients.  So the cost of back-up is worth it.

So fellow solos – who’s got your back, and how did you find them?  Please share your ideas in the comments section.