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New York Bar Asks What Solos Want and Tries to Deliver

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Not sure how I missed this when it first issued, but via Leonard Sienko of the NYSBA General Practice Blog, I learned about the New York State Bar Association’s Solo and Small Firm Report, issued June 18, 2009.  I approached the report with some trepidation, fearful that like many others of its kind, it would focus on solos’ alleged lack of practice management skills or malpractice incidents and recommend training programs or time management courses. Instead, the Report focused on the realities of being a solo — from time spent waiting for court to “involuntary pro bono” and evaluates the types of services that can help improve the life and livelihood of solo practitioners.

The Report opens with a reminder that 55 percent of New York State Bar Association 74,000 members are solos and that their needs must be comprehensively addressed.  And one of the major problems faced by solos is decidedly unglamorous:  the time waste associated with waiting in court.  From the report:

It is Abraham Lincoln who is credited with having observed, two centuries ago, that a
lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade. The message still resounds. The loss of significant
periods of time spent waiting in courthouses is costly—for attorneys if they do not bill their clients
out of sheer good conscience, or for their clients when their attorneys bill for those non-productive
hours. Throughout the state, this waste is widely reported to be enormous—perhaps hundreds or
thousands of hours daily adding up to thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of dollars or more. For
attorneys, their clients and others, it is an imposition and a burden on their time and resources.

The Report recognizes that e-filing, teleconferences and other modifications could go a long way to improving this substantial problem.

The Report also discusses the issue of the amount of “involuntary pro bono” performed by solos.  Indeed, that’s one reason why I’ve long opposed mandatory pro bono requirements:  because they disproportionately impact solos, many of whom are effectively providing pro bono every time they discount a fee or write off a bill.  From the Report at 12:

We also must note that  most, if not all, practitioners perform more involuntary pro bono service than OCA has ever  suggested they do voluntarily, including much of it in courthouse hallways awaiting the call of their cases.

Another problem faced by solos is the issue of back-up and succession.  For example, some solos are reluctant to provide back-up to others for fear of malpractice repercussions, while other solos fail to provide for succession of practice.  The NYSBA remedied these issues by creating a free Planning Ahead Guide so that solos can put a plan in place to deal with disability or retirement.

Finally, the Report explores the types of resources that the NYSBA offers that are useful for solos and small firms.  For example, the NYSBA offers CLE with discounts to NYSBA members; however, according to an ABA study cited in the report, most solos and small firms would prefer free CLE offerings.  The NYSBA also offers a .Small Firm Resource Center, which compiles all of the existing LPM materials, form letters and other resources  for solos into one place.  NYSBA members also have access to free legal research (of New York materials) through LOISLaw, as well as health and dental insurance benefits.

Of course, the NYSBA isn’t perfect when it comes to solos and one gripe that I had was how the Bar generates revenues through relationships with private providers.  For example, the NYSBA Report notes that NYSBA’s partnership with LOISlaw generates $100,000-$125,000 per year in royalties for sale of NYSBA books, $400,000 for sale of HotDocs and other revenue from sale of ABA books.  This is somewhat monopolistic, because it makes it difficult for non-affiliated providers to get visibility in front of bar members.  In fact, I found it somewhat ironic that the NYSBA Report listed various ABA books related to starting a practice, but did not list Solo by Choice, notwithstanding that one of the editors of an NYSBA newsletter contacted me about syndicating the entire book for free in the newsletter.  Nor did the Report identify any of the resources that I’ve gathered at MyShingle – though it did copy my Bars Reviewed projects with a list of resources that other bars offer (of course, my comprehensive table is much better!)

Still, overall, I applaud the NYSBA’s efforts to address the needs of solos and to focus on the practical problems which impact solos on a day to day basis.

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