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Solo & Small Law Firms

What if solos were start ups?

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In the nearly ten years that I’ve been blogging at MyShingle, solo and small firm practice has never really been what you’d call buzz-worthy.  Sure, there was that time when the economy first tanked that suddenly solo was the new soho , or when it seemed as if every blog on the beat – from established giants like Westlaw a big-law tabloid , to Above the Law – was adding a solo sub-category. But at the end of the day, the solo-resurgence was more about selling product or expanding market share to make up for depletions caused by big firm layoffs than generating real excitement about the promise of solo practice.  Not surprisingly, the legal profession’s heady little affair with with solo cooled when folks realized that solos are tough customers when it comes to sales — for various reasons ranging from fierce independence to lack of resources to just plain cheapness.

These days, within the legal profession and out, the latest flavor of the month is legal start up.  Some of these new upstarts – like cloud practice management providers or cost effective legal research like Fast Case offer quality products, sensibly priced that enable solos and small firms to improve the level of service that we provide to clients.  Other products (legal auctions, pay per click schemes) are pure garbage that force lawyers to cut their rates or give service away for free in the name of expanding access to law while the company founders take millions in VC funding to the bank.  Yet even normally staid academics and law schools are all jazzed up about technology and the law, with unconferences  designed to reinvent legal practice.

Meanwhile, they overlook what don’t solos and small firms.   There’s so much innovation that comes out of the solo and small firm community that goes unnoticed, because we don’t call it innovation.  Instead, we solos call “innovation”  doing what it takes to serve clients or resourcefulness or ingenuity or just plain commonsense.  If you don’t believe me, look through the pages of MyShingle for examples of solo and small firm lawyers focusing on new trends or delivering legal services in new ways.

Maybe we need to rebrand solo practice. Let’s call ourselves lawyers who launch (lawnch?) or start-up’s, which after all is what we are.  Maybe then, the solo and small firm sector of the legal profession could attract the attention and rich scholarship and support that seems forever focused on big law and Silicon Valley.

*Start up photo courtesy of Shutterstock

  • Vbalasubramani

    Good point. To a large extent, the media/trade press are a big culprit–they tend to focus on big firms and what’s going on there (that’s the default at least). A second category are the consultants, who similarly focus on bigger firms. (I’m not sure how much Klout they wield anyway.)

    I’ve often thought that innovation in the legal profession will come from solo/small firm practitioners.  Not from service providers, apps, consultants, marketers, communities, or lawyer alternatives. Just good old fashioned lawyers trying out new things within the constraints of ethical rules. 


  • Solos certainly have the most incentive to get this right, as well as the fastest feedback loop between trying a new idea and seeing results.  

    If it’s any consolation, few “legal startups” ever develop a very profitable product.  They can put together some slides (about how much people hate lawyers) and rough financial projects (about how people who hate paying lawyers would for reasons never quite explained happily pay them instead).  But profits?  Rare indeed.  Even the household names with national radio ads flirting with IPOs are barely just profitable.

  • Sean

    Unfortunately, I think innovation is going the other way, with solos less efficient than the old days.  When I started practice 20 years ago, secretaries and paralegals did a lot of the grunt work: answering phones, opening mail, scheduling, doing initial drafts of forms.  Now firms have gotten rid of most of the staff and the attorneys do most of their own work.  There are six solos in my office suite, including me.  None have a secretary; all do their own typing, stuffing envelopes, copying etc.  That’s not a “start up” or even a small business; it’s essentially doing free lance work.  Real start ups and small businesses have business plans and staff to get the work done efficiently; most solos are simply working independently, doing the same job they did before for a firm, but now on their own.  Jay Foonberg in his initial editions of his soloing books assumed that you had to have a secretary; now, most people going solo can’t afford one because competition for work is so ferocious. The supposed innovation of all of the new technology is a lie and doesn’t make up for the lost efficiency in not having staff doing non-legal work.   So what if you now have a “digital” calendar in your phone and don’t have to write your appointments in a book (but you’ll waste more time with all your gadgets than you did before you had them); you are still wasting time doing this type of work when a secretary or paralegal should be scheduling…

  • shg

    This is all heresy. We’re innovators, beloved and cutting edge. We’re aggressive, caring and experienced. If we just keeping buying new apps that put us the technology train before it leaves the station, we have to succeed. We just have to. Can’t we all just pretend it’s make us fabulous and we’re huge successes at least? Please?

    Or maybe we’re just trading in our VHS tapes for DVDs, but watching the same movies we always watched, trying to justify why we pissed away money to get the latest and greatest that enables us to do what we always did, while we can’t figure out why clients aren’t as impressed with our virtual office in the back corner of Starbucks as we are. Maybe they just don’t get it.  Like us early adapters do.

  • As Plato is loosely quoted, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”  For a long time, and for most lawyers, there was little necessity to innovate.  An economy and culture undergoing rapid change and growth created and sustained strong systemic demand for more than 20 years.  Since demand for legal service exceeded perceived supply of appropriate lawyers, clients pretty much had to accept lawyers’ terms of engagement.  That refers not only to price, but to operating norms and work-product creation.  Because lawyers could get another client without much difficulty, they arranged their work to align with their own preferences.  For most, their preference was the “guild” model, in which an expert craftsperson diligently produces a high-order work product bordering on art.  Since clients were all making lots of money, they had the luxury of appreciating the lawyer’s art, and little reason to quibble about money.

    In 2008, the gravy train stopped for the clients, who suddenly were obligated to care a great deal about all of the foregoing.  Now, the “better, faster, cheaper” mantra took on relevance and urgency.

    It wasn’t until companies experienced the necessity of getting leaner and more efficient that lawyers faced this imperative.  

    The distribution of innovative behavior is what’s changed. 

    Innovation has always been the hallmark of those who are inherently driven to find a better way to do something, simply because they can.  It’s in their nature.  They are what in other contexts are called “early adopters.”  The aberration is that there was no bell curve, only a long, low amplitude early-adoption slope.  There was no “early majority” to embrace what they did and legitimize it for the more timid, no mass market forming the tall & wide center of the bell curve, and no “late adopters,” etc.

    Market conditions since 2008 have merely installed the adoption curve that’s normal to every other type of endeavor, from water purification in the Amazon to hybrid seeds in the Midwest.

    Those interested in this predictable curve may want to read “Diffusion of Innovations.”

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