Solo Is A State of Mind

Though it may surprise you, I’m not a fan of lawyers describing themselves as solos. Despite eleven years of promoting the virtues of hanging a shingle  and big law’s tarnished image, the legal profession — from law schools to judges  — still reveres big firm lawyers and their shiny credentials. Even the so-called  Newlaw darlings like Axiom sell big law pedigree. That bias? Never gonna change.

For this reason, I’ve never referred to myself a “solo practitioner” even back in the day when my firm consisted of just me. Instead, I dubbed myself an “independent practitioner,” or simply stated that I owned my own law firm firm — a designation that the D.C. Bar albeit reluctantly allows individual practitioners to use.  Because of my aversion to the term solo, I cringed when Lee Rosen’s blog post  reminded me that I’d described one of the MyShingle’s purposes as a site to celebrate the joys of solo practice. Looking back at the context, I think I must have used the term solo as a rough shorthand for “starting a practice” which indeed, is why I continue to use the term solo even though I don’t like its current negative connotations.

Lee’s post invites bloggers to discuss What’s a Solo Practitioner?, a question that Lee writes has long vexed him. As Lee points out, the term solo can encompass scenarios ranging from lawyers who practice by themselves with no help from others to those who outsource for answering services or virtual assistance to those who hire assistants, paralegals, associates. Where do you draw the line on what constitutes a solo – and does it matter? 

To answer Lee’s second question, I don’t think it matters what we lawyers call ourselves so long as the description doesn’t deceive the public. For example, if a lawyer doesn’t outsource, has no staff, no back up and does everything by herself, then whether she calls herself a “firm” or a “solo,” she needs to make clear on her website and in communications that she’s the only one handling the work because some clients may have concerns justifiable concerns about possible abandonment of their case.

But truth-in-labeling cuts both ways.  Just as a lawyer who’s a one-man (or woman) band shouldn’t be allowed to pretend to have other lawyers in the firm (like this guy who pretended that a non-attorney was actually a member of the firm), so too, nor should one or two lawyers who draw on a bunch of independent solos to handle the cases (like the Delta Law Group, described here ) be allowed to convey the impression of being a multi-person law firm, for example, through frequent references to “our attorneys.”

The bar association rules haven’t advanced sufficiently to take account of these changing business models. As Irreverent Lawyer  Mo Hernandez describes, bar rules may prevent (or at least chill) solo lawyers from using terms “and associates” or “law group” to describe an arrangement where the lawyer has contractually committed outsourced support, part-time remote assistance and routinely engages co-counsel on most matters. Meanwhile, there appears to be little prohibition on a group of eat-what-you-kill independent lawyers presenting themselves as a unified, multi-person group or firm even if they rarely interact.

With the rise of these new business models, even in today’s “new normal” where companies claim to be seeking value, lawyers who present themselves as “solo” remain at a competitive disadvantage.  So I continue to advise colleagues who practice alone or just starting out to call themselves something else.  Startup  is one option – it’s a term that carries positive connotations but isn’t entirely accurate because it implies scalability which most small firms lack.  Law firm owner is another obvious albeit dull choice. Hands down, Unwashed Advocate  Eric Mayer has the best name of all, referring to his small firm as  fun-sized.

Still even though I don’t publicly call myself a solo, I privately identify. Because solo doesn’t just mean working for oneself. Solo is a state of mind; a blend of “vision, hustle and sheer doggedness that together transform adversity into a best friend.” And as I’ve pointed out since Day 1 , solos have always been at the forefront of innovation, driven by a combination of flexibility and sometimes, desperation.

But these conceptions of solo could apply in any business. In the legal profession specifically, solo means even more.  Solo is the  David who slays Goliath  and principled Atticus giving his all to an un-winnable case; solo is both the hero and the heart  and the humanity of what lawyers do.  As our profession struggles to figure out where it’s heading next, focusing on what solo is rather than how solos are defined can light the path forward.

Now it’s your turn to have a crack at Lee’s question, What Is A Solo Practitioner?  Either post in the comments below or discuss at your blog.