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Going Solo Doesn't Mean Going It AloneThe true solo practitioner is a myth, says attorney Paul Schorn. While a solo's "staff" may not be on the payroll -- making it less visible to those outside the "firm" -- recognizing the role of crucial team members is vital to a solo's long-term success. Above and beyond the obvious need of help answering phones, typing and other office chores, a solo requires a crack virtual staff he or she can depend upon. Schorn explains how anyone from a CPA to a teenager can help keep a solo's business afloat.
Texas Lawyer2007-11-19 12:00:00 AM
The true solo practitioner is a myth. Lawyers who practice without the help of others live in a make-believe land with Paul Bunyan and chupacabras. They don't exist, and that's because it takes a team of a dozen (likely, several dozen) to practice law well.
While a solo's "staff" may not be on the payroll -- making it less visible to those outside the "firm" -- recognizing the role of crucial team members is vital to a solo's long-term success. Above and beyond the obvious need of help answering phones, typing and other office chores, a solo requires a crack virtual staff he or she can depend upon.
First and foremost, a solo needs law partners. I don't mean other attorneys who sign your pleadings or directly share the financial risks and rewards of your practice. I mean a group of lawyers with expertise in your practice areas, whose abilities and judgment you trust and with whom you speak almost daily.
They are -- among other things -- your sounding board for legal and ethical issues, a source for strategies and pleading forms and a repository of information about opposing counsel and courts. While you may not live out of the same checkbook, a solo's partners should recognize that their individual practices benefit from cooperation and mutual success. Cultivate them, depend on them, go out of your way to help them and thank them often.
It's worth noting that your partners don't need to be drawn only from those practicing on your side of the bar. A lawyer who represents plaintiffs in personal injury or employment litigation, for example, can gain a helpful perspective from lawyers who represent the people they typically sue, and vice versa. The crucial thing about partners is not so much that you always make the same choices but that you respect them and give their opinions weight.
A solo practice is a business just as much as a large firm in a tall glass tower. Ignoring that fact has closed far more solo offices than bad verdicts or poor legal reasoning.
Find a top-notch certified public accountant and stick with him or her. The practice of law generally attracts people who like to work with words more than numbers, and our financial judgment (or lack thereof) as a profession is infamous. We need the bean counters. They help us pay bills on time, insulate us from the feast-or-famine cycle common to solo practice and keep us out of trouble with the tax man.
Solos also need computer support. It may be a neighbor who trades services for drafting a will or a teenage son who trades his services for use of the car on Saturday night. There are also companies that solos can hire by the hour to update software or debug the computer system every six months or so.
Solos also need an advertising department. This can be as obvious as a phone book sales rep, but it should also include former clients, other attorneys and nonlegal connections in the larger community. Take their calls. The more people you talk to, the more likely you are to find the work you need.
Solo legal practice can be a hard road. Find a mentor, someone who has trod the path before and lived to tell the tale. His or her war stories may not find their way into your pleadings, but they will buoy you in difficult times and provide tangible evidence that solo practice is possible. No one would believe it possible for a human being to run a marathon or walk barefoot across hot coals if we didn't see people do it.
Lean on your family and nonlawyer friends. Run the facts of a case by your spouse before taking it on. Visit with your son's Pop Warner coach before picking a jury. They will keep you from breathing your own fumes. They will also help you avoid the trap -- especially dangerous to solos -- of confusing yourself with your work, and success over the course of years depends upon that.
Finally, every solo should appoint a spiritual board of directors for his or her practice. This is a group of people whose values, sense of humor and goals you admire; people who you feel deep in your bones "get it." It's not necessary that you ever meet these people. They can be living or dead, real or fictional. Mine is a motley crowd, including among many others Walt Whitman, Atticus Finch, Muhammad Ali, Steven Fromholz, Rosa Parks and Woody Guthrie. Write down the names of your board members and keep the list at your desk. Listen to what they have to say in novels, poems, biographies and songs, and bring that advice to work with you every day.
Solo practice can be satisfying and profitable, but it requires that you build a team to support you over the long haul. Even the solo must recognize the wisdom of the African proverb: "If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together."
Paul Schorn is a solo practitioner with offices in Lockhart and Austin, Texas.