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On SoloSez, the Sun Never SetsIt's hard to overlook the giant global firms with their legions of lawyers who can turn to each other for assistance. But in their midst there is another type of megafirm whose identity might come as a surprise, writes Miller, Turetsky, Rule & McLennan partner Keith B. McLennan. It's SoloSez, a listserv sponsored by the ABA's General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division. The listserv has more than 3,100 e-mail subscribers who provide support, collaboration, referrals and entertainment for its members.
2008-02-01 12:00:00 AM
Many lawyers can name the big global law firms. For example, Clifford Chance, DLA Piper and Baker & McKenzie each have more than 3,000 lawyers on staff.
Yet there is another 3,000-plus lawyer firm whose identity might come as a surprise. It's SoloSez, a listserv sponsored by the American Bar Association's General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division.
With more than 3,100 e-mail subscribers located in Fiji, Mexico, Australia, Great Britain and Germany as well as the United States, Solosez could be described as an international online discussion board, but that description would not come close to capturing the support, collaboration, referrals and fun its members share.
Like most firms, SoloSez started out small. "We started the list about 12 years ago," recalls Bruce Dorner, of the Dorner Law Office in Londonderry, N.H. "The staff director with the ABA's GP/Solo division asked me if there would be any benefits for having an e-mail listserv."
"If you remember, 12 years ago even e-mail was something new. We thought we'd take a chance and that maybe we would have 100 lawyers participating if we were lucky," said Dorner.
According to Jennifer J. Rose, who served as the SoloSez list administrator for nearly 10 years, there were about 250 members in 1998 when she began her tenure. "I can remember in 2000, we had 690 members and we wondered what it was going to be like when we have 700. Then it went to 2,500 and now it's over 3,000 members."
Dorner explains that the goal of the list is to provide a professional resource as well as social interaction for lawyers who practice on their own. "Lawyers in firms can step out of their offices and find colleagues to ask about legal issues. Solo practitioners are on their own."
Or they were before SoloSez entered the picture. Now with colleagues sending 100 to 200 messages a day, solo and small firm practitioners are only as far away as their keyboards from finding opinions on legal issues, answers to technology questions or even a place to discuss the greatest rock 'n' roll songs that should be played loudly while driving.
Rose says that the list, whose members refer to themselves as "the firm," began like a junior high school dance, with people all gathered and unsure of what to say to each other. "There was a lot of tech talk while we tried to find our voice."
At first, there were lengthy technical discussions on the merits of Word versus WordPerfect, or comparing Macs and PCs, according to Dorner.
One day, he said, "someone posted a question, saying, 'I am having this problem with a client. What do I do?' People answered. Then there was another question and all of a sudden we were off."
Duke Drouillard, of DrouillardLaw, in Omaha, Neb., says that he notices that the list changes, depending on who is posting. "At any one time, there are 25 to 50 people who are active. Some drop off, others pick up. It depends on the demands of a lawyer's personal or professional life."
Drouillard's favorite part of the list is the legal questions asked by SoloSez members and the opportunity to see the law from a number of perspectives. Because everyone has the same set of facts, he believes it's possible to learn a lot about his colleagues by how they answer the questions. "You get an intuitive sense of the poster's personality. You can see their approach to life and the practice of law." Drouillard says he tends to focus on content by posters he has come to recognize as reliable.
Carolyn Elefant, of the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant, in Washington D.C., said that initially the professional advice was the most important part of the list. Elefant signed on to SoloSez in 2000, following the birth of her second daughter. "I had just started working out of my home. I relied on this list for information on topics like dealing with a nasty opposing counsel or handling a non-responsive witness."
Dorner says the collective knowledge of the list members produces the wisdom of the group. "Solosez members come to the law from a variety of different backgrounds. We have an airline pilot and an ER physician."
Rose says at one time a social worker gerontologist was on the list as the owner of a HVAC company. The social worker had a lot of good information whenever a listmate had a question on elder law or elder care. The HVAC company owner knew small claims court and collections better than most of the lawyers on the list. Both planned to go to law school. "I don't know if either of them ever went ahead with their plans for legal education, but while they were on the list, they were great contributors."
Currently, 90 percent of those on the list are solo and small firm lawyers. The other 10 percent is made up of lawyers with larger firms, law students, vendors and law practice management administrators from State Bar associations.
Elefant said that, when she joined the list in 2000, there were political discussions. After the disputed 2000 presidential election and the Sept. 11 attacks, the list ran the risk of becoming so politicized that it detracted from its purpose of providing community and support. As a result, a new list, Solopol, was created to let people vent.
In addition to sharing opinions, members of SoloSez share business. Dorner estimates that legal referrals worth well upwards of $1 million dollars have taken place via Solosez.
"I teamed with a SoloSez member on an energy issue," says Elefant, who specializes in energy and regulatory law. "I had the expertise in the industry and he had the contacts in the local community."
She notes, "I have always had rave reviews from my clients about any referral I've made to another lawyer on the SoloSez list."
Today, along with a source for referrals, Elefant says, "I rely on the list for camaraderie and friendships. I have been working in a home office and the list brought me into the fold. I discovered the list when I was embarking on a part-time practice after the birth of my younger daughter. I was dealing with the isolation of working in a home office. If it were not for the list, I am not sure I would have been able to continue to work in isolation. It helped save my practice."
Camaraderie and mutual respect are important aspects of the list for Drouillard. "It allows solo practitioners to reach out to other people. Since most of us do not have an office with people around us, the cyberconnection takes the place of human contact."
That sentiment is echoed by Elefant, who points out, "As we become more tied to the Internet, people want more human contact."
One way that human contact happens is through groups of SoloSez members who gather for lunch or dinner. There are three groups of SoloSez members in the Boston area, a group in Washington, D.C., another in Atlanta, and groups elsewhere that meet periodically as members find the need to connect.
"Now, whenever a member of SoloSez is traveling out of town, he or she will post to the list asking for recommendations on where to stay or where to eat. People will respond with suggestions and often offer to have dinner together. Or, people might say that they need a conference room for an afternoon out of town and list members respond," says Rose.
Elefant said one year her husband had to work in Birmingham for a few months. She contacted a lawyer on the list who lives in Birmingham. "He introduced me to other lawyers, and all of a sudden I felt like I was part of a community."
Dorner relates how a few years ago he and his wife were taking their children to San Diego. He posted on the list asking for recommendations. A lawyer whose name he recognized e-mailed him with a suggestion on where to stay -- La Jolla, not San Diego -- and asked what he and his family wanted to do. Dorner replied that the most important thing his wife wanted to see was the zoo. "When we checked into the hotel, which was superb and priced right, there was a basket waiting for us with information on San Diego, some items for the children and four behind-the-scenes passes to the San Diego Zoo. We were overwhelmed."
Dorner called to say thanks and to invite the lawyer to dinner. The lawyer was unable to come because of depositions. "I've never met that person, but when I called to say thank-you on behalf of my family, the lawyer said someone owed her a favor and she finally could take them up on their offer."
For Drouillard, the support that SoloSez members show each other is one of the most important facets of the firm. "The amount of camaraderie and mutual respect are surprising," he says.
That concern for each other has long been part of SoloSez, Dorner notes. "A few years ago we had a list member who also was a trained psychologist. One night he was on the list late and saw a post from another member that used language he found disturbing -- disturbing enough to pick up the phone and call the colleague. That conversation confirmed his fear that the person was likely to do harm to himself. He contacted a church in the area, sharing his concerns. The church sent someone over and the situation was resolved.
"That reaching out is indicative of Solosez. It is lawyers building bridges to other lawyers. Solosez has become a family. Even if you don't know the person asking the question or favor, you feel an obligation to helping, knowing they would do the same for you," Dorner says.
Elefant believes that there is an energy that solo practitioners have. "For most solo lawyers, their practice is an affirmative choice everyday. They are satisfied and enthusiastic."
Dorner says that the list fills a need that solo practitioners have for instant gratification. "You can ask a question at 4:00 a.m. and know that you'll have an answer -- or several answers -- in a matter of hours."
Rose says that no matter what time of day, people are on the list, joking that the sun never sets on SoloSez.
As to where Solosez goes from here, Dorner says that programs usually reach a critical mass and then fade away. "At one time, that's what I thought would happen to SoloSez. I'm at a loss to explain why this list is different, but we continue on the upswing with topics and members. Regardless of how big our firm becomes, I believe, we'll continue to be there to help each other."
SoloSez, hosted by the American Bar Association's General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division, invites solo and small firm lawyers to join its online listserv. To sign up or for more information, visit http://www.abanet.org/soloseznet/about.html.
Keith B. McLennan is a partner of Miller, Turetsky, Rule & McLennan, and the chairman of the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.