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An amazing 89% of all law firms comprise one to 10 attorneys, according to the American Bar Foundation’s 2000 Lawyer Statistical Report, www.abanet.org/ marketresearch/lawyerdemographics-2005.pdf. When the evaluation is expanded to include law firms of up to 20 lawyers, the percentage increases to 95%. Even though solo practitioners and small law firms constitute such a significant part of the legal profession, there traditionally has not been as much training and support as one would expect for solo and small firm practitioners. Take Page Tyran, an attorney who recently started her own law practice in Napa, Calif., and found it a hard first six months. “I feel overwhelmed trying to get it all done,” she said, responding to an informal survey. “This reminds me of first-year law school and the deer-in-the-headlight syndrome. I survived that experience and I am going to overcome this, but what a road!” Financial survival often is on the minds of new solo and small-firm practitioners. This becomes even more burdensome in light of the heavy debt that most law graduates have. This would suggest that law students would be hesitant to enter the financially risky world of solo or small-firm practice. However, a significant majority of law students expect to practice in a solo or small-firm setting. In 1991, when it last surveyed the profession on the topic, the American Bar Association determined that 86% of law students expected to join solo or small-firm practices, with 56% of law students planning on initiating their own law practice. See American Bar Association General Practice Section Committee Update (1991), www.floridabar.org/DIVCOM/PI/BIPS2001.nsf/0/ 7ba2696730b495d58525669e004df05e?OpenDocument. However, even with these numbers, law schools rarely teach students the basic business of practicing law. Course work such as law office management, skills such as marketing and tools including case-management systems are not shared. Practitioners often find themselves ill-prepared for practice in a solo or small-firm setting. It is certainly not an easy choice to initiate a solo or small-firm practice. Although solo/small-firm practice can be rewarding, there are many challenges that face these attorneys. Practicing in a solo or small-firm environment requires that a person be able to deal with risk and difficulty inherent in running what is in reality a small business. For those starting their own firms, there are heavy start-up costs-not only for getting together the physical materials necessary to start the law firm (including office space, books, furniture, office equipment and technology), but also the costs inherent and time necessary to build a client base. Furthermore, solo and small-firm practice has many ups and downs. Practitioners sometimes find themselves one month with too many clients with too many case issues and another month with no clients in sight. In the early years, it is especially difficult to know how to manage a firm’s overhead when the client base hasn’t been established and the firm is still developing its reputation in the community. Another challenge for solo and small-firm attorneys is isolation. Practicing on one’s own or within a small firm can limit access to the greater number of attorneys that would be available in a large law firm, a corporation, within the government or with a public interest organization. Often, it is difficult to find individuals to whom an attorney can turn for guidance on cases and ethical issues. Furthermore, a sense of community and camaraderie can be lacking, especially for solo attorneys. Working with a small group of attorneys or on one’s own can also be difficult, given multiple client demands, heavy caseloads and conflicting court deadlines. Personal emergencies and illnesses can be especially difficult for solo practitioners. While attorneys practicing in a larger environment may be able to delegate an overload of work or conflicting court appearances to others, solo and small-firm attorneys may not have these options. Rewards outweigh burdens With all of these challenges, one might wonder why practice in a solo or small- firm setting is appealing at all. The answer is clear when one looks at the wonderful rewards of solo and small-firm practice, and it is easy to see why many such practitioners experience their work as more fulfilling than other types of legal practice. Some attorneys enjoy the challenges of a smaller-firm practice. Ed Neufille, a Liberian immigrant practicing in Maryland, became a solo practitioner a few months after being licensed, making the choice because he wanted the freedom to work on interesting, complex cases of his choice. In his survey response, Neufille said that he not only enjoys the ability to focus on his area of expertise and enjoyment-immigration law-but also appreciates the discipline demanded by a solo practice, including close attention to detail, balancing his work and social life, and serving as both a businessperson and an advocate for his clients. Solo and small-firm practitioners often mention the advantage of flexibility in having one’s own practice. This flexibility allows the practitioner to determine the types of cases and clients chosen, increasing both the intellectual satisfaction and personal fulfillment in the work. Another advantage is the flexibility of choosing when to work. A solo/small-firm practitioner can more easily take on caseloads according to his or her own schedule, allowing for options to deal with family and child-care issues, to build in regular vacation or sabbatical time and to keep a balance between life and work. Family issues are particularly important, as we know that while 95% of law firms have policies that allow for part-time work, only 3% of their lawyers actually work part time, often due to concern about negative professional consequences. See Deborah L. Rhode, “Balanced Lives: Changing Culture of Legal Practice,” www.abanet.org/women/ balancedlives.pdf, at 12. Working at a solo or small firm more easily allows for part-time schedules for those lawyers who want to or have to limit the hours of their work. The ability to interact closely with one’s client is often reported as a significant advantage of solo and small-firm practice. Unlike many big firms, where an attorney may work only on a small segment of a large case, solo and small-firm attorneys get to know their clients and, in turn, the client will often refer their own or other legal business to the lawyer-creating both a sense of a true professional relationship and often a sense of community as well. Jon Katz, who practices in Washington, Virginia and Maryland, said in a survey response that working in a small firm allows him to be his own boss, choose the most interesting clients and cases and have greater control over the work he does, how he does it and when he schedules that work. “I also love being independent, and doing good and doing well simultaneously,” he reported. In addition to the many advantages of flexibility and close client contact, solo and small firms often provide women and minorities with a sense of more control over their work and their economic and professional futures. For example, according to a joint study by the National Association for Law Placement and the American Bar Foundation, African-Americans in their first few years of law practice report earning more as solo and small-firm practitioners than their white and Asian counterparts. R. Dinovitzer, et al., “After the JD Study: First Results of National Study of Legal Careers” (2004), www.nalpfoundation.org/webmodules/articles/anmviewer.asp?a=87&z=2. Contributing to community Another advantage of having a solo or small firm practice is the fundamental fulfillment of using one’s law degree to play a significant role in the legal system. Solo and small-firm practitioners conduct the work of the vast low- and middle-income communities of our country, including small businesses. Common community legal issues such as family, landlord-tenant, elder, immigration and labor and employment law often are handled by solo and small-firm practitioners. Solo and small-firm practitioners work every day on behalf of the police officer trying to have a will drafted, the home owner who is a victim of predatory lending, the small business owner attempting to negotiate a lease, the immigrant who is being deported and the elderly grandmother who is trying to collect her benefits. Solo and small-firm practitioners are people in the community working for the community, which can be both fulfilling and meaningful. Willow Misty Parks, a New Mexico solo practitioner who works in a 10-unit building that houses graphic artists, mortgage brokers and other solos, indicated in a survey response that her legal practice allows her to represent small, local businesses and promote community empowerment and development. Furthermore, she is able to arrange her schedule and meeting places around the needs of her clients, allowing them to have the access to legal help they need and allowing Parks to feel proud of her contribution to the community. In fact, the National Association for Law Placement/American Bar Foundation study demonstrates that solo practitioners in their first few years of practice report more “social value satisfaction”-the reported relationship between work and broader social issues-than any other category of attorney, including those at large and midsize law firms, public interest lawyers, legal services attorneys, public defenders and educators. This high level of social-value satisfaction may be due, as well, to the amount of pro bono and low bono (i.e., low- and discounted-fee work) that solo and small-firm practitioners perform. Routinely, bar associations rely on solo and small-firm attorneys to take on pro bono matters for indigent clients. These attorneys also serve the myriad of other clients who cannot afford to pay full fees, and they often create unique arrangements to accommodate low-income, working poor and middle-income communities. Solo and small-firm practitioners regularly use their full-fee cases to subsidize their low bono and pro bono work. A survey last year found that the average Law School Consortium Project solo and small-firm practitioner had a law practice comprising 37% full-fee cases, 42% low bono cases, 14% pro bono cases and the remaining as fee-shifting work. Law School Consortium Project Data Practitioner Survey (2005), at www.lawschoolconsortium.net/resources/survey.html. Many solo and small-firm practitioners devise innovative approaches to billing. One approach is “unbundling.” Unbundled cases are offered to a client as a cafeteria plan of options, with strict adherence to ethical requirements, allowing the client to pay per task. Clients are able, for example, to pay for drafting a legal brief or arguing a case in court or legal research, rather than paying a flat fee for the entire case. This increases the clients’ sense of control over their cases and allows a greater number of low- and middle-income individuals to afford legal services. For the solo and small-firm practitioner, there is increased access to a client base who might not otherwise be available and the satisfaction of providing legal services to clients who otherwise may have been left out of the legal picture altogether. Access to justice Another way in which solo and small firms are increasing access to justice through innovative billing methods is the use of bartering. Legal services are bartered for other services and materials such as office supplies, cleaning services, even acupuncture. In fact, bartering networks and programs have sprouted up in many communities. Solo and small-firm practitioners are on the front lines of legal access issues. American Bar Association studies have demonstrated that 80% of low-income people never have access to justice, and of the 20% that do, three-quarters pay for those legal services. Consortium on Legal Services and the Public, “Legal Needs and Civil Justice: A Survey of Americans: Major Findings from the Comprehensive Legal Needs Study,” Chicago, American Bar Association, 1994. More often than not, the lawyer who hangs his or her shingle on the corner performs this work. Solo and small-firm practitioners, who comprise so much of our legal profession and perform so much of the legal work for people in every nook and cranny of America, deserve to be adequately trained, supported and mentored. In the words of Elk Grove, Calif., solo practitioner, Jonathan Stein, “Life as a solo is hard. Life as a solo trying to do the right thing and help people who need it is even harder. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” Lovely A. Dhillon is the executive director of the Law School Consortium Project in San Francisco. The project encourages law schools to offer support and services to solo and small-firm attorneys.

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