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It was a hit to midsized firms everywhere when Washington, D.C.-based Shea & Gardner, a well-regarded 70-lawyer outfit, opted this month to trade its independence for the long-term security of being part of 500-lawyer Boston behemoth Goodwin Procter. Law firm management consultants have long predicted the demise of the midsized firm, and this is just the latest in a series of mergers allowing them to gloat. An even more important question, however, concerns the fate of solo and small firm practitioners, who collectively account for more than six out of every 10 lawyers in the U.S. How can they compete in the face of such consolidation — and what are the professional trade groups that represent them doing to ensure their survival? At the largest such organization, the American Bar Association, the answer leaves little room for optimism. Instead of sinking more resources into the ABA Standing Committee on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners, the association’s budget planners have proposed eliminating the group entirely to save $139,000 — the allocation it receives from the current fiscal year budget of roughly $90 million. Formed in 1995, the committee is no stranger to the budget ax. Two years ago, its allocation was more than $200,000. It had two full-time staff members. It now has only one. ABA officials are scrambling to balance the organization’s expenditures with its revenues. Many funding reductions will be on the table for the ABA House of Delegates to consider at the association’s annual meeting next month in Atlanta. The standing committee has much public relations work to do. There is confusion over the differences between it and the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section. Many wonder if it wouldn’t be more efficient to simply roll the standing committee into that section. ABA sections, however, operate largely autonomously, relying mostly on the extra dues association members pay to belong to them. This has created competition between the sections for lawyers’ hard-earned dollars. The standing committee was borne out of a desire to have a single voice looking out for the interests of solos and small firms across all ABA sections. Also the GP Solo Section’s main focus is general law firm management issues. There is uncertainty over whether it would embrace the role of lobbying on behalf of solo and small firm lawyers. But there is no question over the success of the standing committee’s SOLOSEZ.net electronic mail discussion list, which unites more than 1,000 solo and small firm lawyers across the country who, unlike their big firm counterparts, often don’t have the luxury of being able to walk down the hall when in need of a colleague’s advice. For some, it’s an essential resource when questions on substantive law arise. For solos without any co-workers nearby, it’s a virtual water cooler when they need to vent or take a break from the pressures of the job. “It’s the best thing about the ABA, as far as I’m concerned,” said commercial litigator Patrick W. Begos, of four-lawyer Begos & Horgan in Westport, Conn. Begos left the mammoth Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York just as its computer network began to allow its lawyers to interface with one another instantaneously. “This is kind of the same thing,” he said of SOLOSEZ. With escalating concerns over how to level the playing field between solos and their big firm competitors, SOLOSEZ is doing just that, allowing members to pool their collective brain trusts. And though few doubt the e-mail group will fall by the wayside due to budget cuts, its champions question why the ABA would tinker with a such a highly regarded member-benefit when it strives to become more vital to its members — not less. Why, indeed?

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