Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Lonliness of the Long Distance Solo Practitioner: Staying "Connected"

Part II of the "long distance runner" series

The first of the "Long Distance Runner" blog articles The Loneliness of the Long Distance Law Student: Do Study Groups Work Or Not - Your Call was a discussion regarding whether law students should go "solo" in their studying while in law school. In this article, I give you my thoughts on what is needed to take on the practice of law as a solo practitioner. 

The current hiring "crisis" has seen more law student graduates going the solo route because they have been unable to find employment, even after having passed the bar. With loans to pay and the longing to get into the fray, graduates have turned to opening their own offices in growing numbers.However, I don't want to focus on the client side (and how to increase), but on the . . well, "loneliness" side of being a solo practitioner.

I started my law practice rather late in my career. I had already been (in this order): an Assistant District attorney; an associate in a Wall Street law firm; an associate in a high volume Washington, D.C. Insurance Defense firm; an Assistant with the US Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division and finally an associate with a DuPont Circle,Washington, DC boutique Criminal Law firm before I went solo.

When I started my firm, I shared office space with a dear friend who, as a very successful personal injury attorney, spent little time in the office. Since I was quite familiar with the first commandment of being a solo practitioner: Thou shall keep your "nut' low. . .. very low. . I had no secretary, paralegal, I was truly "solo."  Therefore, for most of the day, I had his entire office all to myself. It was a dream come true -- or was it?

I was alone, very alone. . . all day long . . alone.

At first I thought that this was great. I could meet with new clients in solitude and never have any distractions. But I soon learned that collegiality and camaraderie is a very important part of the legal profession. When I was an ADA and a prosecutor with DOJ, all I had to do to get feedback or ideas on one of my cases was to simply slip into another attorneys office, grab a chair and start chatting. I always left the office a better lawyer with more information that I had when I entered. Same thing when I worked in a big law firm.

No lawyer can practice law as an island. 

Always stay keyed into your legal community as a solo:

  • Remain Active in Bar Organizations: both state and local. Also, remain active in specialty bars. One of the best experiences that I had as a solo practitioner was to part of The Hispanic Bar of Maryland. It was here that I was able to meet all the judges in the county in see them out of the courtroom in different social settings . .everything from social gathers to actually interviewing with the organization to gain support as they sought their judgeships. Priceless. .
  • Hone Your Lawyer Skills - through CLE's (here's that bar association "thing" again), and organizations like Inns of Court where you can participate in "moot court" competitions with the very judges that you see on a daily basis - and don't forget the morning or lunch "brow bag lunches" that will keep you on your toes with the latest legal trends in your county and state;
  • Continue to Run Cases By Colleagues -- in my view, this is invaluable. If you can longer -- as a solo-- run into a colleagues office next door, then pick up the phone, walk down the hall. . whatever it takes. I remember that the best way as a solo that I had to discuss cases and bounce ideas off colleagues was while I was in court . . waiting for the call of the docket. That's a great time for lawyers to socialize and yes, gossip. So take advantage and use this time wisely;
  • Visit the Websites of local and state bars on a regular basis - a great way to keep up on events in your practicing area;
  • Have an online legal research tool -- I could never afford Lexis-Nexis or other major online legal research service, but a solo can always find an inexpensive version that will give you exactly what you need (as a criminal lawyer, I really only need the state opinions. I would pay a little extra if I needed a federal case, but it was never too much). You can also find the same services at your bar libraries, often for free. 
  • Participate in local and state related Community Service Events - I would always do the "legal advise" events that would usually be on a weekend at the local courts. I even did a telephone advise forum for a local television station. A good way to meet lawyers and perhaps clients.
  • Volunteer, Volunteer, Volunteer - did I say that volunteering was a good way to stay connected to lawyers (and new clients!) when you are a solo.

You can choose to be be a solo practitioner. . but never choose to do it. . alone!

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