How do you know if solo practice is right for you? Do you have what it takes to organize, manage, and assume all the risks of running a law practice?
As Bill Nye would say, please consider the following:
Solos get to call all the shots: client selection, case selection, setting fees, choosing a practice location – every decision that goes into running a practice. The responsibility rests on your shoulders. Do you find that appealing, daunting but doable, or overwhelming? If you answer is appealing or daunting but doable, please proceed.
Are You a Decider?
Some people are decisive, others are not. If you agonize over choices and normally poll multiple friends and family members before making a decision, solo practice will be difficult.
Solos need to make business and practice decisions every day. Some of these decisions must be made under pressure with little time to reflect. The reward, of course, is that you get to decide. You have the freedom and independence to use your creativity, knowledge, and skills to solve problems.
Are You a Self-Starter?
Solo practitioners must be self-regulating. Can you get the work out without someone supervising? Give regular attention to administrative tasks like billing and bookkeeping? It will be up to you to meet deadlines, organize your time, and follow through on details. If you are a good planner and organizer, your solo practice will be successful.
Are You a Marketer?
All lawyers in private practice are expected to develop business, but in a solo practice the pressure is greater. You’re it. Can you create your own networking opportunities and business contacts? Devote time to blogging or updating your website? Post to social media? Speak at CLEs? Write articles for bar publications? Build business referral relationships?
What resources are available to you? What financial demands and commitments do you have? Is it possible (or desirable) to apply for a micro loan, regular loan, or line of credit? Are you up for crowdfunding? Start by reviewing your expenses, then prepare a start-up and monthly budget. Read about other business/financial essentials here.
Drive, Stamina, and Work-Life Balance
Can you practice law, run a business, and keep it all in balance with your personal life? Are you strongly motivated? Healthy? Is your family supportive of your efforts? These are all good markers. Nonetheless, make a plan to care for yourself and manage stress. If you are looking for ideas or resources, contact the attorney counselors at the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program. Services are confidential and free to Oregon attorneys.
Solo practice requires a lot of time and work, but it also has benefits: no one looking over your shoulder, no pressure to take a particular client, freedom to work in the areas of law that you prefer, and complete flexibility in deciding when, where, and how to work. Is it a match for you?
Desks are the pedestals of our productivity. How we organize the stuff on them has a big effect on how well or if we get things done in a timely fashion. But just as important as these practical concerns is the impact it has on our mental health.
Stackers organize by topic in stacks. They are visual and tactile and like to give the appearance of order. The busier these people are, the more stacks they have.
Spreaders are visual like stackers, but must be able to see everything they’re working on.
Free Spirits keep very few personal belongings around the work area. They like new ideas and keep reports, books, articles and magazines near.
Pack Rats have emotional ties to things. They like the feeling of fullness around them and like to tell stories about what’s in the office.
These categories are insightful, and describe a fair number of people I’ve worked with. But they fail to recognize what happens when a lawyer is depressed, depleted of energy, and has no motivation to get organized. Dan calls this “the depressed desk:”
When a lawyer has depression, motivation and organization are BIG problems. A lack of energy blunts motivation. We already know that it’s a good idea to keep our desk together, but there simply isn’t much neurochemical juice to get it done….
We must outfox depression. It would have us do nothing. So we must do something.
Dan’s Six Simple Solutions [Abbreviated]
Get rid of all those pens. Only keep three or four.
Take home any books that you don’t use on a regular basis. [I would add: do the same with magazines and legal periodicals. Create a “free spirit” space at home if this is your organizational style.]
Hide cords – use twist-ties or coil your cords up.
Only keep on your desk what you need for that day. Then section off your desk and workspace so that everything has a specific space.
Have a dump day. Pull everything out, put it in a big pile, sort, and toss.
We communicate with clients along a continuum – using emails, texts, letters, phone calls, video conferences, and in-person meetings. When selecting a communication medium, what drives your choice?
When Your Convenience Determines How You Communicate
Choosing a communication medium that is most convenient for you is understandable. Odds are you’re busy, maybe overwhelmed. You have information to convey and want to pass it along to the client quickly and easily. More likely than not, you’ll fire off an email, maybe a text, or post a document and notify the client to login to your secure client portal.
This is perfectly fine if the information you have to convey is cut and dried: not controversial, unexpected, upsetting, or likely to provoke a series of questions.
For best results, prime clients at the first client meeting. Let them know to expect emails, texts, etc. when you have routine information to convey.
When Client Convenience Rules Communication
Some might argue this should be the gold standard 100% of the time: choose the communication method the client prefers or finds most convenient.
While I understand the spirit behind this point of view, it ignores some important realities. Consider this typical scenario: Client sends you a question by email or text, but is unclear in what she is asking or leaves out key details. In the name of letting the client control the means of communication, you can:
Begin an inefficient exchange of messages in an attempt to clarify the question.
Spend an inordinate amount of time “issue spotting,” then answer every conceivable variation of the client’s real question.
Have I made this mistake? Yes, indeed. But the goal here is to do better. Neither of these choices is a good way to go.
Client convenience/preference can rule when you have straightforward information to convey. [Spot a theme here?]
If the client is being murky, don’t text or email. Pick up the phone. You’ll get to bottom of the real question far more quickly. Send back a quick message: “Let me call you to discuss this. Is 2:00 p.m. a good time?”
Purposely Choosing a Communication Method that is Inconvenient for the Client
If we’re being truthful, most lawyers have done this at one time or the other. You leave a voicemail at home because you know the client is at work. You send an email late at night when the client is likely to be sleeping. You mail a letter instead of picking up the phone to talk.
If you occasionally choose a means of communication that avoids contact with your clients, don’t worry about it. You might legitimately go this route to simply get something done. [Your convenience is driving how you communicate.]
But if you find yourself avoiding clients (plural) repeatedly (chronically), stop and reflect. Most lawyers who choose an “avoidance” means of communication are doing it because:
They anticipate the client will be unhappy about whatever information it is they have to convey – or –
The client is already unhappy [which could be reasonable or unreasonable]
Chronic avoidance can become chronic procrastination, which is a no-win for everyone. Lawyers who repeatedly procrastinate are anxious, stressed, and sometimes depressed. They find it impossible to break the self-perpetuating cycle of avoidance: as clients become more and more unhappy because the lawyer isn’t communicating, the lawyer retreats even more – not checking email, not opening postal mail, allowing voicemail to fill up, not reading texts.
Talk about communication at your initial client meeting. Let the client know what to expect and set the tone.
My goal is to keep you informed at all times during your case. I will email (upload) routine updates and documents.
If you have a question, feel free to call (text, or email) me. I set aside (mornings) (afternoons) to return calls and messages.
If the answer to your question is complicated, or if I need more information to give you an answer, I may ask to set up a telephone or video conference.
I like to meet with clients in person to (talk about settlement offers, prepare for deposition, prepare for trial, etc.) If you want to meet in person, feel free to (call my assistant or me) any time to set up an appointment.
You are welcome to drop off documents (any time, after 1:00 p.m.). If you want to talk (leave me a note or speak to my assistant so we can schedule a time to meet).
Consider the information you need to convey and remember your goal in communicating: you’re trying to build and support a better client relationship.
Convey bad news in person, by video conference, or over the phone.
Discussing something complicated? Use the same approach.
Is your client prone to anxiety? Do you anticipate the client will have a host of questions? Ditto on the approach.
Potential Legal Malpractice
If you’re an Oregon lawyer, call the Professional Liability Fund at 1-800-452-1639 and ask to speak to an on-call claims attorney in any of the following circumstances:
You believe you committed malpractice
The client is threatening to sue or is asserting you malpracticed
If your goals for the new year include any of the following:
Reducing your stress level
Improving your office routines
Streamlining office systems
Balancing the demands of work and home
then resolve to get a head start. Check out these classic posts on how to “spring clean” your office systems and work habits.
If you’re an Oregon lawyer, you have a great resource right in your own backyard: the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program. The OAAP can give you guidance on how to develop your own stress management program using deep relaxation, meditation, time management, and other proven stress-reducing techniques. Best of all, OAAP services are free and confidential.
A significant measure of a person is not whether he or she avoids trouble, but how he or she meets it when they find each other…. I have developed immense respect for many of our covered parties, not because of their perfection as lawyers (they weren’t perfect), but because of how they coped with the claim. Bruce Schafer, PLF Director of Claims – Parting Thoughts: Lawyers are like other people.
Help is here if you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed
We recognize that having a legal malpractice claim filed against you is often very upsetting. Lawyers react in many different ways, including anger, loss of confidence, anxiety, avoidance, and inability to focus. If you would like assistance coping with the stress or other challenges associated with a legal malpractice claim, the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program offers free and confidential support and assistance. Information you provide to OAAP Attorney Counselors is not shared with the PLF Claims staff, your defense counsel, or any other person. In fact, no information is disclosed to any person, agency, or organization outside the OAAP without your consent. For free and completely confidential assistance call 503.226.1057 or 1.800.321.6227 (OAAP). NOTE: We ask that you do not discuss the facts or merits of the case with anyone other than the PLF, defense counsel, or others with whom you maintain a legally confidential relationship.
Putting claims into context
One of the most important roles we fulfill at the PLF or OAAP is helping you put a claim in context:
You are not alone. The PLF receives approximately one claim for every nine lawyers it covers. More than 80% of lawyers in practice 20 years or more have had a claim.
Having a strong reaction to an allegation of malpractice is very common.
There is never a downside to contacting the PLF or OAAP. Our services are confidential and we are here to help.
The PLF has two claims attorneys on call every day to talk to Oregon lawyers. You should contact the PLF if you are served with a summons and/or complaint; you are concerned that you may have made a mistake; a client indicates that you have made a mistake; someone threatens you with a claim or makes a demand for damages against you; you receive a subpoena, or someone requests information, documentation, and/or testimony about your representation of a client. Call the PLF even if you are concerned that the claim may not be covered.
At least one Attorney Counselor is on call daily at the OAAP office. The OAAP is available to assist with any issue that affects the ability of a lawyer to function effectively.
The PLF has four practice management advisors on staff who are available to help you take action and constructively move forward with office system improvements.