One of the great things about practicing law is the wide variety of ways to get there. Whether you are an in-house attorney, legal services, a partner of a large law firm, a prosecutor, a public defender, a government attorney, a judge, or an independent practitioner, the ways we as attorneys provide access to justice and its delivery are innumerable. While there are many common elements to each form of practice, there are challenges and opportunities that are unique to each, and the independent or small-firm lawyer holds a special place in this cohort of practice options.
Sole proprietorships and small businesses are unique
Besides the fact that we don’t usually have lavish desks, mahogany furniture, or all sorts of staff running around, running a sole proprietorship or small business is its own brand of fun. Our primary role is often that of a small business owner, responsible for all aspects of the business including finance, billing, marketing, customer development, technology…and everything in between! This is all before we even take a moment to actually practice the law. So how can we do it?
Plan for change and be flexible
Because we are not always able to rely on other staff or attorneys, independent attorneys and small firms need a schedule that allows for immediate interruptions and changes in direction. In 2016, while working as a senior executive at a $2 billion global business process outsourcing company, I learned the power of flexibility. I ran a project management office, coordinating facilities in 17 countries and acting as the lead non-lawyer negotiating contracts, leases, and corporate M&A transactions. After a major acquisition, the CEO asked me, “Would you ever consider going to law school?” At 48, that seemed like a ridiculous proposition. But sometimes when the crazy question comes to you, you need to take a moment and think about what it could be: a signal for change.
A week in the life of a solo attorney and a small firm may not have the same level of change at all times, but clients may change priorities, opposing counsel may throw last-minute curveballs – life can happen! Each week, we need to set aside time to tackle priority issues. When a client is looking into a rapidly changing situation, it’s great to be able to say, “Yes, I can do that for you right away.” By committing to a block of time every day that leaves room for quick changes in direction, we actually build efficiency into our operating models.
Fast forward four years. I graduated from the Robert H. McKinney Law School Evening Program at Indiana University, passed the Indiana Bar, and served on the New York Bar (more late). I was considering becoming a corporate lawyer for my company. Well guess what? COVID. No job offer. My boss had left the company. We were in the midst of COVID downsizing, layoffs, pay cuts and unpaid leave. I had to change course immediately. Within a week, I hung my shingle, formed an LLC, purchased insurance, set up billing and communication systems, and registered my business with the state.
As independent lawyers and small firms, when we recognize that flexibility is our strongest asset, when we accept and look forward to those situations where things might go the opposite of what we expected, when we create schedules that invite interruption and the need to pivot, that’s where we’re strongest.
Become an expert in hyper-organization and triage
In order to manage all the competing priorities placed before a solo attorney and a small firm, we can’t waste time searching for that important file, email, dissertation project, or piece of evidence. Having a solid and coherent form of organization is essential in order to be able to locate critical information quickly. It takes real discipline to do it, but the time we can save pays dividends.
Managing a full-time career, studying law part-time, and staying engaged with my family while in law school was successful (mainly thanks to my incredibly patient wife) thanks to my hyper-organization. It was essential to plan how I was going to spend time each day: work, study, run, eat, sleep, study again.
How about all those annoying little “red dots” on your phone’s main screen, reminding you of all the to-do’s waiting for your attention? When I see someone’s phone showing 1,279 unread emails, 15 unread text messages, and nine unheard voicemails, I start to freak out a bit. For independent attorneys and small firms, the unknown and the unaddressed can be huge efficiency killers. While we’re working on one thing, we can’t help but think of all the undone things. Continually sorting through our inboxes, messages, calls, and other incoming communications a little at a time can allow intense focus when we need it most.
As many lawyers know, some of the most common complaints brought before the Disciplinary Committee relate to a lawyer’s lack of communication with a client. As independent lawyers and small firms, this becomes particularly important for us – and particularly difficult. We may not have dedicated support staff to handle calls, emails and requests for legal services. The things that compete for our time and our ability to stay ahead of problems, as well as respond to requests, are crazy sometimes. But a simple follow-up can be our best friend.
I am committed that when a client submits a request, that client will receive a response from me the same day or within 24 business hours. Now, I’m not saying that I respond to their request at this time. But I say my client will hear from me with something like “I got it. On it. I’ll get it back to you by (fill in the blank). Let me know if you need it sooner than that, and I may be able to shift some priorities. I consider it a failure if a client has to follow up and request a status update. It either means that I didn’t clearly communicate my expectations, or that I missed a deadline that I set. Neither is good.
For the lawyer in a small solo firm, this may seem impossible. But it actually creates a situation where the customer isn’t sitting there wondering, “Did my message get through? » ; “When am I going to get this?” » ; “Should I call back or send an e-mail?” By communicating too much with customers, we create time to focus on issues in a methodical way.
The modern fashion
After living through a pandemic, I think we’ve all had enough of the phrase ‘new normal’. So let’s stop saying that. But there is a “modern mode” for how a solo, small business can operate post-pandemic.
Many of us have found that workplace flexibility can actually increase productivity. When people aren’t commuting to and from the office, spending perhaps up to two hours a day in an unproductive state, more work can be done in fewer hours overall, especially the non-billable kind. As independent lawyers and small firms, we should embrace this modern mode. We can create an environment that balances ways for people to work collaboratively, leveraging technology, and getting feedback through internal discussion threads or external mailing lists.
Another positive result of our recent experience is that clients have become more flexible about ways to meet. Zoom, Teams, and FaceTime can all be a valuable way for lawyers to maintain a positive face-to-face relationship with their clients. It’s amazing when we schedule an in-person client meeting for 30 minutes or an hour, how often that time is used. But when we program them by video, it seems that we rarely use all the allocated time. Maybe it’s because people are tired of these methods of communication, but there’s no denying that these flexible meeting mechanisms have allowed us to be more efficient.
The most important thing for us as independent lawyers and small firms to remember is that we are not alone. Indiana’s legal community is abundant with others who have trod this ground before us. State, regional and local bars – especially those with individual chapters and small firms – are fantastic ways to be connected within our legal community. Feel free to reach out to another independent lawyer or small firm and talk about the common challenges we face. You never know: your solo business might end up getting “small” in the process.•
Scott Wilson is the founder of Wilson Law Associates LLC. The opinions expressed are those of the author.