This week in Bigger than Biglaw, Neena explores the “stigma” associated with a solo law practice and how her perception of solos changed over time.
I have a confession.
I did not have the highest regard for solos during law school and my first few years in practice. 10 years ago, I would have arrogantly rolled my eyes if anyone said I was going to be a solo practitioner.
I recall one of my colleagues joking about them being “me, myself and I” firms.
This rang true to me. For me, the words “solo attorney” were synonymous with “alone.”
Honestly, from the outside, they kind of seemed like hot messes.
I thought they worked in these tiny poky offices and only took weird cases that no one else wanted. Frankly, I just couldn’t imagine what they did all day.
But one fact permeated my mindset about solo attorneys: They were “less than.” Meaning, they were unemployable by firms like the one I worked at. Going solo was their only option.
This misconception most likely stemmed from the early stages of my career.
Back then, I did not really know many solos and I definitely did not know any successful solos.
In my view, a successful solo was a unicorn. A myth. A fantasy.
When I first thought about going solo I was immensely concerned about what people would think. Coming from a large multi-service firm, there was an inborn culture that solo lawyers were solo by force rather than by choice.
I internalized this stigma. I thought clients shared the same mind-set – clients went to solo attorneys because they could not afford real representation.
Enter the economic crisis of 2008. Suddenly, people I knew were laid off from large, multi-service firms.
As the economy and the legal market downsized, more and more of my colleagues and contemporaries were sending me firm announcement emails.
These were people I knew. These were people who were good lawyers. These were people who had located their solo practices in office buildings and brought bigger reputations. The solo stigma was lessened in my mind.
Notwithstanding, deciding to leave a biglaw career and hang your shingle is surprisingly stigmatized. It provokes an uncomfortable feeling in lawyers and civilians alike.
It is like being middle aged and unmarried. Your shingle comes with a cultural pity.
Like most solo attorneys, I did not fail my way into a successful solo practice.
In fact, going solo was the best thing I ever did for my career.
If you have been reading this series, you know how I got here. (If you haven’t – go read it.) Going solo is not a decision to be taken lightly.
The inherent problem with the term “solo lawyer” is the inference that the lawyer you hire is solitary. They have an office on a remote island without cell phone reception and no professional network to act as a safety net.
I may be solo, but I am not alone.
I have chosen an office space where I am surrounded by talented self-employed lawyers whom I can bounce ideas off of, get their opinion and figure out problems with. This collegiality has helped me with cases many times before and will continue in the future.
To become a successful solo practitioner, you need to have real confidence in your own knowledge. You also need to be armed with a realistic humility.
I am very aware of my limitations and I do have nights where I stay awake thinking: “Bloody hell, can I send that person abroad or will they get stuck???”
These sleepless nights are testaments to the value proposition solo attorneys provide clients. To me, clients are not just a way to reach my billable hour quota anymore. They are people. They have children. Their livelihood ensures my professional accountability.
2013 is a great year to be an independent lawyer. Today I have access to the same or similar technology that a lawyer at a 1,000 person firm has. I have legal software, I have universal document access, and my clients can reach me at any time, sometimes to my chagrin.
And I view this as the first step. Solo today and who knows what tomorrow? I view my business plan in terms of growth, not treading water and keeping the status quo.
The fundamental irony about deciding to go solo is that nothing really changes. You still provide the same quality services. With one main difference; the firm name.