How Michelle Morgan-Coole’s family life motivated her to create a part-time solo practice focusing on disability law
Although my plan was to get a law degree, practice two years before returning to school to get a Masters in Law and moving on to law reform, I soon learned first-hand the real meaning behind the saying “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans”.
Where it all Started
The first hiccup was an MS diagnosis during my last year of law school; the second was the breakup of the firm I had practiced at for 18 months. I was pregnant with my first child at the time, and after her birth returned to practice with my best friend from law school. When my daughter began taking seizures four months later, everything pretty much went to hell in a handbasket. Perhaps for the best then that a few weeks earlier my friend had closed her practice, putting me out of work.
For the next decade, my daughter was hospitalized four times a year with seizures that were only mildly responsive to medication. We quickly discovered that the more seizures she had, the more skills she lost. Overwhelmed with her health and developmental issues and convinced that law could not be practiced part-time, I took a step back from practice. My love for the law has never waned, however, and for the next twenty plus years, I worked as a legal analyst, providing a mix of legal services to other lawyers.
Meanwhile, I became heavily involved in the disability community, offering my services as a “parent advocate” to other families and soon realized that I now had two passions in life, law and disability. Joining forces with one of my long-standing lawyer clients, we worked together to provide what legal services we could to the disability community on a pro bono basis. It was his encouragement that led to me starting a legal blawg, “A Primer on Special Needs and the Law”.
Fighting for Families with Special Needs
Interactions on the blawg made me realize the true extent of the barriers families faced in accessing the justice system. One issue, in particular, struck home for me. Knowing that I would soon need to apply for guardianship of my daughter, I struggled with the fact that, despite my total lack of experience in the area, I would be able to bring the application on my own, while other families in the same position were being quoted legal fees between $4,000 and $6000. This realization ultimately led to my creation of the Nova Scotia Legal Guardianship Kit, which allows families to represent themselves in uncontested guardianship applications. This, in turn, led to becoming a disability speaker on a variety of topics relevant to the disability community.
My Return to Law
I was becoming a known quantity within in the disability community. Although I had no desire to return to a traditional legal practice, it struck me that I could return on my own terms. Working on a part-time basis dealing only with disability-related issues was a possibility.
I struggled with the viability of this idea that simply refused to go away, no matter how often I told myself that I had neither the experience nor the ability to open a solo practice.
Eventually, I worked up the courage to inquire on what I needed to return to practice after twenty plus years. The only requirement was to rewrite the Bar Exam, but I couldn’t quite convince myself to make that jump. The next writing was scheduled for a week after we were to return from vacation and it was literally the day before we left on that trip that I decided to write.
Offering “Low Bono” and Unbundled Legal Services
I first heard the term “low bono” at the same CLE workshop where I learned about unbundled legal services. I loved both the term and the concepts and immediately adopted both, suggesting my clients think of my practice as not pro bono, but low bono.
I see unbundled legal services as an extremely valuable proposition for both my clients and me. While they receive affordable access to the legal system, as a part-time sole practitioner, I have neither the time, experience nor woman-power to completely take on many significant cases. With unbundled legal services, I can still be of use to my clients while continuing to build my own practice.
To date, I have had no issues with offering unbundled legal services. From the very beginning, I made a concerted effort to ensure that I am “doing things right.” I have obtained a sample Unbundled Legal Services Agreement that I modify and use as appropriate, and I have made sure that I’m up-front with all potential clients about what they can expect.
Things are Still Changing
It’s been two years and although my practice is definitely growing, it’s still not enough to properly supplement my family’s income. I continue to do some work for one of my former lawyer clients. But it’s becoming a bit of a stretch to continue with his work while taking care of my own practice, which I think is a good sign.
I still struggle with how to best market my services to such a niche market, but I am an avid reader, even on topics I don’t find intrinsically interesting, like legal marketing. Unfortunately, I think I sometimes take in too much information to usefully process.
My Reason for Being
My situation is too unique to opine on whether other attorneys could manage such a practice. I practice on a part-time basis in rural Nova Scotia. What someone with better health, working more traditional hours in a larger market might be able to accomplish, I can’t say.
My raison d’etre for returning to practice was to provide access to justice for the disability community. If that means that my standard of living is somewhat (or even significantly) lower than what it might be in a more traditional practice, I’m totally fine with that, at least for as long as my practice continues to grow.
I wasted a lot of time pondering whether or not I could/should make this move. Now, my biggest regret is not making it sooner. I’m loving every minute of what I’m doing. Not only have I (finally) found my calling, but with the ONLY disability-specific law practice in the Province and as the only lawyer who doesn’t just practice in the area, but actually lives with it every day, I know I am offering something uniquely valuable to my clients.
If you’re seriously considering going solo, the best advice I can give is to close your eyes, take a deep breath and just do it. If it’s your passion that’s motivating you, then you owe nothing less to yourself and your family.