Blogging, Politics, Small Law Firms

Do Small-Firm Attorneys Care Enough About Their Own Agenda?

Some of you will recall that in my manifesto, I expressed the view that we need more clearinghouses for information on small law firms. Well, it turns out I’m not the only one hoping for a gathering of small law practitioners.

Over at MyShingle, Carolyn Elefant posted a great piece about the need for a stronger voice from solos and small law practitioners. While we are both trying to rally this group to a cause, I’ve been approaching the efforts of this column with an eye toward the need to get information out to law students and lawyers looking to transition into a smaller practice. Elefant, meanwhile, tackles the idea from a political clout perspective, issuing the following call to action:

[A]s someone who has been tracking the institution of solo practice for nearly eight years, I urge you to hear me out about why it’s more important than ever that we solos and small firms demand that the “powers that be” (in this case, the state bars, the ABA, the mainstream legal media and law schools) start regarding us as the main event.

Small law firms as the “main event”? I’m skeptical, but certainly interested. After all, the vast majority of lawyers in the U.S. are working for small firms or as solo shops. Why aren’t we the main event already?

Elefant lays out some reasons:

A cohesive solo and small firm voice is wanting for several reasons: partly because we’re a divisive, independent lot, partly because we’re so busy serving clients and running our firms that we have limited time and resources to devote to molding policy and moving bureaucracy.

It’s difficult to be the main event when everyone in your corner is shouting something different. This sentiment echoes my lingering concern about the difficulty of creating a forum of small law firm information here at Above the Law. In that vein, I’ve been framing the issue as one of whether or not small law practitioners can find enough of a common ground on which to make a stand.

Alas, Ms. Elefant’s article raised a totally new issue for me: Do small law practitioners have any interest in finding a common ground? In other words, regardless of whether we can find a common ground, do we want to? I’ve been assuming that we do, but perhaps I’m wrong. (I still consider myself a small-firm lawyer, despite walking away from my practice.)

As I pondered the question, I reflected back on my former practice. As a young lawyer, I was concerned more with billing hours and less with molding policy and moving the legal bureaucracy. But I do recall that neither the two partners in my office nor the other senior attorneys within our circuit had much of an interest in joining together to give small law a bigger voice at the political table.

Specifically, I remember sitting at our local bar meetings, surrounded by the “old guard,” and watching their eyes glaze over as our circuit’s bar representative passionately pleaded for more active participation at the state level. This apparent apathy seems to be in line with my assumption that attorneys chose to pursue a smaller practice for the freedom from legal bureaucracies. As Elefant so aptly states:

[M]ost of my readers simply don’t care whether solo practice is, or ever will be “the main event.” Most solos, after all, are an independent lot who march to their own drummer and embrace the road less traveled.

I find myself wondering how pervasive this apathetic nature is within the small law contingent and whether it will ultimately be the Achilles heel of any effort to form a political coalition. Furthermore (and in my own self-interest), I wonder about the obvious corollary that lawyers of small firms have no interest in creating a forum of information despite its importance, which the article also highlights:

[W]hat’s lacking most of all is serious scholarship on the institution of solos and small firms of all types (not just general practitioners, but also big-law boutiques and niche practices). An academic institution or think tank that focuses on the changing institution of solo and small firm practice in an educated and objective manner could help pave the way for the kind of real, institutional change needed for solo and small firms to thrive and more importantly, improve service to clients and expand access to law.

While this column is in no danger of being mistaken as “serious scholarship,” I do hope it contributes to the overall effort that Elefant espouses. Of course she’s not just talking about making small law practice the main event; she’s already answering her own call to action via her upcoming “State of the Solo and Small Firm” address. You can register for the webcast here, and get updates on the same via MyShingle’s Twitter feed (@carolynelefant).

Based on your comments and emails, there’s obviously some interest in uniting the clans of small law toward a common goal (believe me, I wanted to do a longer and more elaborate Braveheart reference here, but was hesitant based on the readership’s very appropriate condemnation of screenplays), or at least toward a common repository of reputable information. Whether or not we become the main event is another question.

Are you interested in making small law practice the main event? Why or why not? Email me at Little Richard, JD at gmail dot com and, if you’re not doing so already, stay in touch with me via Twitter (@LittleRichardJD).

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