Most days, I’m proud of owning my own small law firm. And while technically, I’m not a solo — I’ve had an assistant for over eight years now as well as a revolving crew of of counsel, part-time associates and independent contractors — many of my colleagues lump me and most very small law firms into that category nonetheless. So when other solos act foolishly or unprofessionally, it reflects poorly on the rest of us.
Understand, I’m not picking on solos. Let’s face it — large law firms are hardly paragons of upstanding conduct; one needn’t look further than the recent Dewey & LeBoeuf scandal as proof. But for whatever reason, when Biglaw behaves badly, that conduct doesn’t diminish the reputation of Biglaw in the eyes of judges and other lawyers as it does for solos.
So that’s why it bugs me when solos do stupid — and often avoidable — things. Here are my top three peeves:
1. Solos acting like cheapskates. As I blogged at MyShingle a few weeks back, solos often seek out free labor for to assist with legal work or administrative tasks. Not only does this kind of conduct violate labor laws, it simply makes solos come across as desperate and hypocritical. Granted, some solos don’t have the money to hire an associate or marketing assistant or social media guru — but if that’s the case, the solution is — duh, not to hire them. Moreover, most solos aren’t willing to work for free for the “benefit” of experience — so why would they expect others to do so?
2. Solos without malpractice insurance. Any lawyer — whether at a large firm or in solo practice – can make a mistake and either miss a deadline or a key issue in a case. Likewise, it’s not difficult for a disgruntled clients to grieve their lawyer – and even if the claims are frivolous, the lawyer may still need to respond to the disciplinary body. Malpractice insurance protects lawyers in both of these situations, by providing representation in grievance proceedings or defending the lawyer in a malpractice suit and if necessary, paying a judgment. Again, some solos may be operating at the financial edge – but malpractice insurance is not all that expensive and payments can be made in monthly installments. Moreover, some malpractice carriers offer part-time policies for just a few hundred dollars a year that cover solos who work a reduced schedule or who earn less than a certain amount (last time I checked with my carrier, the income cut-off for a part-time policy was $35,000). Others provide substantial discounts to lawyers who participate in “best practices” trainings sponsored by the carrier. There’s nothing sadder than reading about a client who’s SOL because a solo missed the SOL – and again, those types of stories reflect poorly on other solos.
3. Solos who are incompetent. When it comes to work product, big firm quality is, if nothing else, serviceable and workmanlike. Meaning that while Biglaw’s court filings don’t always sing, they’re not riddled with typos, grammatical errors, and outdated case law that hasn’t been shepardized. By contrast, solos hit both the highs and lows of the spectrum; on the one hand, you may have a talented solo who knocks it out of the park. But on other hand, you also have solos like the fellow who was the subject of Judge Posner’s wrath in this appeal of the lower court’s civil contempt order for failure to honor a subrogation lien. From Judge Posner’s opinion:
So we come to the merits. The defendants’ appeal brief is a gaunt, pathetic document (there is no reply brief). Minus formal matter, it is only eight and a half pages long. Brevity is the soul of wit, and all that, but still: the first seven and a half pages are simply a recitation of the history of the Georgia lawsuit, the settlement negotiations, and the present suit, along with questionable and irrelevant facts; and the tiny argument section of the brief—118 words, including citations—states merely, without detail or elaboration, that the defendants do not possess the settlement funds and therefore can’t restore them. The only supporting evidence cited (it is not discussed) is an affidavit by Lewis saying that she and her husband had spent her entire share of the settlement proceeds on a new house, a vehicle, and “repayment of personal loans, medical expenses, prescriptions, living expenses, and other expenses”; a pair of affidavits by Lashgari [the solo attorney] stating that neither he nor his law firm is “in possession of funds that could be used to” restore $180,000 to a client trust account; and a bank statement dated June 2011 for a trust account maintained by Lashgari’s law firm, Lashgari & Associates, P.C., www.lawyers4carwrecks.com (visited March 12, 2014). The bank statement shows the $500,000 deposit of the settlement proceeds and a subsequent withdrawal of $202,000, representing Lashgari’s disbursement to Lewis of her share of the settlement. The share he retained—$298,000, a shade short of 60 percent of the settlement proceeds— seems too high for a contingent fee, but he argues that Lewis owed him for unspecified “advances” that he had made to her. The latest entry in the statement is for June 30, 2011— fewer than three weeks before this lawsuit was filed—and shows a balance of $341,000.
The conduct and work-product described by Judge Posner aren’t typical for most solos. But, based on my own experience, I suspect that solos rather than large firms are responsible for a disproportionate number of the sloppy or non-compliant pleadings that are submitted.
So there you have it: three things that solos do that reflect poorly on all solos, myself included. What are your peeves about solo and independent practitioners? Share them below.
Carolyn Elefant has been blogging about solo and small firm practice at MyShingle.com since 2002 and operated her firm, the Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant PLLC, even longer than that. She’s also authored a bunch of books on topics like starting a law practice, social media, and 21st century lawyer representation agreements (affiliate links). If you’re really that interested in learning more about Carolyn, just Google her. The Internet never lies, right? You can contact Carolyn by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @carolynelefant.