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SmallLaw: Alone Again (Naturally): The Perils of Solo Practice

By Mazyar Hedayat | Monday, February 16, 2009


Originally published on February 2, 2009 in our free SmallLaw newsletter.

Two months have passed since I've written for SmallLaw. For the record, my absence was not entirely due to writer's block. Despite making changes in the way I work to make time for my writing, I'm busier than ever. Not that I'm doing better financially. I'm just putting in more time at the office. Much more. Why? Because for the past year and a half I've been truly "solo."

(Not) Solo by Choice

My status is not by choice. I'd like to make that clear. My associate took another position in Q3 2007 and, despite having trained him and worked with him through thick and thin for 6 years, he gave me 2-week notice and was gone.

Since then my office has been an experiment in sole-practitioner hell. Mind you, I tried to replace him. Well, not "replace." Instead, I reasoned that with scads of technology in place I ought to be able to hire paraprofessionals, even clerks, and maintain the quality of my work.

Instead, I have chewed through 16 employees over the past year and a half — attorneys, paralegals, and clerks. Not one of them could fulfill even the limited function for which they were hired.

Finally in April of last year I fired the remainder of my good-for-nothing staff and vowed to do every job in the office myself. Since then I've missed an average of 20 calls a day, have constantly missed deadlines, am always behind in my work, cannot find time to research anything, never get to complete more than a single draft of a pleading, letter, or contract, have not slept more than 5 hours, have not taken a vacation, work on weekends and holidays, have had virtually no preparation for any hearing or trial, see my family for an hour a night before falling asleep on the couch, and have twice worked myself into the hospital.

But the worst aspect of the past few years is that prospects who were ready and able to hire me ended up going elsewhere rather than waiting for me to get started on their cases or just respond to them (my average response time these days is about 14 days).

Do You Feel the Freedom?

But that is a small price to pay for the freedom of being solo, right?

Being referred to as "solo" implies that I cannot inspire a group of like-minded professionals to work with me, attract enough business to grow my practice beyond myself, and/or I am incapable of investing to keep up with client demand. Yet none of those things is true. I have had as many as 10 people working at my law office, plus 3 at my title company and another 10 at my Web company.

But once I admit to practicing alone people begin speculating as to why. Social misfit? Poor hygiene? Anger management problem? Functioning alcoholic? Disciplined by the bar?

Yet blogs like My Shingle, listservers like the ABA's Solo Sez, and a prodigious number of writers, continually wax poetic about how wonderful it is to practice alone. Just between us, that persistent cheeriness seems a little forced, don't you think? Like that friend on their second marriage who can't wait to tell everybody how very wonderful their new significant-other is. Who are they trying to convince anyway? If it's so great to be solo, why let everyone else in on the secret?

Of course sole-practitioners offer many reasons why being an army of one beats working with other lawyers. They don't compromise, live life on their own terms, are masters of their own destiny, determine their own work-life balance, make as much money as they want, take vacations at will, and most of all they [insert your favorite cliche].

Not only that, but they answer to no one except themselves. And clients. And judges. And staff. And creditors. And the attorney oversight authorities. And the IRS. And opposing counsel (who cam ruin their week just by filing two motions at the same time). And sole-practitioners handle it all without seeking guidance or obtaining support because who can you turn to when you're going it alone? Good for them.

Joining the Dark Side

Could it be that practicing solo isn't as cool as some would have us believe? I'm still thinking it over, but in the meantime I continue to look for that larger stage. That group or firm where I can practice without having to count pennies, call upon staff to research and orchestrate presentations, pleadings, and trials without having to be sleep-deprived in the process, get paid for my work rather than haggling with clients who nickel and dime my every move, and (dare I say it?) find time to write and blog ....

But let's talk about that another time. I have a brief due and haven't begun writing it yet.

Written by Mazyar M. Hedayat of M. Hedayat & Associates, P.C.

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Topics: Law Office Management | SmallLaw | Technology Industry/Legal Profession
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