The 21st-century solo

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(Author’s note: Read to the end to learn about a scholarship contest for sole practitioners.) During my recent webinar on legal marketplace trends with Susan Cartier Liebel of Solo Practice University, I raised a point about solo law practice that’s been bothering me for a while.

Almost every lawyers’ association in North America, I noted, has a section devoted to “Solo, Small-Firm and General Practice” lawyers. My problem with that category is that it still lumps together two groups — solo and small firm lawyers, and general practice lawyers — that should now be considered separately. Today’s (and especially tomorrow’s) sole practitioner has to pursue a niched, specialized practice — one that offers a focused set of skills and expertise with which to compete in an extremely fractured and specialized marketplace. If anything, I argued, today’s “general practitioners” are in fact the national and global giants — the full-service firms who assure the marketplace that “we do everything.” The traditional roles have been reversed.

This reversal is part of what I think we can justifiably call a “paradigm shift” for the solo bar — a change in its underlying assumptions and realities. Sole practitioners (for the purposes of this post, I’ll risk a charge of hypocrisy and bundle “very small firms” under the same term) have been accustomed to viewing themselves in a certain light, a view that the rest of the bar has shared and encouraged: the jack-of-all-trades, the storefront attorney, the low-cost but personal-touch underdog. This view of solos directly contrasts them with bigger law firms: we are more flexible, more affordable, and more personal. The flip side of that contrast, of course, is that solos are viewed as less specialized, less sophisticated and less able to take on big tasks.

Many solos have long been content with this trade-off.  Not only that, many have welcomed the current upheaval in the market that has caused bigger firms so much heartburn. We’re now poised, they say, to take in those price-conscious, relationship-hungry clients who’ve left the giants — this is our time.

To which I reply: not so fast. Solos are not exempt from the revolution. Everyone else in this market — big firms, mid-size firms, corporate clients, consumer clients, law schools, legal publishers and many others — is being transformed by the crucible of these times. Solos will prove to be no different. Taking advantage of this new market will require solos to change as well, which will mean abandoning some long-held habits and identities.

Here’s what I see as four characteristics of the successful 21st-century sole practitioner.

1. Specialized. I mentioned this at the outset, but it bears repeating. “General practice,” in real terms, has traditionally encompassed a range of product and service offerings that today have become economically unfeasible for lawyers. Real estate transactions, straightforward wills, contract drafting, incorporation and other basic business law services, and so forth — these are the stock in trade of the online, automated, or para-professional providers now accelerating into the market. This type of work has never paid handsomely, but in future, it will rarely pay enough to justify a lawyer’s efforts. Running a general practice has usually meant being good at a broad yet shallow range of services; but the shallow waters are precisely those into which the new competitors have advanced.

The solution for solos is to go deeper and develop specialties. Yes, as you give up a wide swath of your current broad practice, you will lose clients — but as you drill down and build up valuable expertise in a specific area of law for which there’s market demand, you’ll add clients, many of which will pay better for your scarcer skills and knowledge. And thanks to the internet, your geographic market has widened enough to allow you to maintain your reach while narrowing your offerings. Solo specialties are not unprecedented: criminal defence and family law practices are longstanding examples (although “vocation” is also a good way to describe these challenging but socially crucial practices). Most solos outside these areas of practice, though, have been general business and consumer lawyers. Now they need to focus.

2. Sophisticated. This is partly a function of specialization, as described above, but it’s also a function of business infrastructure. Solos cannot afford to give anything away to their rivals in bigger firms — yet they’ve usually been quick to concede organizational sophistication: we don’t have the marketing budget, we don’t have the IT capability, we don’t have the administrative capacity to do what bigger firms do. This simply isn’t a viable concession to make anymore — solos need to be running businesses as powerful and efficient as any big firm in their neighbourhood. Mid-size and larger firms that have taken infrastructure seriously and invested in it (especially on the client-facing side) have changed marketplace expectations of what a law practice should be able to do. You’ll have to keep up.

Fortunately, now you can. The available suites of law practice management software have never been better, more varied, or more affordable than they are today. In addition, cloud-based law practice management providers have emerged and have become completely reliable in a remarkably short period of time, removing the need to host any of this software or data on your own office systems. Virtual assistants can carry out administrative tasks as or more cost-effectively than an on-site person, often at customizable hours. Good websites and blogs allow solos to build up market profiles many multiples greater than their physical footprint could manage alone. Advanced client intake/contact and workflow systems can be implemented once and left humming for years to come. Your business can now be as sophisticated as you need it to be without overwhelming you with time and financial costs.

3. Collaborative. The “lone wolf” image of the sole practitioner was hard-won and is something many solos continue to treasure. But as I’m sure you’ve heard, this is no time for lone wolves, not in this economy or in this society. Solos simply must be networked, connected and collaborative in order to survive. Partly this is a matter of taking advantage of both old and new networks, from specialty bar groups to LinkedIn, and of contributing to communities like the blawgosphere. But it’s really about learning to collaborate with other solos, and even with larger firms, on projects that more and more frequently will involve multiple types of lawyers to achieve the client’s objectives.

The biggest knock against small law practices is that clients are reluctant to entrust them with anything more than small jobs — that for work of any real size or scale, clients consistently seek out the bigger firms with their greater manpower and their brand assurance that size guarantees reliability. This may prove to be many large firms’ strongest and most resilient selling point: don’t worry, because we have the critical mass to get anything done. That may be a battle that solos can’t win — but it’s not territory that you want to give up altogether, because the financial and intellectual rewards of big projects can be immense. So find ways to collaborate with other practitioners — perhaps as part of the free-agent lawyer wave, perhaps by launching your own specialist solo network that works together on projects — finding ways to punch above your traditional weight class.

4. Innovative. In many ways, I think this is the most important feature of the successful 21st-century solo. Sole practitioners have long prided themselves on flexibility, nimbleness and efficiency as market advantages, but bigger firms are now picking up some of these features by necessity. Solos can continue to have an entrenched advantage in innovation, however, because the bigger you are, the harder it is to enter new markets and try new things. Here’s how Clayton Christensen puts it in The Innovator’s Dilemma:

[C]reating new markets is significantly less risky and more rewarding than entering established markets against entrenched competition. But as companies become larger and more successful, it becomes even more difficult to enter emerging markets early enough. Because growing companies need to add increasingly large chunks of new revenue each year just to maintain their desired level of growth, it becomes less and less possible that small markets can be viable as vehicles through which to find these chunks of revenue.

Newly emerging markets offer tremendous potential, but big companies simply can’t afford to expend the resources necessary to exploit them early enough. That’s not a problem for smaller companies, which is one of the reasons why so many of today’s disruptive technologies and new markets were harnessed by start-ups. (Christensen himself recommends that big companies set up separate small divisions to pursue such opportunities.) Small law firms are in the same position: they can afford to innovate, to take chances and to try new markets and approaches in ways that big firms can’t. I submit that this will prove to be solos’ most formidable marketplace advantage, and they should press it.

What that means is that you can’t continue to practise solo law the way you always have before. You need to break out of the habits, limitations and rules that you always assumed constituted the underlying framework of sole practice. Maybe they did, once; they don’t have to anymore. Seek out clients from sectors you always thought were beyond your reach: what would it take to bring them in and keep them? Run your business in ways few other solos or small-firm lawyers would try:

and many others beyond what I’ve just tossed off in a few lines. Create markets where they didn’t exist before, deliver services in ways that haven’t been done before, define and run your business in ways that haven’t occurred to other lawyers before. The ability to conceive of, and then act to exploit, new opportunities will be the hallmark of the successful 21st-century solo.

To that end, I’m going to punctuate this post with something pretty different in itself. In conjunction with Solo Practice University’s second anniversary on March 20, 2011, I’m giving away five scholarships to Solo Practice University (valued at US$695 each; CLE is not included), courtesy of Susan and her team. These scholarships will be given to five current or soon-to-be solos or small-firm lawyers who are now engaging, or are ready to engage, in 21st-century sole practice. Drop me a line at jordan@law21.ca and tell me about the practice you now operate or that you plan to develop — describe the ways in which it is or will be specialized, sophisticated, collaborative and/or innovative.

I’ll be accepting entries from March 15 to April 30, 2011. Throughout the course of May, I’ll select the top 10 entries and my colleagues at Edge International and Stem Legal will help me determine the five winners. I’ll then post the winners, and descriptions of their practices, in a post here at Law21 on Wednesday, June 1. Get ready to innovate!

Jordan Furlong speaks to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.

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2 Responses to “The 21st-century solo”

  1. Christopher G. Hill

    Great thoughts Jordan! As a relatively new solo (about 9 months) I agree with most everything you have said. The web and other technologies allow me to “have practice will travel” and am able to do more with my limited time. I also find that other firms have been willing to use my services with my specialty on a “contract” basis.

    Thanks for helping us solos out.

  2. Richard Granat

    The idea of giving recognition to solos and small law firms is an excellent one. For the last three years the elawyering task force if the ABA Law Practice Management Section has awarded the James Keane Award in Excellence in lawyering. We are now searching for a law firm for this year’s award, which will be awarded at this year’s ABA TechShow. Few applicants for this Award have met our criteria. We are hoping that the number of law firms that are truly innovative will increase over time.

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