Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Solo Legal Practice May Afford More Flexibility, Balance of Work and Lifestyle

If you’re an avid fan of the television drama “The Good Wife,” you may sometimes wonder what it’s like to work for a large legal firm. Yes, the hours do seem long and grueling, yet there’s that attraction of a high salary plus the glamor of high-profile litigation and courtroom challenges. I will admit that television does a fair job of portraying the ambiance of large legal practices, but as they say, the devil is in the details.

Here in Seattle, a partner in a larger firm must generate about $200,000 of billable hours just to cover overhead costs — associates, paralegals, secretaries and office leasing — before he or she starts yielding any individual profit. That’s a lot of financial posturing for the luxury of serving a larger practice with staff and office overhead. Still, bigger firms do provide valuable training for attorneys just beginning their careers. They learn the practice of law in their chosen niche or specialization, and they gain valuable experience in developing a clientele base.

My legal career, too, essentially began in a large firm, but I felt somewhat trapped in a field of practice that was heavily litigious and full of conflict. I didn’t like the combative nature of the litigation process, and I really felt I would be happier if I were working with people to avoidproblems in the first place, rather than solving them later down the road. So I approached my litigation clients, informing them of my decision to leave the firm and go “solo.” Basically, I said, “I want to help you grow as a business and be successful in business. You’ve hired me before to defend you in litigation. Why not consider me as your business attorney?” With this convincing premise, I hit the ground running with no interruption in business activities or income and have never looked back!

Having the freedom and independence as a solo practicing attorney is truly incredible. In one sense, you are tied to your practice because you must be available 24/7 for clients, but your workday is your own. You can create the hours that you work and the hours that you don’t. Although my work day may often be interrupted with phone calls or emails from clients, I also have the flexibility to work 12 or 13 days straight and then take a week off. More importantly, I’m able to balance my personal lifestyle with the enjoyment of my practice by working from several different locations, including Seattle and Whistler, British Columbia. I have done that since the 2010 Olympics, when I served as a volunteer for the event and realized that I could practice effectively from both locales with some help of modern technology.

Over the last five years of operating my solo practice, I’ve encountered other attorneys, too, that have successfully established their own practices with better incomes, leaving behind the larger high-profile firms and their overhead pressures. Why not? A big office tower with high-figure floor rents and maintenance costs is no longer necessary to practice law. Technology has revolutionized the legal marketplace. All you need is a desktop or laptop computer, a printer, a scanner and some mobile communication equipment, and your office can be any size anywhere, even at home. And when scheduling clients, you now have the flexibility of visiting their offices. In fact, I actually think clients are more appreciative of the fact that an attorney is willing to come to them on their turf. Instead of being preoccupied with billable hours at high rates, clients can now develop more cost-effective business relationships withtheir attorneys, where they feel more like partners rather than line items on a profit statement.

Even today I’m still surprised when new clients tell me of their disappointment with previous attorneys who were not responsive in returning phone calls or emails, or who scheduled meetings and then failed to show. I don’t understand it, especially with all the modes of communication technology available. Moreover, this behavior delivers a poor impression of the legal profession to the public. What are these attorneys thinking? Success only prevails when clients are serviced in a respectful manner. If we can provide this service to our clients from our home offices, so much the better.