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THE RISE OF THE NEW SOLO PRACTITIONER
May 7, 2015
There was a time when “hanging a shingle” fresh out of law school was a reasonable career move. But gone are the days when communities were built around a common core of professionals: the barber, the pharmacist, the doctor, and the lawyer. The time when you had an almost guaranteed client base has long since vanished. Now, you can go to any corner in any city and find a surplus of these services.
Today, large law firms only hire a select few, and small law firms loathe hiring young lawyers that only cost them money. And if that wasn’t depressing enough, the economic downturn meant that unless you were related to someone with their name on the door, you were out of luck.
But a storm is a’ brewin’.
The “old school” solo practitioner is making a comeback. It appears that the economy has proven the old adage true: necessity is the mother of invention. Or in this case, “necessity is the mother of reinvention.” Welcome, the New Solo.
When economic pressures grow heavy, young attorneys often alternate between either of two extreme emotions: (1) soul-crushing despair; and (2) overwhelming confidence. It is when the New Solo finds peace in the instability that he or she can truly be effective.
It is my position that the single greatest mistake that law firms and clients make is underestimating the capabilities of the New Solo. In my brief time as a practitioner, I have noticed that the most passionate, diligent, and dangerous trial lawyers I have had the opportunity to meet are New Solos, young lawyers who answer to no one but their client, the judge, and the IRS.
There is something peculiar about those of us who would opt to not be paid $100,000 salaries out of law school in exchange for charting our own paths. We dance on the edge of courageous and crazy, but that is what makes the core of the New Solo so remarkable. For when we hop out of the nest, there is no safety net, no old friends we can call, and no firm to snatch us up if we plummet. We live by a single truth: we fly or we die.
So why will we see a resurgence of the New Solo? Cost. It all comes downs to cost. For the client, that is the Alpha and Omega of their concerns. Unless a client has deep pockets to endlessly shill out for legal services, clients often worry more about the money expended rather than the ultimate result (at least on the civil side anyway). Just yesterday I was speaking to a business owner who was sued in a slip and fall case. Her lawyer’s billing rate was very very fair; however, she was adamant that she did not care about the outcome because his services were costing her almost as much as a settlement would have. And here is where the New Solo comes in.
Laptops that weigh as much as two loaves of bread; data storage devices that can fit in a suit pocket; trial software you can operate from an iPad; case management services that cost less to run per year than a steak dinner. With these advances, the New Solo is able to cut operating costs to a fraction of what competitors charge while providing increased levels of client service. This means that clients who are billed hourly get more “bang for their buck.” It also means that those of us that charge on a contingent basis can charge less in expenses, which translates into a greater net to the client.
Not only can New Solos get it done cheaper, but we are also often more mobile than many of our traditional peers. With cloud-based computing services, the New Solo is no longer confined to one geographic location. A capable New Solo with some gumption and a Wi-Fi connection can now handle cases that had to be farmed out to another attorney on the other side of the Commonwealth.
Now for a sobering reality: while cost and efficiency are matters easily addressed by technology, one thing that no gizmo or gadget can trump is years on the job. Like most professions, clients trust gray hair. So does that mean that the New Solo is again out of luck?
Au contraire mon frère.
While experience is generally measured year-by-year, a thorough understanding of your particular area of law is a fantastic supplement. The New Solo may not have gray hair, but with the ability to utilize modern technology and research techniques, a New Solo can quickly develop expertise. The ability to merge technology and research together is often overlooked by some older attorneys and not given its due respect by younger practitioners. I have born witness to veteran attorneys get embarrassed in the courtroom by a greenhorn who knew the law inside and out. The New Solo, prepared and fired up, can be a formidable opponent in the courtroom.
It is time for the New Solo rise from the ashes, reinvigorated and reinvented. Law firms and clients alike would be wise to take notice. Determination and sheer audacity is the New Solo’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We fight hard with every bit we can muster because that simple truth never escapes us: