Big Gifts Come in Small Practices
By Tanya Witt
The Witt Law Firm
With the holidays this month, I am writing about the important gifts that solo and boutique firm practices deliver to the legal industry and to society.
Compassion and accessibility
There are clients who consider their attorney to be not only their attorney but also a trusted friend. Often those attorneys are in solo or small-firm practice. Solo practices are very personal and reflective of the character of the attorney. When a client hires a solo practitioner, the experience, character and personality of the individual attorney are key factors in the decision. Clients are not selecting an impersonal big firm name when they hire a solo. Reciprocally, a solo attorney often accepts only the cases and clients he wants. As the owners of their firms, solos do not have to work with a client or on a matter if they do not feel the client is truthful, ethical and reasonable.
Solo attorney Matthew Patrick Dolan practices employment law and says he accepts cases when he believes a prospective client is honest and has reasonable expectations. Dolan says he accepts employment discrimination cases when he can say “I believe you” to his prospective client. He says he knows attorneys who work for larger firms who complain that they have to work on matters assigned to them even though the matters do not align with their personal values.
Educating clients so they can make the best decisions is an important part of what all attorneys do. But since the clients of solo attorneys often are people who may not have a lot of experience with legal matters, the education and resulting empowerment solo attorneys provide is especially valuable to society. When I represent a client with a premarital agreement or divorce, it may be my client’s first interaction with the process and related legal issues.
Like most solo practitioners, I work with and represent individuals, not large organizations. In addition to representing his issues, I must educate him about the law so he can make informed decisions. When we educate our clients we are empowering them. Working with individuals who may not have a lot of experience with legal matters takes patience and often tolerance. As a family law practitioner, I am tolerant that at times my clients may be emotional because the legal matter involves intimate relationships and often children.
Solo attorneys are usually highly accessible to their clients, and that is of enormous benefit to clients. Direct communication between client and attorney ensures the most accurate exchange of information. Every link of communication inserted between client and attorney increases the risk that the message will be inaccurately conveyed or misconstrued. When I am representing a client, all communication between my client and me is direct. If one of my clients has a question, they know they will be getting the answer directly from me and only me.
At large firms, there are often junior associates handling a client’s matter and, due to high turnover, the associate may not be with the firm through the duration of the client’s representation. When hiring a solo attorney or boutique firm, a client usually has an experienced attorney handling the matter for the entire duration.
Meg Benson, director of Chicago Volunteer Legal Services and fellow Chicago Lawyer columnist, pointed out to me recently that when solo attorneys provide pro bono legal services, their gift can be exceptionally generous, as it may literally mean money out of their own pocket. When attorneys in solo practice are not performing billable work they are not generating income, as they do not have associates or partners. For all attorneys, but for solo and small firm practitioners in particular, our time is our livelihood.
Solo practitioner David G. Harding is scheduled to go to trial in December in an eviction defense case that he is handling on a pro bono basis. Harding received the case through Chicago Volunteer Legal Services and has been litigating it for a year. Harding is an example of a solo attorney who generously gives of his time and skills.
I have discussed in a previous column the unique ability of solo and small firms to incorporate the latest technology into their practices. Because of their small size, solo attorneys and small firms can react quickly when new technologies surface. And since only one attorney has to approve its use, solo attorneys are frequently the first to implement emerging technology into their practices.
I find solo practice satisfying and worthwhile, as the practice fosters independent thinking, autonomy, accessibility and compassion. I believe a small-firm practice can provide these attributes as well. The nature of these practices allow us to help people and fight for justice while earning a living. And isn’t that why we wanted to be lawyers in the first place?