The Business of Practicing Law



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The Work Lives of Solo and Small-Firm Attorneys

By Carroll Seron. Temple University Press.


By Carroll Seron. Temple University Press,

Philadelphia, Pa. 224 pages. $49.95 (cloth); $22.95 (paper).

The title and subtitle of this book leave the reader wondering whether the author intends to write about the business of practicing law or about the work lives of "solo" and small-firm attorneys. In fact, this book is mostly about a third topic: the critical role of gender-based advantages (to men) and disadvantages (to women) in determining the level of success of solo and small-firm attorneys. Before considering this topic, let us examine some of the other themes of Carroll Seron's insightful, though at times frustrating, work.

The Business of Practicing Law examines the work lives of solo and small-firm attorneys in the Regional New York Metropolitan Area (RMA). This segment of the legal community, once thought to be dying a slow death, is, in fact, growing and prospering. Seron, a professor of public affairs and sociology at Baruch College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, conducted a survey of representative solo and small-firm attorneys in the RMA in the summer of 1989.

Professor Seron finds that many have chosen the career of attorney because it seemed a "natural progression" or a "safe career." At the same time, many attorneys have "unrealistic expectations" regarding their chosen profession. Indeed, the popularity of the "Lawyers in Transition" programs offered by the Association of the Bar of the City of New York attests to the truth of this finding.

The main finding of the author, however, regards the emergence of the "entrepreneurial" attorney. This kind of small-firm lawyer, we are told, now treats clients as customers who need to be "sold" on the kind of legal services which they require. Such entrepreneurial lawyers are "creating legal businesses premised on marketing, automating and merchandising services." They do so by "pitch[ing] their practice to the media market of the region."

The author also discusses how the division of labor in small firms differs from that of large firms. In small firms, support staff are said to be used less efficiently and creatively, and associates are "treated less as potential partners than as employees who work for partners." But, reading this in 1996, one has to wonder whether associates at larger firms can still view partnership as a viable goal as opposed to a carrot dangled before them to obtain additional sacrifice. Moreover, in my experience, small firms, out of necessity, permit support persons to work in a flexible manner that allows them to tackle more challenging tasks.

Finally, Professor Seron insightfully analyzes how her interviewees were incorporating technology into their law practices and the financial insecurity of small-firm and solo attorneys. Among the reasons that financial and business planning are difficult for these lawyers is their uncertain client base, difficulties with cash flow, and tendency to be given discrete or "one-shot type" cases or transactions, rather than having ongoing matters from institutional clients.

The findings of The Business of Practicing Law are indeed fascinating. Yet certain aspects of the author's survey are already outdated due to the tremendous technological innovations and major upheavals and "right-sizing" in corporate America and the legal community over the last seven years. Additionally, technological advances in computers, software and telecommunications, coupled with failing costs, have smoothed the path to starting a solo practice or small firm. Born out of these upheavals, advances and improving financial requirements, a new breed of entrepreneurial practitioner has emerged.

But today, even the term "solo" may be more misleading than helpful, both within the legal community and to potential clients. Do we refer to the sole principal of a restaurant as a "solo restaurant owner" or do we call her "restaurateur" or "entrepreneur?" Although a typical "solo" practitioner today does not, by definition, have a law partner, her practice may well draw on the services of associate(s), staff attorney(s), paralegals), a receptionist, secretary(s) and perhaps even other attorneys who are "of counsel " to the firm. Moreover, this attorney is more likely than ever before to be a sophisticated, well- schooled and large-firm trained individual who has become frustrated with large firms and the lifestyle that they impose.

This emerging breed of entrepreneurial solo and small-firm practitioner now provides sophisticated legal services, along with customized billing to cost-conscious businesses, who have themselves often been created as a result of the very same factors facing attorneys in the 1990s (i.e., corporate upheavals, technological advances and concurrent drops in the expense of starting a small business). In fact, the Pace Center for Continuing Legal Education is implementing a program geared precisely to the legal and business considerations facing the entrepreneurial attorney. Lastly, despite Professor Seron's arguments to the contrary, the vast majority of entrepreneurial solo and small-firm practitioners of the 1990s do not rely on the use of mass media to develop their law practices, but rely instead on providing useful and insightful information to clients and prospective clients through such devices as newsletters and seminars.

At this point, one might question the author's identification of a group of "entrepreneurial" attorneys who are engaged in treating clients as customers. If such behavior was, in fact, widespread at the time of Professor Seron's research, different behavior is required today. Attorneys need to run their law practice as a business, while recognizing that their services include a relationship of the highest degree of trust and the expectation by the client that their rights will be zealously advocated. The distinction is perhaps subtle, but is quite real: While one must treat a law practice as a business - by, for example, billing on a regular basis, requiring adequate retainers up front and strategic hiring and training of support staff - more and more, one must also treat clients like clients, not merely as customers, being mindful that next to the clients' physical health, their legal rights and obligations are closest to their hearts.

A final point should be made regarding the author's emphasis on the gender-based discrimination that faces female attorneys in small-firm practices. The subject is one of critical importance, yet must be made part of a broader discussion of the kinds of pervasive bias that a range of attorneys face in the unique context of a small-firm practice. Because of the far greater exposure to and interaction with clients, not only women, but also disabled and minority lawyers face significant obstacles in developing a solo or small-firm practice.

An additional factor in any analysis of this situation is the hierarchical nature of legal education in this country. A female attorney from a prestigious law school may, in many ways, have an easier professional path than a minority or disabled attorney from a less prestigious educational background, especially if the female attorney has had the support of a middle-class family and positive familial role models. Any discussion of the role of bias in the work lives of solo and small-firm attorneys must examine social distinctions beyond gender alone. In addition, technology, in particular, telecommunications (such as voice mail, E-mail, beepers, cell phones, interactive voice response units) has enormous potential for assisting attorneys in overcoming some of the obstacles they face.

The Business of Practicing law provides a series of excellent insights into the pressures and rewards of small-firm practice. Moreover, the subject is timely and of growing relevance and has, to date, not received the attention it deserves. Accordingly, one hopes for a rapid sequel to this book, and one that will offer more concrete and timely suggestions for small-firm attorneys, particularly women, disabled and minority attorneys, in the strategic use of recent technological advances to improve their work lives and their chances for professional success.


Copyright © 2001 The Gulotta Law Group, PLLC

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