A large birch tree rubs its upper branches against my windows. This morning I looked outside and saw the first new buds. While Spring might have already sprung in regions farther south, here in Wisconsin it’s just starting.
I love this time of year. Everything gets a new chance. Trees blossom. Tulips start to poke through the topsoil. The Boys of Summer emerge for Opening Day. It’s a perfect time for fresh thinking. It’s a perfect time to try something new, or do something already done well even better. A time for “glass half full” thinking. A time to make lemonade out of lemons you’ve been handed. It’s a time to be positive, hopeful, optimistic, and to be ready to tackle new challenges. For those of us who are based in the North, it’s the end of a long, cold, very snowy Winter. It’s time to take out “The Four Seasons” and listen to Vivaldi’s “Spring” or to George Winston’s “Winter Into Spring.” The days are longer and brighter, as are the opportunities that unfold this time of the year.
As a lawyer, even one who is isnâ€™t practicing actively, I love a healthy debate about most anything. I’ve had the great pleasure of spending the last seven months writing a column called “SmallLaw” for Technolawyer. Some of my columns have provoked significant debate. I consider those columns – one a few months ago on the use of Macs in law practice and more recently, another about the trend I’ve identified regarding lawyers leaving larger firms and starting new practices, often as solos, called “The Rise of the BigSolo.”
These subjects benefit from discussion and I’m thrilled with the vigorous debate theyâ€™ve sparked. Most of it has been healthy and illuminating. Some reactions though have devolved into mean-spirited personal attacks. It is sad when professionals turn to a divisive, impolite, and “low-road” approach that ought to have no place in professional circles.
I think the most important emergence this Spring is the growing prominence of solo and small firm practice. Like many of you, I’m a small business owner – a professional services firm with two owners and two employees. A large percentage of our clients over 24+ years of legal technology and law practice management service to practice has been with firms ranging in size from 1-10 people.Â So I â€œgetâ€small firms – at MicroLaw, we ARE a small firm.
Today we, like you, find ourselves in unusual economic circumstances – everything is different. Institutions we trusted and presumed to be strong and stable have been found out to be anything but. Some would say that “Big” has traditionally been synonymous with “reliable,” “better,” and “preferred.” How many still think that after what weâ€™ve seen in the last few months? How many think that as the largest banks and financial institutions we once viewed as pillars of permanency have all but been gutted and propped with billions in taxpayer funding?
For many Big now = shaky, suspect, potentially unstable, likely to layoff workers, someone’s future bankruptcy clients.
So what businesses have proven themselves to be worthy of trust in these times? Many are the small ones. The small banks. The small businesses with scrappy, “can do” attitudes and little debt on their books. The small law firms who, in many cases, are thriving beyond all expectations of their owners.
Small = the new big.
I’ve been saying this for years, but I’m not sure anyone was listening when it didn’t have a tanked economy to resonate through. But here we are, a period of time where small firms can shine and say “we didn’t lay anyone off, our doors are wide open, and by the way, we can do the same work you’ve been overpaying for years for lower, we have more fair costs, with the personal touch that is the hallmark of small firm practice.” In other words, wake up and smell the roses – small firms have always been the backbone of our North American legal system but now others outside our fold are increasingly recognizing it.
I wrote recently about the trend I identified of increased numbers of large firm lawyers entering the solo & small firm market – either proactively or reactively after being downsized. I believe the numbers choosing the SSF path will continue to rise. I use the term “BigSolo” to describe a large firm lawyer who goes solo or small, but is often characterized by two things:
- A narrow range of specialty practice focus – often ONE area of practice to which they’ve devoted their entire careers.
- Limited practice management and business operations skills because they come from environments where other specialists in the firm were responsible for those things.
I contrast this to traditional solos and small firm practices, where the lawyers have often ALWAYS been in solo and small firms – SmallSolos I called them in my column. If someone doesn’t like that indication of origin, then call ‘em whatever you want – how about AlwaysSolos? Whatever trips your semantic trigger.
While some may choose specialization, traditional Solos are often versatile, broadly focused general practitioners, diversified in their practice orientation. Most AlwaysSolos/traditional solos/SmallSolos I encounter have learned to successfully wear many hats out of necessity – because the buck stopped with them no matter the subject. Chief Bottle Washer, office manager, HR manager, techno.resource, electrician, sanitation engineer, barista, cheerleader, and more. SmallSolos are not just survivors in most cases, but “Thrivors” (hey, if it’s not a word, it should be!).
So while BigSolo lawyers might view themselves as a one-person large firm doing what they always did and either having to learn how to do everything else, or outsourcing it to others, I find a palpable difference with traditional SSF lawyers who have always been SSF lawyers. There’s more of a “we’ll handle anything they throw at us” attitude of proud capability. Because there’s never been anyone else to cover for us, or for us to pass the buck to – no army of associates clammering for work and recognition. No army of IT drones dropping in when we cry out “Blue Screen!” No cadre of support staff at our beck and call. Just call us and weâ€™ll get it done.
Lest you think that I am anti Big Law, I am the first to praise them!Â There are many thingsthey can do that may be more difficult for some SSF lawyers.Â Massive litigation, highly technical and specialized practice areas, and extensive pro bono work to name a few, all of which can be enabled by having a large internal support staff backing them (and NOT to say SmallSolos can’t do these things – it just may be easier with hundreds of people in administration).Â And some of our colleagues prefer that type of firm environment including quite a few of my old law school classmates.
I’m terribly proud to be a member of the SSF community, both as a lawyer and as a service provider to other lawyers. I believe it’s OUR time, especially if we grasp the opportunities the market is now presenting. Large and mid-sized clients like our pricing and our personal client service.Â They like being a priority client to us.
Some of the debate about the semantics of solo and practice classification, which has delved deeply into a realm of sowing discord, perhaps out of a desire for self-promotion, isn’t productive. It seeks to paint the picture that “small” be something to be ashamed of, instead of proud of. It seeks to link the term “big” with better. Well not now, not EVER was that true in my book. I’m small and DAMNED proud of it.
And now I hold out my smallness as the ultimate business and service attribute to my clients. I ask them, “You want big? You mean big as in “going out of business, laying off employees, a faceless monolith big? billing at big rates?” Or would you prefer “small as in “still in business and thriving”, with reasonable overhead so I can bill at fair and cost-effective rates grounded in economic reality kind of small? With personal touch so I can actually become friends with my clients and remember the names of their staffers small?” Are you sure you really want Big?”
- Big = old school excess
- Small = new world reasonableness
Wear that small firm badge with pride, with your head up, and with a marketing plan that exploits the hell out of the fact YOU are in business while a bunch of 1000+ lawyer firms are not. Know that small often is the very best there is.Â And to the new BigSolos, welcome and join the community even if your focus might initially be a little different. Become part of the community by joining the ABA’s Solosez listserve – come and introduce yourself and learn from all of us.
Whether a BigSolo making the transition to small practice from large, or a traditional solo, AlwaysSolo, SmallSolo or BigSmall – call yourself whatever you want, or just be “solo” or “small” or “specialized” or a “boutique.” I don’t think it matters. But classifications are natural and normal. It reminds me of the great Michael Considine speech in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” As Gus Portokalos at his daughter Tula’s wedding reception he said, “You know, the root of the word Miller is a Greek word. Miller come from the Greek word “milo,” which means “apple,” so there you go. As many of you know, our name, Portokalos, is come from the Greek word “portokali,” which mean “orange.” So, okay? Here tonight, we have, ah, apple and orange. We all different, but in the end, we all fruit.” How appropos.
So, size DOES matter – small is in, finally. It our time now, it’s our Opening Day of Spring and everyone’s paying attention – let’s give ‘em hell out there SSF lawyers! No matter where you came from or what you call yourself.
P.S. Thanks to Deb Matthews – she knows why.