I have written in past columns about groups of our members who are under-represented in the MCBA and our legal community. This month’s column, however, focuses on a group that constitutes nearly half of our members. I am referring to attorneys who practice solo or in small firms, including me.
Some of these attorneys have expertise in numerous areas of law, including those who might describe themselves as generalists, while others concentrate their practices in very narrow areas of expertise, like trusts and estates. All of them, however, face the multiple challenges of keeping up with developments in the substantive areas of law in which they practice and handling the business of running a law practice, all while providing good service to clients. The tasks we manage in any given day may include approving a major (or minor) office equipment purchase, resolving a human resource issue, learning about a new form of technology that may help serve clients and investigating the ethical rules that may apply to the use of that technology, reviewing changes in benefits, including health insurance for ourselves, our colleagues and employees, reviewing and approving client bills, spending time on practice development and continuing legal education, and hopefully, actually practicing law.
Some of us are fortunate enough to have employees and colleagues who can handle some office administration tasks, although not everything can or should be delegated. And given the fact that many of us practice in a smaller firm setting because the autonomy is important to us (notice that I managed to avoid calling us “control freaks”), we do not wish to delegate everything to others.
I know that I would like to be involved in everything from the design of my office stationery and the selection of office furniture, to the way we bill our clients, the system for scheduling my appointments, and the language every attorney in my office uses to draft Wills, trusts and other documents. I believe these decisions reflect upon my professional reputation and the success of my practice, but if I spend too much time on office administration, client service may suffer. As always, the difficulty is in learning what is truly important for your practice, and to you, and letting go of what is not.
As the practice of law has become more complex, solo and small firm attorneys often feel overwhelmed with juggling their responsibilities. The MCBA has attempted to help meet the needs of these attorneys in a variety of ways. The one that leaps to mind most quickly is the bar association as a resource for the purchase of competitively priced health insurance for lawyers and their employees. But we also offer Casemaker, a legal research service that is included at no extra charge with membership dues and is equivalent to Lexis or Westlaw, Law Pay, an online legal fee payment service that complies with the ethical rules governing attorneys, and MyCase, a complete practice management suite that includes everything from calendaring, conflicts checking and billing systems, to client portals for secure, ethical communication.
We also have a very active MCBA Solo and Small Firm Committee, which has been enthusiastically and ably chaired by Meredith Lamb for two years and is staffed by MCBA internal team member Liz Novak Henderson. The committee meets monthly, and most meetings include a five or 10-minute presentation by a speaker on a topic relevant to committee members, followed by open dialogue regarding various practice topics, such as technology issues, employment law updates, Casemaker training and fee arbitration.
In addition, the committee planned and presented the First Annual Solo and Small Firm Conference, which included presentations such as marketing and ethics, tech tips, dealing with the media, resources for developing your practice and more. Despite the March snowstorm that struck on the day of the program, the conference was well-attended and received high marks from attendees, clearly indicating a need for programs like it. As a result, the Second Annual Conference is being planned for April 2019.
An additional resource provided by the MCBA is the Solo & Small Firm Summation, which is produced by Liz Novak Henderson and includes information about events, CLEs, and benefits she thinks would be of interest to this group, but also articles from various blogs and from the ABA’s website that are targeted to solos and small firm practitioners. Finally, there is a listserv available to the more than 100 members of the Solo and Small Firm Committee that has become very useful to members. Attorneys can post a question to the group or request assistance from an attorney with expertise in a different practice area, allowing them to assist each other with substantive law and legal practice issues, and to network and make referrals.
We have approximately 750 MCBA members who identify themselves as solo or small firm practitioners. Many of them take advantage of the valuable and plentiful MCBA offerings that are geared to this group and make MCBA dues a relative bargain. However, there are many more attorneys who fit this description who could benefit. If you are one of them, we invite you to join us!
Jill M. Cicero is President of the Monroe County Bar Association and is the Managing Partner of The Cicero Law Firm LLP. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.