Solo practitioners and lawyers in small firms face a common challenge and benefit—you are your own most valuable commodity. It’s great in many ways—you can more easily dictate your own professional path, making decisions on your practice areas, working hours, selection of clients and more. But it can be daunting, particularly if you are a “true solo” and have no staff. It’s all on you; practicing law and running a business; doing the deep thinking and the drudge work. But truly, even if you have administrative support, even if you have a partner or two, the reality is still that it’s all you.
So, where do we go from here? Is the burden too great to bear? Must this create a crash-and-burn scenario? Of course not. Many solo practitioners thrive and would never think about adding associates or partners. And for small firms (really, imagine you and one or maybe two associates/partners at most), the same is true. It can be an ideal way to practice law and retain control over the factors that impact the quality of your professional and personal lives. But this scenario does not work without careful planning, practice management, and attention to your own well-being.
Objectively, it makes sense that one of the benefits of solo or small practice is the ability to exercise control over business hours and to set the terms for how the practice operates. The reality is that solos and small firm lawyers may start out with the best intentions about how their practice will run, but when it comes to facing demanding clients and the fear of losing business, it may be difficult to make those intentions a reality. Clients in the throes of situations that to them seem potentially catastrophic tend to not honor limitations, and lawyers not wishing to risk the loss of a client or the chance that a potential client might hire someone else, abandon those hopes and plans. This is the path that leads to burnout.
Time and effort
Many lawyers feel that they need be available 24/7—just check the advertising. Once hired, many solos give their personal cell phone number to their clients as their assurance that they are “on-call” all the time. But let’s take a deep breath, folks. Yes, lawyers are important, and clients are important, but is that all there is to life? No one, not even 911 operators or brain or heart surgeons, needs to, or for that matter can reasonably, work 24/7. Forgive the statement of the obvious, but for lawyers to succeed, the devil is in the details. How many times have we heard about misdirected emails or missed deadlines, mistakes that a few extra minutes of reflection would have avoided? The fact is that you can’t do your best work if you are over-stressed, over-worked, are trying to multi-task, or are just plain tired.
It is vital to set and enforce boundaries. Working remotely during the pandemic has made setting and keeping boundaries both more difficult and more important. It is reasonable to have standard working hours, although the actual hours may vary depending on your practice area and needs of your clients. The hours that work best for you may include an evening or two, or even a weekend day to best serve your clients. Your plan should include how you will deal with legitimate crises—whether that is checking your email once a day on your time off or using a virtual receptionist that has some guidelines about when, or if, to call you.
Boundaries do not only relate to the amount of time you spend practicing. Boundaries also include emotional boundaries—creating a safe emotional distance between the client’s issue and your own personal psyche. Lawyers in high-conflict areas of law, where emotions run high because of the subject matter or amount at stake, are more prone to internalizing the stress of the litigation. Scores have been written on vicarious trauma and the impact on the well-being of lawyers. Lawyers who fail to create some emotional boundaries may be prone to negative health impacts as well as a higher risk of running afoul of the ethical rules because they lose perspective and objectivity.
The bottom line is that you need to set parameters for your day-to-day, or even week-to-week, functioning and then keep to them. It’s a habit that is hard to incorporate but will pay off in the end.
Manage expectations from the outset
Have a conversation with your prospective client about what to expect from you and what you expect from them. This should include your working hours, of course, but also expectations for communication—in both directions. For example, if you are frequently in court and cannot easily respond to emails during the working day, let your clients know. It’s reasonable to let them know that you will respond within one business day (yes, you are entitled to weekends off).
Let your clients know what you expect from them as well. Explain what constitutes an emergency and what does not. Remember, clients are under stress and people under stress do not process information well—when in crisis, even the ordinarily most reasonable client may lose perspective. Having that conversation upfront may act as a fire drill—knowing what to expect and practicing may reduce panic. If you have a client who needs constant contact, think about scheduling a set time each week for a conversation—it can be 15 minutes—and have them accumulate their questions for that single session rather than peppering you with calls, emails, and texts throughout the week. This may not only make them feel supported but will also allow you to better manage your workday.
The phone and email are tools, not your masters
This is vital. You do not have to answer every email, phone call, or text the moment it arrives. Our digital world has created the unwarranted expectation that all communication must be immediate. While it seems true, it is not. Remember, you will have set reasonable expectations in your initial talk with your client or prospective client.
How can you better manage communication? Get a separate phone number—meaning not your personal telephone number—for your practice. It’s easy. Of course, paid business solutions offer call sequencing and other services, but at the very least, get a free second phone number. It keeps your personal information private; you can set a separate ringtone for your second line so you can decide whether to answer when your phone rings; and allows you to have an outgoing message relating solely to your law practice.
This may seem radical but consider turning off notifications. They are disruptive and tend to distract you from whatever it is you are doing. Instead, you can create an auto-response or outgoing message that lets your clients know that you’ve received their communication and when they may expect a response. It’s fine to let clients know when you check your electronic or phone messages, say twice a day at 9 am and 5 pm, and that you will respond back within one business day, in order of urgency. Of course, you’ll word it in a way that best suits your needs and style, and will play best with your clients, but you get the drift.
Finally, triage. It’s fine in the emergency room; it’s also fine in your practice. What triage doesn’t mean is ignoring any communication. Your communication plan should provide a relatively low-impact way to respond to even the least urgent communication. Use technology to assist you; many products now exist that permit you to create workflows that include a response.
Self-awareness and well-being
Does this conversation sound familiar? “How’s work going?” “Fine, but it’s a little stressful right now, but things will calm down soon.” How many times have you had that conversation or a similar one? Even the most thoughtful person may have difficulty in realizing that a conversation like that one doesn’t happen intermittently or infrequently, but rather with increasing regularity. If you are a solo, or one of just a couple of lawyers in your small firm, chances are that you have no sounding board—no one to compare your relative stress.
It’s not easy to hold a mirror up to yourself and see what you might more easily see in others. If you are a Microsoft 365 user, you already have a great tool to help; MyAnalytics will provide you some basic information including how much time you spend in meetings and how often you check emails and will make some suggestions.
Underlying my comments above I hope you noticed the theme of self-care. You are the most vital asset of your practice—your knowledge, your compassion, your skills, and abilities. If you are a solo, notwithstanding your succession plan, it’s all on you.
About the Author
Roberta Tepper is the lawyer assistance programs director at the State Bar of Arizona, where she advises lawyers on starting, running, and winding down their practices; technology; lawyer well-being, and trust accounting. Roberta serves on the Law Practice Division Council, the Law Practice Magazine Board of Editors and was the co-chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2021. Contact her at Roberta.Tepper@staff.azbar.org, @AZPractice2_0, and www.ReadySetPracticeAZ.com