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Lisa Solomon: Work-Life Balance Lessons for (and from) Micro-Firm Lawyers

Posted Oct 14, 2009 11:00 PM CDT
By Lisa Solomon

Lisa Solomon

Since Des Moines, Iowa lawyer Roxanne Conlin started her own firm 18 years ago, she has allowed her employees to bring their babies to the office. The animal lover’s office also plays host to a veritable menagerie of kittens (VIDEO), birds and even saltwater fish (VIDEO).After the birth of her younger daughter 10 years ago, prominent legal blogger and solo practice expert Carolyn Elefant gave up her part time nanny and moved her office from the downtown Washington, D.C., office she had occupied for seven years to a home office. At first, Elefant felt like a failure for the first time in her eight years of solo practice, as if she were moving backwards. She realized, though, that the change was ultimately beneficial, because it forced her to seek out and create new opportunities that she could fit into her shorter workdays.

Well-known author and practice management consultant Ed Poll is on the road with his wife and their new dog, Bandit, in their 1968 vintage Airstream, writing yet another book and meeting with clients across the country. Karalyn Eckerle, who spent more than 35 years as a legal assistant/paralegal, now supports all kinds of professionals—including lawyers—working from her RV as a “location independent” virtual assistant.

These four legal industry professionals who have achieved a healthy balance between pursuing successful careers and living fulfilling personal lives have one thing in common: each is master of his or her domain. The boss. The big cheese. The head honcho. The fearless leader.

The evidence that solos and small firm lawyers (who we’ll call “micro-firm lawyers”) can use the control they have over their practices to achieve work/life balance is more than anecdotal. Ten years ago, in On Being a Happy, Healthy, and Ethical Member of an Unhappy, Unhealthy and Unethical Profession, Notre Dame Law School Professor Patrick J. Schlitz discussed a number of then-recent studies that found greater career satisfaction among micro-firm lawyers than among lawyers at large firms.

These findings are consistent with the results of the Gallup Healthways Well Being Index, a 2009 survey of over 100,000 people in 11 job categories. That survey found that business owners had the highest overall well-being score, followed closely by professionals, on a composite measure of six factors, including emotional and physical health, job satisfaction, healthy behavior, access to basic needs and self reports of overall life quality.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, the Gallup-Healthways survey suggests that, “[r]egardless of occupational field … , seeking out enjoyable work and finding a way to do it on your own terms, with some control over both the process and the outcome, is likely for most people to fuel satisfaction and contentment. In this regard, business ownership is an antidote to the loss of control, erosion of satisfaction and increased stress that, according to Dr. John Howard of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, many professionals are now experiencing. Howard’s observation about the lives of professionals neatly sums up the experiences of large firm associates (and even some partners) who have weathered the trials and tribulations of large firm life over the past few years—from the burnout of the boom times to the recent spate of layoffs and even firm closures.

In the face of this evidence, why do so many new law grads continue to covet associate positions at large law firms? Part of the answer lies in the fact that, at many law schools (especially the so-called Tier 1 schools), micro-firm practice is simply not presented (or is even actively discouraged) as an option. The disincentives to micro-firm practice are threefold. On the curricular level, most schools still don’t offer practice management courses. From the student services perspective, many schools’ career offices focus almost exclusively on placing students in large law firms. These two deterrents contribute to a law school culture in which students themselves come to believe that micro-firm practice is only for those with no other choice.

What about unhappy lawyers already in practice? Why don’t more of them make the move to micro-firm practice?

As the ABA Journal’s recent (albeit unscientific) survey revealed, the greatest obstacle is fear of failure, arising primarily from lack of practice management knowledge and experience. At the same time, it’s never been easier to find practice management information and support in a variety of formats, from traditional (such as Elefant’s book Solo by Choice: How to Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be) to “Web 1.0” (such as the GP|Solo Division’s Solosez e-mail list) to cutting edge (such as Twitter and other social networking platforms).

Numerous developments and current trends can aid micro-firm lawyers in their pursuit of work/life balance. Micro-firm lawyers who take the initiative in managing client expectations can use the freedom provided by mobile technology to enable them to work when and where they want, instead of feeling overwhelmed by unreasonable client demands for nearly 27/7 access and immediate response.

The growing popularity of domestic outsourcing to contract lawyers and virtual assistants allows micro-firm lawyers to maintain an even keel even when they’re swamped with work, achieve professional satisfaction by enabling them to focus on the legal tasks they find most rewarding, and increase profits without adding to fixed overhead. Online networking allows micro-firm lawyers to greatly expand their marketing reach on a schedule that works for them. Finally, the increasing use of alternative billing arrangements that focus on the work itself (rather than how long it takes to produce the work) allows micro-firm lawyers to benefit from experience and efficiency, rather than being chained to the clock.

Technological advances and economic circumstances have converged to make micro-firm practice a realistic—and increasingly popular—career choice for many lawyers and legal professionals. By using the control they have over their own time and caseloads to achieve a balance between the professional and the personal, micro-firm lawyers can serve as a bellwether for lawyers in firms of all sizes.

Lisa Solomon, a sole practitioner in Ardsley, NY, was one of the first lawyers to recognize and take advantage of the technological advances that make outsourcing legal research and writing services practical and profitable for law firms. Since 1996, Solomon has concentrated on assisting lawyers across the country with legal research and writing services. Through Legal Research & Writing Pro, she teaches other attorneys how to start and run practices as contract lawyers.

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