Posted Nov 29, 2005 10:09 am CST
Back in 1995, when America Online had a mere 4.5 million members and eBay was just a promising startup, a group of ABA solo lawyers had a compelling idea.
Why not start an online community for solo lawyers? It could serve as a place where they would ask substantive law questions and chat over the cyberspace watercooler to counter the isolation of solo practice.
Thus began Solosez, according to founding member Bruce Dorner, a solo in Londonderry, N.H. The e-mail discussion list, which is celebrating its tenth year, began with just a few lawyers, mostly colleagues and friends in the former ABA Standing Committee on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners. “We started slowly,” Dorner says, with “a handful of messages a week, all substantive law questions. We grew steadily from there.”
Solosez now has more than 1,600 members and posts a healthy 150 messages a day.
“This is a virtual law firm,” Dorner says. “Your buy-in is nothing more than an e-mail address, and your exit strategy, should you want one, is simply to unsubscribe. While you’re here, you have access to the minds and good will of 1,600 partners across the country and the world.”
And the topics have evolved too. Sure, members still ask substantive law questions. Marketing and client building also are frequent topics, and there are many requests for referrals to local counsel in other states.
But there’s also a trend toward more of those watercooler moments. Members tell jokes, trade recipes, and talk about pop culture, hobbies, children and even politics. The latter topic gets some members in hot water from time to time, with moderator Jennifer Rose calling a halt to topics that get too heated. Occasionally, she sanctions violators with the ultimate punishment–a 10-day suspension from posting to the list.
Just as the political leanings of the members vary widely, so too does their legal expertise. There are lawyers who are also doctors, plumbers, engineers, pilots, insurance adjusters and even ranchers.
And, too, there are parents. One member whose son was headed to Iraq reached out to his listmates for support. Another whose son was caught drinking in his dorm room his first week of college got both legal and practical advice for dealing with the potential consequences.
And then there are the, ahem, romances. The best-known pair are C. J. Stevens and “Radio Ron” Hansell of Missoula, Mont.
“One time, someone had accused me of bringing some sort of computer virus to the list,” Hansell says. “C.J. defended me, and we struck up an e-mail friendship. I decided I liked her wit and intelligence.”
When Stevens put out a call for proposals to present at a legal seminar she was running, Hansell saw his chance to meet her. He wrote a proposal to speak about disaster-contingency planning based on work he’d been part of in Indiana, where he was then practicing. The proposal was accepted and eventually led to a proposal of another sort. The couple married and they now practice side by side, though their practices are separate.
In 2004, the ABA proposed disbanding the Standing Committee on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners to cut costs. Solosezzers who worried that their discussion list would also hit the chopping block inundated members of the ABA Board of Governors with e-mail. Solosez was instead moved to the umbrella of the ABA General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Section, which became a division this past August.
Solosez member James Schwartz was part of the e-mail campaign.
“People get to know each other here and come to trust each other,” he says. “Eventually, they come to trust each other’s legal opinions, too. It’s the trust and the fun that cement relationships and keep Solosez alive.”