My role as facilitator for what I believe is Massachusetts’ only online support group for lawyers in solo practice continually reminds me of the stresses faced by these attorneys.
Probably the number one topic that surfaces in our sessions is the great difficulty that most participants have producing enough income. Much has been written about effective marketing (to acquire enough clients) and billing practices (to get paid). But those kinds of advice do not quite capture the human dilemma that all too frequently faces the solo practitioner. In fields such as immigration, consumer, and family law, lawyers routinely encounter clients or potential clients who (like Nasir’s parents in HBO’s current drama, “The Night of”) clearly cannot afford adequate representation. In my own psychology practice, for example, I saw a divorcing patient who subsisted on disability income of less than $900 a month, permitting almost no legal representation (while the spouse’s family funded an aggressive legal team).
Most lawyers, it turns out, have hearts, and as a result sometimes find themselves donating or dramatically under-valuing their services, or feeling guilty when they turn away clients who simply cannot afford anything close to the number of billable hours that their cases would require. Small-time solo practitioners also cannot typically afford to self-fund time-consuming contingency cases even if those might ultimately lead to hefty fees.
Lawyers stuck with these dilemmas must ultimately face the fact that no individual can single-handedly compensate for the gross inequities of life in these United States. Their first priority has to be keeping their own heads above water. What they can do, for example, is
- consider reasonable fee arrangements, or
- doing a circumscribed piece of work that may be useful if much more limited than would be desirable;
- provide information on low-fee or pro bono services, if available.
Solo practitioners can feel good about doing their best to fulfill their professional mission and providing a useful service, while balancing those important goals with realistic measures to recognize that they are also running a business, which must stay in the black to survive.
If you’re a stressed solo practitioner, you can find out more about our monthly online support group (and register) here.
Jeff Fortgang, PhD