Last week I met with Toronto lawyer Garry Wise.
Garry is one of the few Canadian practitioners that has made a prominent impression in the legal blawgosphere. Garry’s blawg was one of the other recipients of the 2007 CLawBie Awards, for Best Practitioner Support Blog:
Garry Wise – Year-in and year-out, Garry is one committed law blogger. He offers his opinions on almost everything, and if you do a Google search for Toronto lawyer you’ll see how blogging benefits the online exposure of his practice. If you didn’t read his Starting a law firm post back in February, please do. Garry Wise consistently offers great vision to a lot of solos across the country.
He related how he created his first firm site back in 1999, and has seen enormous returns from his online interaction. His client intakes have skyrocketed, and he is well-known and respected in the legal community.
We had a wonderful discussion on various subjects, and found many areas of mutual interest and common ground. Garry was generous enough to state that I would be an asset to any firm, and that progressive firms interested in expanding their client base should be trying to recruit me. Garry, I will be using your name as a reference as promised.
But he also suggested that I consider going solo directly out of law school, because I already have background knowledge and an existing client base in my area of legal interest (health), and greater prominence and contacts than many practitioners in the field for several years.
I’m not sure that’s the route I want to take, but it’s no surprise that his post on Starting a Law Firm is one of his most widely read articles. Garry outlines the basic requirements and strategic planning to set up your own firm.
But the “cons” he states – longer hours and more stress than even Bay St., and cost consideration during the initial start up – are likely to dissuade some of the most charismatic and entrepreneurial young lawyers, who opt to lend their credibility to a larger firm instead. Burn-out and stress are other often cited complaints of sole practitioners.
The best advice I can give to a new lawyer who wants to practice solo is not to do it right away. You will spend too much time reinventing the wheel and then needlessly spinning it. Specialize and learn the ropes from the best lawyer or firm you can get a job with. Develop the knowledge and the competence for private practice for which law school has not equipped you, and for which the newly revamped bar admission process will not adequately equip you either. Develop your sea legs before you set sail alone.
That being said, all is not grim for those who choose to become sole practitioners. There are resources now available that did not exist when I sallied forth on my own 35 years ago
This could explain why the average age of sole practitioners in Ontario is 51, with only 12% under 35, according to a Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) survey in 2005.
Yet as we’ve pointed out before, nearly half of Canadian lawyers are self-employed. Jordan Furlong recently provided further break-down of the types of legal practice in Canada, indicating that less that 10% of Canadian lawyers can be found in large firms.
Gottlieb provides tips for those who comprise the vast majority if Canadian lawyers,
You need an independent temperament, the ability to constantly adapt, and eternal optimism to survive as a sole practitioner. You should also not expect a pot of gold.
Above all, you must take to heart the wisdom expressed in the Ethics of the Fathers; in order to be happy, you must be satisfied with your lot.
Access to Justice and Diversity
Smaller firms play an essential role in providing greater access to justice to smaller communities, and often more reasonable billing to clients.
But a recent story in the Star related how rising student debt compells many new graduates to flock to large law firms to pay off student loans. As a result, many smaller communities are increasingly finding themselves without legal services. Some have responded by considering loan-forgiveness programs for new lawyers who move to small towns.
Other lawyers go solo as a result of the failings of big firms that fail create inclusive environments. A 2000 LSUC Equity and Aboriginal Issues Committee report stated,
A number of lawyers feel alienated by the size and types of practice of large firms, and choose to practice in small firms or as sole practitioners.
But the report continues, and indicates that small firms might actually be worse for diversity issues.
However, small firms and sole practitioners often do not have the resources and time to deal with equity and diversity issues, or to develop the appropriate expertise to do so effectively. There are also those who may believe that equity does not add value for law firms which already have strong reputations and clients. Further, members of communities may not be aware of the availability of legal services or may feel that their lawyer either does not understand them, treats them differently, harasses or discriminates against them or otherwise violates their rights.
It’s probably a misconception then that lawyers elect for small practice because they cannot find an inclusive environment in any large law firm.
But there are other reasons for going solo, including women who want greater flexibility in their practice to accommodate a family.
Availability of Mentoring
Gottlieb has elsewhere criticized other LSUC initiatives of a practice management review program as a “A War on Sole Practitioners.” But these accusations have been rebuffed by Gavin MacKenzie of Heenan Blaike, who says that such procedures would apply to number of years of practice, and not type of practice ,
Both law society discipline and LawPRO statistics show that the early years of private practice pose a risk for the development of practice difficulties. Beginning the practice management review program with a focus on members who have been called to the bar for the formative one to eight years and who are in private practice is a risk-based approach that is justified both by data and common sense.
MacKenzie claims that LSUC instead provides support to the independant practitioner,
One of the most important initiatives of this Convocation has been to help sole practitioners and small firm lawyers to survive and thrive. We struck a task force to recommend ways in which as a profession we can preserve and strengthen the practices of the 94 per cent of Ontario law firms that consist of five lawyers or fewer. These sole practitioners and small firms provide the vast majority of legal services to individuals in search of access to justice.
The LSUC report on sole practitioners highlights mentoring as one of the major areas of need. And this probably remains the best asset that large law firms have for young lawyers, beyond issues of compensation or diversity. Many of the more progressive firms increasingly have formalized mentoring programs.
Size versus Presence
Valerie Mutton covered the LSUC report in the Lawyers Weekly, and interviewed Diana Miles, the LSUC’s director of professional development and competence. She suggests that planning is the essential key to a small practice.
But Jordan Furlong says,
Really, in 20 years time, the whole notion of law firm sizes may very well seem quaint. It won’t be all that relevant how big your law firm is with the exception of the global giants, size really won’t matter, because the heavily niched, increasingly mobile and wired lawyers of the future won’t find enough advantages to a common office space and letterhead. It may not even take that long, if the changes we can already see rippling through the profession start multiplying faster than expected.
According to Mutton,
Getting your name known in the community and within the profession is essential to the development of a successful practice…
Miles also suggests that new lawyers should take a course in personal marketing, since new lawyers often feel awkward about basic self-promotion such as handing out business cards or introducing themselves to potential clients.
The basic denominator to all these practices, whether small or the 10% in large firms, is presence.
And arguably, it is early adopters such as Garry Wise that have led the way for Canadian lawyers.