Professional fulfillment and the sole practitioner
by Christine H Williams
Lawyers are attracted to the legal profession for a variety of reasons. We crave challenge, professional independence, or a chance to make a difference. For those who work in a small or solo practice, the goal of directing our practice and setting our own expectations and rewards holds a powerful appeal.
The reality is not so rosy. Instead of working for one “boss,” we work for each of our clients. We worry about liability, tax and regulatory changes, affecting our concentration and expenses. Costs are high, hours increase, and the challenge to balance work with a respectable income seems endless.
Speaking to these issues, the Boston Bar Association Task Force on Professional Fulfillment identified the following barriers to professional fulfillment for sole practitioners and lawyers practising in small firms: a sense of isolation from the rest of the profession; difficulties in determining the value of legal services provided to clients; limited financial resources, resulting in an inability to access the tools of the trade; and low professional morale.
Our challenge is to develop a practice that reconnects us with the ideals and challenges that originally attracted us to the profession. Consider some of these strategies:
Clarify your personal values. Ellen Stuart Roberts, interviewed by Doris Truhlar for the October 1999 issue of the Colorado Lawyer, addressed this issue and realized that for her, “career” encompassed much more than a job. Trite as it sounds, what really matters to you? How can you begin to see your career in light of your real purpose in life?
Do business with people you like. As a self-employed professional, you have a great deal of choice about with whom you do business. Why not choose clients, suppliers and salespeople that you enjoy working with?
Hire great staff. Enough said.
Maximize technology. Judicious use of laptop, e-mail, and the internet can free time to focus on your most important priorities.
Take advantage of informal networking opportunities, including online bulletin boards. This tip was suggested in Expectations, Reality and Recommendations for Change, issued by the Boston Bar Association task force cited above. Contact with other sole practitioners can be invaluable for generating ideas and increasing morale on a day-to-day basis.
Consider part-time or legal temp work. This strategy may be worth considering, depending on your personal and family situation.
Systematize and specialize. “One trend for sole practitioners is to become focused or specialized in a particular area of law, and be able to then deliver those specialized services to a wider audience,” comments Dave Bilinsky, Practice Advisor for the Law Society of BC.
Contract out whenever possible, especially for work you don’t enjoy doing. Contract workers are easily paid by the hour or the project, require no special bookkeeping, and retain their own “self-employed” status, allowing them the same freedom (and risk) that you yourself enjoy as a sole practitioner.
It takes creativity, careful thought, and hard work to structure a practice and a personal life that supports our most important values. Achieving balance may require a lifetime of evaluation and adjustment, but we owe it to ourselves to make every effort to build a thriving, enjoyable practice that is both fun and profitable for us and our loved ones.
Christine H Williams, a former sole practising lawyer from Chicago, is proprietor of LRS Legal Research, providing reasonably priced online legal research for lawyers. She can be reached at 604.990.5123, or at email@example.com.
This article was published in the February 2002 issue of BarTalk. © 2002 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.