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Jennifer M. Grieco Discusses New Support Programs for Solo Attorneys and Small-Firm Practitioners

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This article originally appeared on the Oakland County Bar Association website.

You Are Not Alone
By Jennifer M. Grieco

In November 2009 the OCBA board of directors, under the leadership and direction of then-president Kurt Schnelz, developed a three-year strategic plan to guide the board in responding to the evolving needs of our membership in a changing economic and legal climate. This year, your board members have continued to meet regularly in subcommittees to implement four strategic goals1 to achieve our broader vision for the OCBA.2 To emphasize the importance of these efforts, the subcommittees have reported on their progress at every board meeting. One action item has been to evaluate our committees to ensure that each one not only fits within the OCBA’s mission but also is a viable committee, effectively serving the needs of our members. After some reflection, it was clear that the OCBA’s Solo/Small Firm Committee was in need of a new direction.

The majority of lawyers in private practice in this country, and therefore in Oakland County, are solo or small-firm practitioners.3 For many years, the OCBA has maintained a Solo/Small Firm Committee with the intention of unifying and addressing the specific needs of this large segment of our membership. However, despite the fact that there are almost 700 members who identify themselves as solo and small-firm practitioners, and certainly not because of any failing on the part of those who have served as its chairpersons, the Solo/Small Firm Committee meetings were sparsely attended. It became apparent that the regular committee structure was not working for this diverse group whose members vary from general practitioners to those specializing in distinct “boutique” areas of the law.

In addition, while these members traditionally have been entrepreneurs who want to steer their own ship or “lifestylers” who find that it is easier to achieve a work/life balance in the small-firm environment, that is not always the case today.4 As a result of the economic downturn, the percentage of lawyers in solo/small firm settings is increasing, as lawyers, especially recent law school graduates, are migrating to these settings out of necessity because positions in established firms are no longer available. However, whether wanting to practice for themselves, making the change to the small-firm lifestyle or hanging up one’s shingle after law school, these members do have one thing in common: having to manage the business of a law office, in addition to practicing law, without the resources, advantages and support systems that are available to those in the medium to large firms.

Responding to the needs of our growing number of solo and small-firm members, the OCBA is pleased to report that we are launching the OCBA Solo/Small Firm Listserv. The Listserv will provide our solo and small-firm members the opportunity to be resources to each other from the convenience of their e-mail accounts, similar to that of colleagues in the large-firm setting. In light of their diverse practices, the OCBA Solo/Small Firm Listserv is not intended to replace substantive law listservs that currently exist and in which many members may already participate. Rather, the OCBA Solo/Small Firm Listserv aims to serve primarily as a resource for issues that are common to the solo/small-firm practitioner and the business of running a law practice: technology questions; recommendations for equipment; office space or office sharing opportunities; coverage and secretarial needs; or references for vendors such as experts, accountants, marketing and IT professionals. Additionally, when a client requires services outside of a member’s expertise, the Listserv can be a network to refer the matter out to another OCBA member or to establish a co-counsel relationship. Finding a colleague able to answer a few quick questions can help a member to practice more effectively.

The OCBA hopes that this Listserv will foster a greater sense of community among our solo and small-firm members by promoting networking and an exchange of information. The OCBA is fortunate to have many talented and well-respected solo and small-firm practitioners including board members, committee chairs, past presidents and a few former presidents of the State Bar of Michigan. By joining the OCBA Solo/Small Firm Listserv, each of us will be contributing to the collective years of experience assessable on the Listserv. Properly supported, the OCBA Solo/Small Firm Listserv can become a necessary resource and support system such that our solo and small-firm practitioners can maintain their entrepreneurial or lifestyle practice in this challenging legal market, and come to appreciate that, as members of the OCBA, they are not alone. In addition, this Listserv can become a useful tool for generating new members, affording the OCBA an opportunity to have a greater positive impact on both our legal community and the community at large, allowing us to achieve all of the goals that we highlighted during strategic planning for the future success of our bar association.

Information on how to join the OCBA Solo/Small Firm Listserv as well as the Listserv guidelines5 will soon be available via an e-mail blast or at www.ocba.org. In addition, the OCBA will be hosting a teleconference in which our members can walk through the process of joining the Listserv from their computers as well as ask any additional questions that they may have regarding the Listserv or its guidelines. Please join us.6

Footnotes

1) The strategic planning goals are:

Goal One – Provide valuable services to lawyers practicing in the current economic climate.

Goal Two – Encourage active participation of OCBA members to foster a sense of community, and to promote networking and exchange among lawyers and judges.

Goal Three – Play a recognized role in serving the Oakland County community.

Goal Four – Ensure our resources are used effectively and efficiently.

2) The vision for our bar association following the implementation of the strategic plan:

In three years, Oakland County lawyers and the Oakland County community will view the OCBA as a safe harbor, an organization dedicated to providing service and support. Lawyers will recognize the OCBA as a welcoming community that effectively equips them to deal with the challenging legal practice environment. Similarly, Oakland County residents will increasingly recognize the OCBA as an important community stakeholder that they can turn to for assistance.

3) In 2005, the American Bar Association reported that 62 percent of attorneys in private practice work as solo or small-firm practitioners. However, “[t]hose numbers likely have swelled and will continue to do so as law firms reorganize and re-evaluate their staffing needs.” Cohen, Deborah, “So You Want to Go Solo? You Sure?” ABA Journal, November 1, 2009.

4) Lyon, Zoe, “Flying solo: the rise of the sole practitioner,” www.lawyersweekly.com.au, posted October 27, 2009.

5) Like other bar association listservs, the OCBA Solo/Small Firm Listserv will require its members to abide by a set of guidelines that prohibit obscene, offensive, inflammatory, libelous or derogatory posts; copyrighted materials posted without permission; and advertisements or solicitations. In addition, so as to be respectful of our members’ e-mail accounts and time, one- or two-word responses such as “thanks,” “good work” or “call me” will be prohibited. Members will be encouraged to respond directly to the original sender of a request and not the entire group unless the response is relevant for all members to read. Members will be required to review and agree to abide by the guidelines in order to join the Listserv and any violations of the rules will be taken seriously and repercussions may include expulsion from the Listserv, possible loss of OCBA membership and/or the filing of a bar grievance.

6  I would like to thank the additional members of the Group One Strategic Planning subcommittee for their time and effort in creating the OCBA Solo/Small Firm Listserv: Tom Howlett, Maureen McGinnis, Vicki Valentine, and Katie Tillinger.