Spokane Journal of Business

Solo attorneys unite

More lawyers practicing alone, facing challenges in networking, mentoring

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Solo attorneys unite
-—Staff photo by Chey Scott
Bar unit founders include, seated, Angel Base and Lara Strandberg; standing, Tom McGarry, Jennifer Gellner, and Ken Zigler.

A newly formed section within the Spokane County Bar Association aims to support a growing number of solo and small-practice attorneys.

The group's formation underscores an emerging trend in which many law-school graduates are striking out on their own after passing a bar examination, as firms hire fewer associates and in some cases downsize due to economic factors.

The bar association approved establishing the Solo and Small Practice Section last month, and the section held its first formal meeting shortly thereafter, its founders say. Efforts to establish the group were spearheaded by Spokane family-law attorney Angel Base, with the help a few other solo-practice lawyers here.

The section's founders say that its intent is to help solo-practice attorneys deal with the challenges they face in practice as their numbers continue to increase. Those challenges include the ability to network with others in their profession, effectively manage their time away from the office, and establish mentorships with more experienced attorneys, among others, they say.

The Solo and Small Practice Section plans to hold twice-monthly meetings, at which its members will conduct regular business, take part in continuing legal-education courses, and have the opportunity to network and form professional relationships, Base says.

Already, more than 40 attorneys have joined the section, she says.

Membership criteria are that the attorney is a member of the county bar association and works in a firm with five or fewer attorneys, she says. The annual membership fee for the section is $15, Base says, adding that the amount is in addition to the cost to be a member of the county bar.

Because a large number of solo attorneys here are working out of their homes or in what's called virtual offices—meaning they don't have a permanent office space, but work at home or in a space shared with other independently practicing lawyers—finding opportunities for personal networking and mentorship can be challenging, group members say.

Spokane attorney Tom McGarry, who's been practicing real estate law in the Spokane area since the late 1980s, says he currently works out of a home office and has a virtual office. McGarry says that means he can access his cases and clients from anywhere he has an Internet connection, and because of that doesn't need to rent an office space.

One of the biggest challenges of working in a nontraditional office space is that it can be perceived negatively by some potential clients, he says. Those clients might expect the traditional setting of a professional office space and multiple employees.

McGarry contends that because many other solo attorneys here aren't leasing office space, they're able to offer their clients more competitive rates because their overhead costs are low.

On the other hand, he and Base agree that working alone and without the support of a multi-attorney firm has its disadvantages, such not having an assistant to take clients' calls when the attorney is out on a case and the inability to seek counsel from an experienced partner when needed.

George Critchlow, acting dean of the Gonzaga University School of Law, says that in response to the higher number of recent law school graduates starting out on their own, law schools across the U.S.—including Gonzaga—are starting to put more of an emphasis on skills training in their curricula, in addition to the traditional focus on legal doctrine.

"The recent economic developments, including the fact that large traditional firms are no longer wanting to invest in training new lawyers on the job, means that this trend in law school education will take on even greater importance," Critchlow says.

He adds that a recent shift at Gonzaga is a greater focus on clinical training, such as placing students with real clients or in government law offices and courts, and that such experience is a requirement for its law students.

Of the legal risks that are associated with younger, inexperienced attorneys starting up solo practices shortly after finishing their legal education, Critchlow says, "Are new lawyers who opt to start out their own practices more likely to commit malpractice or violate the rules of the professional ethics? Hard to say."

He adds, "Certainly the support of experienced mentors in a large law firm setting is helpful."

Base says that by networking with other solo-practicing attorneys in the Solo and Small Practice Section, many of these challenges—including mentorship needs—can be solved or eased.

"When I started out, the concern I had the most was the availability of mentoring," Base says. "It's a huge liability to be out there handling someone else's life" when working on a legal case, especially if it's an area of law an attorney might not be as familiar with, she adds.

She says that connecting younger attorneys with more experienced professionals can help foster ties so that in situations in which a solo practicing attorney is working on a difficult case, he or she knows someone else who can give them advice.

Base says the section also is likely to help establish a referral network for its member attorneys here. She adds that it could help its members "get to know who practices in different areas of law that you wouldn't take a case in, so we can send each other conflicting cases, or if we are too busy."

Adds McGarry, "You also want to be able to send a client to someone you know is going to get the job done if you aren't familiar with that area of law, it's a good resource to have."

The need for such a group has arisen out of a number of factors, the continuing tough economy being one of them. As a result of the recession, Base and some other members of the group say that not many mid- or large-sized firms here are hiring, and that has caused many attorneys to opt to practice alone or to leave positions with other firms here to do so.

Lara Strandberg, a solo-practice attorney here who also helped found the new section, says that after she was licensed by the state bar last November, she began practicing on her own because no firms here were hiring.

"The only jobs that were available when I passed the bar were to work for myself," Strandberg says. "The big firms aren't hiring, and the mid-sized are taking people from the larger firms that were laid off. I am practicing alone because of that."

Like McGarry, Strandberg and Base utilize the virtual office business model, but the two women say that they also each rent space as needed at the Spokane Virtual Offices, at 1312 N. Monroe.

Base says that Spokane Virtual Offices offers a variety of arrangements for office-sharing services, and business people can rent space there on a regular or as-needed basis rather than being locked in to a long-term lease. Base says she doesn't rent an office there, but uses space there to see her clients for in-person meetings, receives her mail there, and uses it as a drop-off and pick-up location for case documents. She adds that she works out of her home office most of time.

The Solo and Small Practice Section's founders say that another driving factor for many attorneys here who opt to practice alone, besides the lack of job openings and the ability to minimize their operating costs, is being able to set their own hours and rates.

"When you work for a firm, you generate income for the firm; when you work for yourself, you generate income for yourself," McGarry says.

He adds that he expects the virtual-office model to continue growing in popularity as technology improves and more attorneys opt to practice alone.

"There is a trend toward this type of firm," he says. "Everyone is leveraging technology, and most other in-house services can also be done by contract" such as document review, preparation, and assistance from another attorney or paralegal on more complex cases.

Base says she was inspired to establish the Solo and Small Practice Section last year after attending a seminar for solo attorneys and small practices in Vancouver, Wash. She adds that the seminar took place not long after she became licensed last summer to practice law in the state.

At the Vancouver seminar, Base says she was introduced to members of the King County Bar Association's Solo and Small Practice Section, as well as members of the Washington state Bar Association's similar group.

"I was networking with people across the whole state, and I wanted to see something here in Spokane County," Base says.

Although the group is focused on firms with five or fewer attorneys, attorneys at larger firms can join as associate members, Base says, though they won't have voting or leadership rights.

Another option is an honorary membership for anyone who doesn't fall into those two categories, she adds, such as members of the judiciary or government workers.

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