Solos: Avoid Practicing Law in a Vacuum

As you probably already know, in April, Instagram was purchased by Facebook for insanely large price of $1 billion. Since that news was released, new facts have emerged that CEO Mark Zuckerberg apparently made that decision in a bubble, without the input of board members or his lawyers. In other words, he made his decision in a vacuum. There’s a lesson that lawyers can learn from this.

But first, let’s examine what happened. The ABA Journal describes the events leading to this groundbreaking deal as follows:

On April 5, Zuckerberg picked up the phone himself to call Systrom about buying the photo sharing service, the Wall Street Journal reports. In three days of meetings in Zuckerberg’s home, the two men agreed on a $1 billion price. Lawyers and Facebook board members were not part of the process, sources tell the newspaper.

The disclosure made me wonder if Zuckerberg’s impulsive decision–offering a seemingly outrageous sum of money to purchase a company with no revenues to speak of–was the unfortunate result of operating in a vacuum, devoid of input from knowledgeable colleagues who could have offered a bit of much-needed perspective.

Only time will tell if Zuckerberg’s decision was a wise one, but the outrageous price tag is evidence that Zuckerberg’s decision to handle this one on his own may have resulted in an echo chamber effect that left him completely out of touch with reality.

The good news is that Zuckerberg’s arguable mistake offers a lesson for solo lawyers.   Although solo practice can be inherently isolating, practicing law in a vacuum can be a serious mistake and should be avoided at all costs, especially if you’re a new solo lawyer. Input from other knowledgeable and experienced attorneys can be an invaluable resource, as Josh Camson recently discussed in this Lawyerist blog post.

I can attest to this firsthand. When I first started out in 1996, I was an assistant public defender. I was thrown into court feet first. Everything I learned came from the advice and wisdom offered to me by my colleagues. Whenever I had a question I just popped my head into someone’s office and had an answer in no time. For the most part, the less seasoned attorneys in the office like myself practiced law, in large part, based on the collective knowledge and experience of our more senior colleagues.  I learned more than I ever thought possible in a very short amount of time, while making lifelong friends in the process. The camaraderie of working in that office is something I will never forget.

Unfortunately, most solo lawyers aren’t as lucky and don’t have an office full of colleagues to turn to in times of need. So, what’s a solo lawyer to do?

One option is to seek out a mentor. It’s not always easy to find one, though, and not everyone has the interest, or the time available, to be a mentor. Joining your local bar association, taking advantage of its resources, and attending networking events is one option, but doesn’t always result in a successful mentoring relationship.

There are other ways to find mentors, as Brian Tannebaum discusses at the Above the Law blog. He contends that having a good mentor (or two) is invaluable, but they’re not going to come to you–you need to work to get them. He suggests spending lots of time in the courthouse and then calling lawyers–repeatedly:

I watched them work. I called them and said, “I’m a young lawyer in town and have a question.” I went to places they went outside the courthouse. Initially, lunch wasn’t attractive to them, but they returned calls and always said yes to “got a minute?”

Carolyn Elefant expands on this idea in a post at her blog, My Shingle, suggesting that once you get the ear of a more experienced attorney who handles practice areas that interest you, get to know them and learn everything you can about their practice by asking them questions, such as:

  • What do you like and dislike about your practice?
  • How do you market your practice?
  • How fast were you able to grow your practice?
  • What are the short- and long-term prospects for a practice in this area?

If you’re having difficulty finding local lawyers willing to act as a sounding board, another way to avoid the echo chamber is to seek out advice online. Not all forums are well-suited for that type of interaction, however, as Scott Greenfield astutely points out in a post at his blog, Simple Justice. He contends, rightly so, that Twitter is the last place where one should seek out a mentor.

But even so, there are some online forums that can be useful for obtaining advice useful to your practice. Lawyerist’s LAB is a great example–it has a large membership and  provides lawyers with information on a variety of topics, ranging from technology and practice management to marketing and professional responsibility. Another helpful forum for technology-related issues is MILOGroup, a forum devoted to lawyers who use Apple products in their law practices.

Listservs can also be useful, depending on who participates and the levels of participation. Local and state bar associations often offer listservs for various practice areas. One example of a very active listserv is the ABA’s Solosez listserv.

Of course the information you receive on listservs, and in any Internet forum for that matter, should be taken with a grain of salt since the people from whom you’re receiving advice are essentially strangers. And that’s why, ultimately, it’s best to find real-life mentors. Nothing beats face-to-face interaction.

But the bottom line is that, one way or another, you need to find experienced colleagues who will act as a sounding board. Get feedback and avoid Zuckerberg’s mistake; don’t make decisions in a vacuum.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tbalinas/3267874669/)

  • http://constructionlawva.com Christopher G. Hill

    Thanks for the input Niki. After 2 years as a solo (After 13 in government and firms) I can attest to the wisdom of this post. Knowing and learning from older attorneys in your practice area and forming a network of lawyers in other practice areas has been invaluable to my practice.

    Thanks again for the reminder.