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SmallLaw: Talk to the Toughest Judge in Town and Other Lessons Learned From My First Year of Solo Practice

By Clark Stewart | Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Originally published on March 29, 2011 in our free SmallLaw newsletter. Instead of reading SmallLaw here after the fact, sign up now to receive future issues in realtime.

In November 2009 I hung my shingle, and by some miracle I'm still in practice! The folks who publish SmallLaw asked for my opinion as to the most important lessons I've gleaned from my "minute" of practice. After wracking my brain for a week trying to answer this question, I have narrowed it down to three lessons any new solo should heed should they want to make a go of their own law practice.

1. Get a Mentor

A professor once told me that you'll never know more law than when you walk out of the bar exam, and you'll forget it all! That couldn't be truer. I am humbled every day by the vast amount of law that I don't know.

One of my favorite sayings is access is better than ownership. Since I don't own the knowledge yet I love to access it from my mentors. I'm truly blessed to come from a family of judges and lawyers. I call them at least once a day. I can't imagine how difficult it would be if I had to approach every legal problem from scratch. I couldn't do it. I don't know how solos without such mentors avoid malpractice. In fact, this connection with other lawyers explains why many lawyers practice together in law firms rather than alone.

If you don't have a personal relationship with your colleagues then pick one by reputation whom you admire and forge a connection. Get out your phone book and call them up. I would advise those in the hunt to not focus as much on the expertise of the attorney, but more on their reputation.

You may learn a lot from the local king of torts, but we all know how that book ended! Find someone people in your community praise and look upon favorably — an Atticus Finch. Better yet go talk to the toughest judge in your area and ask them whom they recommend. His Honor is basically the Simon Cowell of our profession. He'll be more than happy to mold you into the type of lawyer with whom he likes to deal by steering you toward an attorney he respects. By following the judge's advice you'll be well on your way to obtaining a quality mentor.

2. Don't Fall Into the Technology Trap

It's just human nature. You hung your shingle, paid the rent, and now you need all that shiny new technology to make your practice hum. It will go out and club potential clients over the head and drag 'em back to your office with checkbooks in hand. "Please, oh wise and technologically gifted one, take my money!" I had this dream once too, and have a veritable bone yard of gadgets and shelfware lying around as evidence. So does fellow SmallLaw columnist Pete Armstrong.

I've got countless programs that didn't do what I needed. I have a premium Evernote account I had forgotten about until it auto-renewed for $40! But perhaps the most shining example is the Livescribe pen I picked up last year for about $200. This little gem uses special paper (read $$) that a camera in the pen picks up and translates my writing into searchable text that is linked to an audio recording of what was said at that particular second. It works great, but it hasn't paid the bills. I thought it would serve me well in court as I took notes because if I missed something I could just tap the note and hear the audio from that second. In reality I don't have time to take notes. I think better on my feet — on the fly. Had I known that I could have saved some coin.

Balance the cost of the technology with the learning curve, and a take hard look at your true use for the tool. A prime example is my Web site. I spent a long time last year creating it from scratch. It looked awful, and my site lay in useless ruin for quite awhile. I had spent 100 bucks on Web hosting and had nothing to show for it. Had I used my balancing test up front I would have gotten with the times and used something like WordPress from the beginning. Now the site is functional and looks professional.

A final note on technology — do your homework. A good place to ask questions is of course Technolawyer's Answers to Questions newsletter as well as Solosez from the ABA — and the past searchable archives of both. They're chock full of answers to everything from accounting systems to smartphones — and in the case of Solosez lots more such as bicycles!

3. Communicate

Communication is the most important lesson to learn. A wise person once told me that procrastination is rooted in fear. I never put this aphorism into perspective until I started my practice.

I would put off phone calls with clients because I knew that they were not going to be happy with what I told them, or I just didn't have any updates. In reality your client doesn't really care if you know anything or not. They just find comfort in the fact that you're thinking about them and their case.

Brand new lawyers will ask about malpractice insurance. The best malpractice insurance is to communicate with your clients! It's a pain in practice, but it's part of the job. My advice is to take a day each week and chalk it up as a loss. Spend that day making phone calls, jail visits, and writing letters.

I have certain clients who aren't happy no matter what miracle I work for them. Others I could slap with horrible news and they would thank me. It's kind of like publicity — even bad communication is good communication. The bottom line is that as long as your clients understand and believe that they can reach you when they need you they will have faith in you and tell their friends.


If you've thought about striking out on your own, now is the time. The economy may still be tanking, but advances in technology for the small firm practitioner have opened the door of what was once boutique law with a sledgehammer. It's a frustrating, fulfilling, and terrifying experience that I highly recommend to all lawyers!

Written by Gadsden, Alabama lawyer Clark Stewart.

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Topics: Law Office Management | SmallLaw
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