Writing in Above the Law, Jordan Rothman argues from personal experience that solo lawyers would be better off partnering in a law firm with one or more other attorneys. As someone who has operated partner-less for almost 10 years now, after Big Law partner experience (where one literally doesn’t know many of one’s partners because there are so many of them), I’ve seen different arrangements and have some thoughts on these issues. While there are some clear advantages to having partners, much of Rothman’s argument is based on an unduly restrictive assumption about how solo firms must operate.
Many of Rothman’s points relate to personal bandwidth and the need to share the burdens of running a practice. He points out that a solo lawyer can get slammed with a lot of work at one time, more than can be handled by one person easily. He further notes that there are administrative tasks to be done as well as direct client service. Finally, he notes that multiple-partner firms can have attorneys with different expertise and therefore the ability to handle more matters. For all of these issues, Rothman posits as the obvious solution bringing one or more equal partners to share the burden. However, this ignores the possibility of engaging outside help from attorneys and other service-providers who are not your partners.
To be specific, if you’re concerned about handling overflow work, you can bring on freelance attorneys or temps, or in appropriate circumstances, hire full-time associates. As for administrative tasks, this work can be outsourced. There is literally no task that is handled by the back-office staff of a large law firm that a solo attorney can’t hire an outside person or service to cover. And for broader expertise, while it’s true that a solo corporate attorney will likely not handle something completely different, like litigation, it’s certainly possible to handle matters that are not too far afield, like negotiating a commercial real estate lease, again with the help of subject matter experts among the available pool of freelancers, temps, etc.
I do think that there are some advantages to partnering up, however, most importantly that potential clients may not be aware of all the points I made in the previous paragraph and assume, incorrectly, that a solo firm cannot handle larger matters for bandwidth reasons. That is a perception issue that sometimes requires some explanation to potential clients. My larger point is not that solo practice is the only way to go and that partnering up is inadvisable. It’s just that solo attorneys have ways to manage an up-and-down workload and the other burdens of running a practice other than finding partners.