Under Analysis: Why I am a solo lawyer

Spencer Farris, The Levison Group

It was too nice to be in the Levison Towers today so I stayed home. Honestly, with cloud-based files and the inter-webs, the old paneled walls of the towers have little to offer most days that I couldn’t get at home. Except for free coffee. On days like this when spring teases me, I can barely stand the drive to the office. So I don’t.

To some extent, the Internet is like oxygen — you take it for granted until it is gone. We recently had an email outage at my office. Business email ceased, and spam dwindled down to a few hundred pieces per hour. At first, I appreciated all the peace and quiet. Then I realized that, while opposing counsel couldn’t drop anything on me, neither could new clients. All the time we spend being “findable” to the public is useless if they find you but can’t speak with you. Kind of like being hired by mimes, if you don’t speak mime — I am the man in the box.

So, on the island of Nonets, I couldn’t get much done from home. Having no other lawyers in my firm to rely on exacerbated the problem. While I sat on the patio with my laptop in one hand and cell phone in the other, my wife asked the provocative question, “Why are you self employed?”

The easy answer is that no one else would hire me. Self-employed is nothing more than being unemployed with overhead. My combination of an English degree from an Ag school and a juris doctorate qualifies me for dang few positions. I am somewhat fluent in German, but “papier oder plastik” doesn’t open anymore employment doors than it does in English.

First and foremost, I’m a trial lawyer. Trial lawyers are a headstrong, unruly lot generally and my wife would say I stereotypically fit that stereotype. We work well with others, so long as the others are willing to do things our way. Finding a law firm full of plaintiffs’ lawyers that is more than a couple decades old is like finding hen’s teeth. Or froghair.

 I’ve often said that I would like to be a TV weatherman. Not that I have any grasp of meteorology (or geography). I simply think it would be fun to announce tomorrow’s weather and not be held accountable when I am inevitably wrong. In truth, though, I would probably last about a month—unless I moved to Southern California where the weather is predictable. Being wrong would eventually go against my trial lawyer mentality.

Big law firms may have a token trial lawyer or two doing plaintiff’s work, but rarely more than that. Defense and corporate lawyers don’t like the trial lawyer label, even if they do trial work. They are tribe animals. Trial lawyers occasionally practice in packs, but usually not big ones. Getting a group of trial lawyers to go in the same direction is a lot like herding cats, albeit with more scratch marks at the end of the day. The longest running big firms of trial lawyers are governed by benevolent dictatorship, not democracy.

As a young lawyer, I was fortunate to work for a trial lawyer firm with a 50 year history—one of only a handful in my town. We qualified as a big firm at the time, by trial lawyer standards. Finding a mentor was essential for my development, and young solo lawyers without a mentor usually don’t get the real training that a trial lawyer needs. When I was at last able to “snatch the pebble” from my sensei’s hand, it was time to move on. With little more than that pebble, I became a solo lawyer.

Being a solo has its ups and downs. I am the captain of the ship. And the first mate. And the second, and clean up guy swabbing the deck. Nothing reminds you to be humble more than a legal assistant bursting into your office to let you know that the bathroom floor is wet, there is a claims adjuster on the phone and the internet is down. Solo work is a study in balancing one’s ego—having enough to get out of bed and take on better funded opponents without committing the sin of hubris too often.

Although my wife will never believe it, solo lawyering teaches compromise. With no one to cover my dockets in case of conflict, I am often asking my opponents to reschedule impossible appointments. I learned early on to extend those courtesies to others, and that has been karmic. Still, it goes against my hard headed (or determined, if I want to flatter myself) nature. The little angel that sits on my shoulder reminding me to behave has learned to yell because I often don’t want to hear her the first time.

I am getting better at compromising as I age. Just yesterday, when I was asked whether I wanted my coffee with our without cream, I told the barista to “surprise me.” She screamed and I jumped. Surprised, yes. But I let someone else choose. That is personal growth, trial lawyer style. I may have added cream when she wasn’t looking, but that is another story.


Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St. Louis, Missouri. Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent to this newspaper or directly to the Levison Group via e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.
© 2013 Under Analysis L.L.C.