The Importance of Your Fellow Lawyers
By Tracey Garrison
Before I opened my law practice, I had the benefit of 17 years experience as a paralegal and two years experience working for solo attorneys. Therefore, I was able to observe how to run a law practice from other lawyers.
As a sole practitioner, you will want to find a few dependable, trustworthy lawyers you can count on for a variety of reasons. One reason is to help keep you out of trouble with the OBA Office of General Counsel and/or the Oklahoma Supreme Court. As a solo attorney, no one is looking over your shoulder to make sure your action, or inaction, is appropriate. It is helpful to have a fellow lawyer with whom to discuss situations. In fact, it may be helpful without even discussing it with another lawyer. You can ask yourself, if I told attorney X about this, would he/she approve or disapprove? That likely will give you your answer and maybe steer you down another path.
One way an attorney can run into ethical problems is conflict of interest. While conflict of interest is something all lawyers need to be aware of, as a solo you do not have anyone with whom to hash out scenarios. A possible conflict of interest is not always easy to detect before you take on a client. Discussing a situation with a fellow attorney beforehand can be very helpful (being careful not to disclose names or other information which would violate attorney-client privilege). Another attorney may have a different view point or think of something you did not. When I face a potential conflict of interest situation, I think of a line from an old Woody Allen movie, wherein Woody Allen’s character tells his married friend, who is having an affair, that he “can’t ride two horses with one behind.” When I ask myself if I would be riding two horses, the answer usually becomes obvious.
When faced with a novel legal situation, it is beneficial to have a fellow attorney to discuss whether he/she has faced the same situation, and even if not, if he/she has a different point of view from you as to how to handle it (again, being careful not to disclose facts which would violate attorney-client privilege). Discussing a legal scenario out loud with another attorney can often clarify the situation.
Another reason it would be helpful for a solo attorney to connect with others is to have an attorney you trust who can back you up in an emergency. I know sole practitioners who would be willing to cover a hearing or other proceeding for me, if needed, and I would do the same for them. It is also important to have backup so you can have peace of mind going on vacation and knowing if an emergency arose, you could call on a fellow attorney for help.
Office space is an area where fellow attorneys are helpful. Many attorneys either own their own buildings or are renting and have extra office space. This can be economical for starting your practice. Sometimes lawyers with extra office space also have furnishings which you can use, so you do not have to buy furniture. They may also have copy and fax machines you can use.
Referrals are another reason fellow attorneys are important to a solo. Most of my clients come from referrals, both from lawyers and clients. Not only do I refer potential clients to other lawyers in areas in which I do not practice, but also in areas wherein I do practice on occasion. When I get cases that I can handle, but they are not in my preferred areas, I often refer them and in turn the attorneys will think of me if they get cases in my preferred areas.
Although you may not want to think about the end of your law practice while you are dealing with the beginning, it is very important. I have had to step in several times for an attorney who was sick and/or died. After these incidents, I created a list divided by practice area of law. Under each area I listed at least one trustworthy attorney who can be called upon if something happens to me, and made sure several people knew about this list, as well as where to locate other office records.
To find lawyers who can be a source of help and support, consider starting with the alumni from your law school. I have kept in close contact with lawyers I met in law school, but others I met either through these lawyers or through lawyer organizations. Joining lawyer associations is an enjoyable way to meet other attorneys and remain current in your practice areas. I belong to the OBA Bankruptcy Section and various sections of the Tulsa County Bar Association, including, at one time or another, bankruptcy, probate and guardianship, family, solo and small firm. I also belong to the Tulsa Title and Probate Lawyers.
I also attend alumni events hosted by the law school where I obtained my degree. In fact, a couple of days before the deadline for this article, I attended an alumni event and met an alumna who said she thinks lawyers get into trouble because they keep their problems to themselves and do not want to seek help from fellow lawyers, but it would benefit them if they would seek such help.
I also met a graduate from 1965 and his lawyer wife. He asked me who I worked for, and when I told him I was a sole practitioner, he was very pleased and said that is the best way to practice law. He and his wife opened a practice together right out of law school and he said after marrying his wife, it was the best decision he ever made. I told him I was writing this article and asked if he had any advice. He said do not be a jerk, do not take a bribe (he knew someone who had), and just keep working away at your legal career. He also said there are three rules of law: 1) get the money; 2) get the money; 3) get the money.
Before starting my own law practice, I at-tended the OBA seminar, “Hitting the Ground Running.” It was very helpful, as it discussed various aspects of operating a law practice, and I would recommend it to anyone thinking of opening his/her own practice.
I am glad that I decided to form my own law office. The control I have over how I spend my time and which clients I will represent more than compensates for the financial uncertainties and responsibilities of being the sole decision-maker. If anyone reading this article decides to be a sole practitioner, I wish you much success.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tulsa lawyer Tracey Garrison is a sole practitioner at Garrison Law Office PLLC. She graduated with honors from the University of Tulsa College of Law. Her practice areas include bankruptcy, probate, guardianships, wills and trusts, name changes and family-member adoptions.