Steep Declines in the Solo Practitioner World
In 2009, the National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reported the largest increase of law graduates going solo since 1982, from 3.5 percent in 2008 to 5.5 percent in 2009. In 2010, that upward trend continued.
But, ten years later, “a record low number of solo practice jobs were reported, just 242 nationwide, and dramatically fewer than the 1,059 reported for the Class of 2011...solo practitioners represented less than one percent of all jobs and just 1.5% of all private practice jobs.”
The current pandemic has not helped matters much. The American Bar Association reported “from April through June 2020, solos saw their revenue drop between 5% and 7% more than firms with more lawyers,” and the month of May saw a dramatic 19% drop compared to the previous May. These numbers become more startling when applied to solo and small firms who shoulder the immense burdens of local criminal justice systems and civil rights issues. For example “criminal casework, a common practice area for solo practitioners, dropped by 59% last spring.” Now, our state and federal courts are again closing their doors in the midst of a second, seemingly more severe wave of a pandemic that shows no signs of relenting.
The outlook for solo and small practitioners may once again be grim in the face of the Delta variant, but if you survived the first wave, my bet is you can survive again staying focused on your practice.
Stay committed to what you know and find ways to support your traditional practice areas
We have all heard “a jack of all trades is a master of none,” and this warning is certainly applicable to attorneys and solo/small firm practices. In times of economic uncertainty, as courts once again close their doors, solos may hit the panic button thinking it’s time to take anything that comes in the door – after all, how hard can criminal law, labor law, successions, bankruptcy, or tax law really be?
Resist the urge. This “general practice” approach, typically explored by new graduates, can be appealing to a small firm suffering through the pandemic’s seemingly unending attacks. But the time and risk that comes with taking on completely new areas of practice is likely not worth your time, or more importantly, how your firm will survive.
In my experience, a “general practice” approach is a mistake for recent graduates as well. I knew when I graduated law school I wanted to have my own solo practice. I was ready to take in anything that came in the door, after all, I passed the bar and still had my outlines ready for any client I may sign with a thirty-year boundary action dispute. After spinning my wheels for almost two years, I was advised to pick a single practice area, if I was able, and focus on that practice. Unable to commit to just one single area of law, I limited myself to three plaintiff focuses, civil rights, labor and employment (wage theft/discrimination), and personal injury.
Narrowing my solo practice was the scariest and best advice I ever received. It was hard to turn down a potentially good case, or a paying client, and it was even harder turning some cases down during the first wave of the pandemic. For recent graduates, mentorships such as the LSBA TIPS program, Inns of Court, and countless other opportunities are invaluable in weathering through the pandemic and beyond. For all solo and small firms, emerging technology provides countless opportunities to assist solo/small firms not only to become leaner in overhead expenses, but to also compete with the tools, resources, and advertising strategies of mid to larger size firms. Courts are getting in on it too. Virtual meetings, trials, depositions, and hearings have provided us considerable time to devote to files, rather than driving to a courthouse. Programs such as TextExpander, Superhuman, Toggle, LastPass, Asana, Google Drive, Adobe, and numerous other hardware and software applications provide economic practice management tools that have become essential to operating a small law firm.
Finally, solo and small firm practitioners know they can rely on one another. Use your fellow practitioners as resources on what works and what doesn’t. Stay involved in professional organizations where ideas are shared, virtually or otherwise, and try to stay committed to your practice. Odds are you became successful staying in your lane and practicing the kind of law that speaks to you.
Kenneth C. Bordes
Solo & Small Firms Committee Chair
 NALP: Jobs and JD’s 2019 Selected Findings Report, Published August 11, 2020, https://www.nalp.org/uploads/Classof2019SelectedFindings.pdf.
 ABA Journal, Solo practitioners saw steeper revenue declines amid COVID-19, new report finds, by Lyle Moran, FEBRUARY 24, 2021, https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/solo-practitioners-saw-steeper-revenue-declines-amid-covid-19-new-clio-report-finds.