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Independent-Minded Lawyers & the “Yo-Yo Effect”

The independent-minded lawyer is a special breed.

We are viewed as renegades – rebels who eschew the familiar path of the traditional lawyer.  Most of my fellow independent lawyer colleagues would probably not object to such a label.

However, our independent spirit is often mistakenly interpreted to mean that we don’t enjoy the company of our fellow attorneys. In most cases, that is an entirely false conclusion. In fact, most independent attorneys in my network are some of the most social and affable folks I know. And we have to be — networking with other attorneys is a vital source of new clients and projects for independent lawyers who can’t rely on “firm clients” to feed them billable work.

When a firm lawyer decides to leave the firm behind and launch a solo practice, they anticipate a number of obstacles and challenges they will face once they make the leap. Most new solos admit that their chief concerns related to (1) having enough work to sustain themselves and earn a reasonable living, and (2) dealing with a myriad of business management issues, such as office space, tech, supplies, insurance, web sites, email, etc.

One challenge that most newly independent lawyers, including myself, fail to anticipate is how lonely life as a solo can be. I’m not talking about lonely in the traditional sense. Instead, the loneliness of the independent lawyer has more to do with not having colleagues around to collaborate with, to bounce ideas off, or perhaps even join forces on a project.  I must admit, however, that having colleagues to go to lunch with or grab a beer on a Friday afternoon was one of the aspects of law firm life that I enjoyed.

I know of several independent attorneys who, although they could handle the management and practice development demands of being solo, ended up returning to a traditional firm in large part to reconnect with fellow attorneys.

Unfortunately for them, however, reconnecting with attorneys in law firms also means reconnecting with all the negative aspects of the traditional law firm model that they sought to escape when they left in the first place.

Thus begins the “yo-yo” effect that many of my independent-minded colleagues and I have experienced. We leave firms and launch a solo practice because we want more independence and economic control. Over months or years, however, the loneliness causes us to fatigue, making us vulnerable for the siren song of a law firm. Of course, our “new” firm is so different from other firms – we are sure to be happy there, right?  After the honeymoon, however, we soon remember why we left in the first place (economic inequity, politics, bureaucracy, power-plays, pettiness, mismanagement, pressure, etc.), and we long for our independence once again.

 Are we destined to always be somewhere in the Yo-Yo? Or should we just accept the yoke of the firm? Or the isolation of the solo practice. Seems we lose either way.

 A number of innovative law firms have created business models which are hybrids of the traditional solo/law firm models. By reducing shared overhead to a bare minimum while still allowing for collaboration and leveraging of partners, these firms may have “cracked the code” and created the solution independent-minded attorneys have long been searching for.