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Solos balance freedom with obligations

Pam Pepper

I am probably the least-qualified person in the world to talk about issues of balancing work and personal life. Ask anyone who has spoken to me for more than 10 minutes. Never having been a stoic, I am more than happy to answer the innocuous “How are you?” question by sighing heavily and telling people how absolutely frantic I am. My southern, never-complain, our-business-is-our-business mother would be horrified.

Despite the fact that my own life is woefully unbalanced, I do have the distinction of having given a lot of thought to the idea of balance. And one of the thoughts I’ve had is that solo practice, just like any other kind of practice, has both its pros and its cons in terms of creating a balanced life.

I remember when I first hung out my own shingle. When congratulating me for embarking on this adventure, people often pointed to the “freedom” of being a solo — “You can go on vacation whenever you want!” While I came to find out that this comment demonstrated a distinct lack of understanding regarding the realities (particularly the financial ones) of a sole practitioner, I also found that there is a sort of truth in it. While I have not gone on vacation whenever I wanted — in fact, I’ve rarely gone on vacation, I’m ashamed and distressed to say — I have had the freedom to take breaks that I need when I need them.

Let’s say one wakes up one morning to offspring projectile-vomiting, or producing coughs which eerily resemble the bark of a baby seal. In a solo practice, no explanation need be given to partners. There is no need for “face time.” There is no worry that one will be viewed as lacking a serious work ethic. If you need to be home, you stay home.

Or let’s say that you’ve had a particularly crazy month — a trial, perhaps, or a big project due, caused you to spend countless after-five hours in the office. You now need a “mental health” day — sleep late, sit around and watch soaps, go to a movie, read that new mystery novel growing dusty on your bedside table. It’s your call — you can do it, and there are no institutional “powers-that-be” to whom you have to make excuses or explanations. You don’t even have to use a “leave” slip.

Sole practitioners also have the freedom, once they’ve reached a certain level of financial stability, to take the cases that they want to take. I’m not great at certain kinds of cases, even though they’re technically in my practice area. They frustrate me, the income does not make up for that frustration, and clients in that particular kind of situation are difficult for me to deal with.

I can, as a solo, simply tell the prospective client that I’m not the best lawyer for him/her, and refer them to someone else. I don’t have a supervisor or superior telling me that I must take the case, don’t have to maintain long-time firm relationships if I don’t want to, don’t have to feed someone else’s machine. I can reduce my own stress by refusing to take those cases which I know will increase it.

On the other hand, this freedom isn’t unfettered. I’m a litigator, which means that my schedule isn’t entirely my own. I still serve at the pleasure of the courts. If I have a court appearance scheduled, the sick offspring issue becomes more difficult. I’ve rarely ever had to cancel a court appearance because of illness, but I’ve had a few experiences, as have a number of my colleagues. Some judges are very understanding.

On the other hand, I remember sitting in a courtroom in another county, a day or so after an eight-day hospital stay, because the judge’s clerk said, sick or not, the judge wanted me there for the 5-minute hearing. Or the judge who ordered me to come to court in Chicago during a massive blizzard, just so the prosecutor could tell him that the government still hadn’t quite gotten around to writing a plea agreement for my client.

And of course, when one is not in the office working, one is not generating revenue. If your practice brings in $1 million in revenues each year, perhaps you don’t mind missing those billable hours for a few days. However, for many solos missing a week of work means missing a week of revenue, which can make all the difference in the bottom line on a monthly or annual basis. Sometimes, in order to have the freedom to miss work for an illness or a vacation, you have to log that many more hours when you are on the clock, to build up your cash cushion.

There’s also that issue of “face time” that I mentioned earlier. True, sole practitioners don’t have to go to partners’ meetings, or management committee meetings, or obligatory firm outings or retreats. On the other hand, there are few sole practitioners who don’t need to do some kind of “marketing” in order to keep the phone ringing.

For some, it’s spending the time to craft advertising. For others, it’s attending bar functions. For still others, it’s the time-honored round of golf or drinks-and-dinner combo. Somehow, we have to be “out there,” so that clients and referring entities will keep us top-of-mind when they’re deciding who to call for their legal needs.

Every one in town may know of that mammoth legal shop, Dewey, Cheatham & Howe. It takes a lot longer, and a lot more effort, for everyone in town to know about a lone practitioner.

I truly enjoy the freedom that I have as a solo. I value it in spite of the fact that it has its limitations. Heck, I may just take an hour or two of “mental health” time, to recover from the rigors of writing this column … Of course, I’ll be in the office an extra three hours tomorrow night as a result.

After her clerkship on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Pam Pepper served as a federal prosecutor in Chicago and Milwaukee. Since 1997, she has had a private criminal defense practice, working in federal courts in Chicago, Madison and Milwaukee and in state courts around southeastern Wisconsin.

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