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From the President

Solo and small firms: The backbone of the Bar

By Bill Hebert
President, State Bar of California

Bill HebertSolo practitioners and small firms are the backbone of the State Bar. We are its nervous system, with a network that reaches every part of the state. I saw our strength in numbers at the State Bar’s 3rd Annual Solo and Small Firm Summit in Anaheim last month, attended by more than 200 lawyers. Solo and small firm practitioners should be proud of their past accomplishments and their ability to build stronger practices for themselves, their clients and their communities. 

I include myself and my firm as small parts of this State Bar backbone. My firm has 17 lawyers in two offices. By today’s standards, when mega-firms routinely exceed 1,500 lawyers, we are small. Most of us who make up the more than 170,000 active members of the California State Bar and who are reading this column practice law as solo practitioners or in small firms. In 2001, the last time the Bar conducted a survey on this topic, more than half the lawyers in the state identified themselves as practicing in solo or small firms. There is no evidence the numbers are smaller today.  

It is because of these numbers that the State Bar began to sponsor the Solo Practitioner and Small Firm Summit. A few years ago, solo and small firm practitioners complained that the Bar was not paying them adequate attention. The Bar leadership listened and commissioned surveys and held focus groups. The conclusion: We needed to pay more attention to our members who practice at solo and small firms. In 2009, the Solo and Small Firm Summit was born. 

The Summit offers benefits for everyone who practices in a solo or small firm. While, the State Bar offers many of the same opportunities (plus more MCLE) at its Annual Meeting, attendees of the Summit benefited in many ways. 


In a banker’s view of cold hard cash, each of us is as valuable as the money our practice might generate in the future. This is our cash flow, or our future revenue stream. For most of us, our cash flow is dependent upon referrals from clients (past or present) or our fellow lawyers. The Summit taught us concrete ways to increase our client contacts through the Internet, including Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube.  Increasing our client contacts makes it more likely we will have future cash flow, due to referrals from past or current clients or other lawyers. If you missed this year’s talk, then you could be left out of the wave of solo and small firm lawyers who will be increasing their cash flow this year, next year and into the future. 


The Summit gave every solo and small firm practitioner a chance to meet. At my law firm we routinely partner with other solo and small law firms to litigate cases. We know that we do not have the expertise or resources in many areas (e.g., criminal law, tax litigation, family law, bankruptcy, mass torts, medical malpractice, trusts and estates, etc.) to staff every case on our own. We have a stable of solo practitioners and small law firms with whom we routinely partner to address our clients’ problems. The Summit gives you the chance to meet lawyers with whom you can partner. If you don’t want to partner, but merely refer the case, you still can profit. Under Rule 2-200 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, a lawyer can refer a case and negotiate a referral fee. Because our state allows paying referral fees, other firms can refer work to you, you can do the same and still take home some revenue. 


Many programs at the Summit focused on how to manage your law firm in the most ethical and profit-maximizing manner. Law is, after all, a business. None of us has a duty to accept every case presented to us. If we don’t believe the client has a case, or the client can’t pay us, we don’t need to accept the engagement. While big firm lawyers and their yearly salaries generate media attention, I know many solo and small firm practitioners who make far more every year than many big firm lawyers. How? They exercise careful judgment when accepting cases. They expend on each case an appropriate amount of resources. They use technology to communicate with their clients and keep their overhead low. These lawyers make hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, every year. 


I know that the Summit does not address all the complaints by solo practitioners and small firms about their treatment by the Bar. As a member of the State Bar’s Discipline Oversight Committee for the past three years (including one year as its chair), I have repeatedly heard complaints that solo and small firm practitioners are disproportionately targeted by the Office of the Chief Trial Counsel for discipline. There is no solid evidence that the Bar targets solo and small firm practitioners for discipline. In 2000, the State Bar hired an independent actuarial consultant to assess whether it unfairly targets solo practitioners and small firms. In its 2001 report, the consultant found that there was no evidence that the Bar did so. Of course, critics assert that the data was skewed, because large law firms have the wherewithal to squelch any client complaints by, for example, writing money off a bill, or settling confidentially, before the client ever complains to the bar. And, of course, this study was conducted many years ago, and circumstances might have changed. It is probably time to update the survey of solo and small firm practitioners, and to re-assess whether they are disproportionately targeted for discipline. If there is such a bias, we should root it out. 

I greatly enjoy working at my small firm. Due to technology, we can work better across offices (and the International Dateline) with other law firms, with far-flung clients and in far-flung jurisdictions. With today’s technology, there is nothing to stop a small law firm from getting its share of worthy clients. Once we are secure in our business, we can do all of the other things that make law interesting: pro bono, public service and involvement in our communities.