The Business of Practicing Law: The Work Lives of Solo and Small-Firm Attorneys Carroll Seron Author
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In recent years there have been a number of popular and scholarly books on the work and professional experiences of large-firm lawyers (e.g., Nelson's PARTNERS IN POWER, Galanter and Palay's TOURNAMENT OF LAWYERS, Pierce's GENDER TRIALS). According to the most recent edition of the LAWYER STATISTICAL REPORT (1994), this group (lawyers in firms of 101 or more lawyers) constitutes 12.6% of private practitioners. In contrast, the 67.5% of private practitioners working in solo or small firm (10 or under) practices have received much less attention from scholars. Carroll Seron's book, THE BUSINESS OF PRACTICING LAW, fills this gap giving us the first extensive look at such practitioners since Carlin's LAWYERS ON THEIR OWN (1962). As did Carlin, Seron bases her analysis on extensive interviews with practitioners in a major metropolitan setting (New York City and its environs). From the information provided by her informants, she is able to provide an interesting portrait of the realities of working in a small firm or solo setting in the 1990s. The book documents both continuities and change in this type of law practice. (Seron includes among her interviewees a number of lawyers working for large multi-office firms such as Jacoby and Meyers; strictly speaking, they are not small-firm lawyers, but their practice situation is sufficiently similar to the small firm setting that she included them in the study.) Seron organizes her discussion into nine chapters: Professionalism versus Commercialism The Terrains of Postindustrialization Negotiating Time Getting Clients Organizing Practices Managing the Marketing End Serving Clients and Consumers Serving the Public The Social Patterns of Private Professional Practice. Three themes bind these chapters together: the problems of making a living in small firm or solo legal practice, the implications of entry of large numbers of women into legal practice, and post-industrialism. The first two themes work better than the last one. The problems of attracting clients is an issue that is constant in the highly competitive personal plight sector of legal practice (this is increasingly an issue in the corporate services sector as well). This is by no means a new issue; it was one of the central concerns of the lawyers discussed by Carlin. Perhaps what is most interesting in what Seron describes is that, despite relaxation of many of the restrictions on advertising and solicitation, most of her respondents rely upon the same types of client-getting approaches that lawyers have used throughout the twentieth century: word-of-mouth, news coverage of their work, civic and organizational (e.g., church, service clubs, etc.) activities, etc. Relatively few lawyers have succeeded in building practices using media advertising or direct mail solicitation. More generally, while Carlin's lawyers did not seem to think in terms of the business of practicing law, the similarities in the tension between business-related issues and professional ideology from the late 1950s to the early 1990s are striking. For many small firm and solo lawyers, law practice is (and was) financially precarious. Figuring out ways of attracting clients, and then servicing them in ways that are profitable, are (and were) ever present. Solving these problems may involve finding a geographic or legal niche. It may involve cultivating contacts with other lawyers who will refer cases. It does involve managing staffs, setting fees, and collecting bills. Furthermore, while the business side is the material reality (law is an instrumental means to a very successful financial end), the image of professionalism and professional status continue to be the symbolic goals of these practitioners (wanting to be independent, to work directly with people in solving their personal problems, and to be respected pillars of their communities, p. 18). However, while there is an ideology of professionalism, there is also a resentment of some of its implications; this is most evident in Seron's discussion of her respondents' negative views of mandatory pro bono work (chapter 8). Furthermore, there is less of a taboo today than there was 35 years ago about talking in explicit, entrepreneurial terms about the business side of legal practice (p. 104). Seron's second organizing theme, gender, works for two related reasons. First, one of the biggest changes in the sociology of private legal practice (and the legal profession generally) since Carlin wrote is the entry of large numbers of women into the profession. Today, about 45% of law students are women, about one third of new bar admissions are women, and 17.8% of those currently in solo and small firm practice are women. Overall, women comprise 20% of lawyers in 1991 (estimated to rise to 27% by the year 2000), compared to 3% when Carlin was writing. The second


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