One of the benefits of working at a larger law firm is that there are often numerous lawyers that can be consulted when there is a question of law or legal procedure. Associates can usually speak to partners if they have a question about strategy, and everyone can talk to colleagues at a larger firm about how best to approach legal tasks. However, solo practitioners and small-firm lawyers often do not have ready access to another lawyer with whom they can ask questions and seek advice about legal issues. Nevertheless, solo and small-firm lawyers can speak to individuals who work at other firms and other colleagues to make sure that they are following the best strategy to serve a client’s needs.
When I worked for a handful of larger law firms earlier in my career, I enjoyed swapping ideas with other lawyers. At the beginning of my career, this was out of necessity, since I simply did not know what the correct process was for a variety of legal situations. As I progressed in my career, I became acquainted with various lawyers who knew a lot about certain legal subjects like discovery or appeals. If I had a question in a given area of the law, I would consult the person at my firm who had expertise in a given area so that I could figure out the best strategy for a client.
When I started my own legal practice over three and a half years ago, the first thing that hit me was how alone I was when facing legal issues. I had no one to talk to about strategy since I was the only person at my firm calling the shots. Six months after I opened my law firm, my brother joined the shop as a partner, but my brother and I practice very different areas of law. Many times my brother can provide helpful advice on issues, but at other times, my questions are outside his field of expertise.
Over time, I was able to build a network of solo and small-firm lawyers I could talk to if I had a question about legal matters. Initially, I spoke to other lawyers who shared the same office space that I had when I first started the firm. I would have spoken to lawyers who I knew from prior firms at which I worked, but I did not want to bother them, and many of my legal questions were better directed to solos and small-firm lawyers. Also, I felt that I would be taking time away from lawyers at larger firms by speaking with them about legal questions, but with small-firm lawyers, it is usually mutually beneficial to provide advice and then have someone to discuss questions with later down the line.
Over time, my network of people of whom I can ask questions about legal practice has grown considerably. Now, I have individuals in my network who are skilled in all different legal subjects and different areas of legal process. The good thing about keeping in contact with different lawyers is this also fortifies your referral network. For instance, I may have a commercial matter that is related to a bankruptcy issue, so I may ask a lawyer friend a bankruptcy question so that I can better represent my client. However, I do not handle bankruptcy law myself, so if I have a bankruptcy referral, I’d likely give it to the bankruptcy lawyer who I know is competent through our interactions. In addition, I know for a fact that answering questions about legal practice for other lawyers, especially attorneys outside of my normal jurisdictional area, has helped me get work in the past.
I would be remiss if I did not mention that people should follow guidelines when asking for advice from an attorney outside of your law firm. Perhaps most importantly, lawyers need to follow all ethical guidelines when seeking such advice. This includes not disclosing client confidences without permission, which should be relatively easy in most situations, since attorneys can typically ask about the mechanics of a legal process without revealing confidences. Moreover, if an attorney does not feel like they will be competent when handling a given legal task even after getting advice, they should refuse to handle the case. However, in most instances, there will not be too many issues with seeking advice from other lawyers.
In any event, it can be difficult to be a solo practitioner or small-firm lawyer for a variety of reasons, including the lack of other attorneys as the same shop with whom a lawyer can confer about legal issues. However, with some effort, solos and small-firm lawyers can seek advice about legal matters from others, and this can have a positive impact on their practices.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.