The past couple of years has been a roller coaster for me. After 24 years in firms and corporate I embraced a new approach to my career. I decided I didn’t want to stay either in law firms or in corporate. I took a leap of faith and I became a freelance paralegal.
Not only I am privileged to work with some wonderful solo practices covering a wide array of practice areas, I also know exactly how they feel and what they face in developing and maintaining their practice. This dual experience makes me more effective for my clients, and a more capable paralegal. I have rediscovered the rewards I get from my career.
It was not an easy decision.
Let’s face it, shifting from a steady and reasonably predictable paycheck to one that, well, isn’t either of those things is pretty intimidating. It’s the same feeling attorneys have when they go solo or launch their practice. It’s also rewarding.
I am challenged more every day than I ever have been before. I often reflect upon my weeks of all-nighters, multiple trial weeks locked away in a hotel conference room (“war room”), the challenges I faced with 11:53 pm Motions for Extensions of Time, or supporting a corporate legal team that spanned the globe. Those were certainly challenging days (and I heartily thank my then China GC for his willingness to take calls at 2am ET, every month). But I was not alone in the room and the coffee pot was never empty.
Well, the coffee pot is still never empty but now I am the only one in the room. And it’s the best. It’s what I wanted and expected. I wanted to work in tandem with solo and small practices. I wanted them to feel the same sense of teamwork I felt in that war room. I wanted them to know the benefits of having the kind of staff big law can afford and attract. In short, it’s the perfect challenge.
What I didn’t expect was how challenging my clients’ views of practice management can be. Oh sure, I had an inclination (just look at all those Clio and Thomson Reuters reports on the state of the industry and the developments of technology!). And I know I have to incorporate questions about workflow, expectations, and technology in my initial consultations. But some of my greatest learning moments over the past few years have come as a result of failures in this area.
The failures can be epic. A lot of solo practices are very old school. They’re great attorneys, but they remain wedded to paper. They keep their files on paper, in cabinets, where, unless you are actually in the office, you can’t reference them. Others are unable to expand their workflow to include paralegals or legal assistants. They are simply so accustomed to doing everything themselves, they don’t know where to begin to delegate — let alone how. In the worst cases, they are unwilling to use cloud technology, and refuse to become suitably technologically savvy — which, quite frankly, risks significant ethical violations.
One short lived client relationship was with just such an attorney. In his case, his court of jurisdiction has yet to adopt electronic filing rules for his practice area and he simply doesn’t care. He was “old enough that he’ll retire when it happens.” Given that he was not the only lawyer in his practice, but he was the one making the decisions for the rest of the office, I found this attitude profoundly disturbing. His clients struggled with it — they expect the use of technology, and had difficulty reaching him or getting the documents he requested to him. His opposing counsels struggled with it — document exchange was made infinitely more difficult due to his rejection of modern standard practice and he almost never replied to his emails. Things like USB drives, and shared cloud-based files, even electronically stored information from clients for standard discovery requests, were all things he refused to embrace, so his phone stopped ringing, his income fell, and the costs of his practice went up.
I learned to ask better questions. It’s not enough to merely listen for the practice area challenges such as how much help the attorney could use for substantive legal work. It became necessary to ask questions relating to how the attorney works, their process, the tools they use, their expectations, how they view working with a team. And, I learned to ask what technology their regular court uses — are they electronically mandated? If they are required to file electronically, many of the problems raised by technological weaknesses disappear.
I have learned more than ever before. I have clients practicing all across the United States — which is not new to me at all. When you work for a Big Law firm, you have offices everywhere, and work on cases all over the country. In some cases, you have offices internationally and wind up working on those cases as well. But in such a firm, there are teams; I once worked on a team with 14 lawyers (including 3 senior partners), 5 paralegals, and 6 legal secretaries. With solo practices, the team is the attorney, me, and maybe a receptionist/secretary (though more frequently they use a service). There’s no one else who specializes in that jurisdiction to guide you or the solo attorney. There’s no one who specializes in legal research or who is well versed in a particular question coming up in a case to tap. It’s all you.
And I love every minute.
What can I say? After more than two decades in firms and corporate practice as a legal executive secretary, legal assistant, and paralegal, I knew when I embarked on the next stage in my life I wanted to take this career along a different path. I worked hard to learn my skills, and, to quote a former colleague, “it would [have been] a shame to lose all that institutional, practice area, general knowledge and skill, and let it go to waste.” I decided I wanted to take all that big law/corporate skill and give it to the proverbial little guy alone in the trenches. I wanted to work with solos and small practices, and I wanted to do it freelance.
Jumping off this cliff was the best decision I have ever made.
Alison Pacuska is the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier paralegal and legal assistant services with a focus on intellectual property and solo practitioners. Talk with her about your practice needs.