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Small & Home Office

Go Solo, but Stay Wired to Virtual Partners

How the ABA's SOLOSEZ listserv combats isolation and helps lawyers collaborate.

By Bruce Dorner

Tech Trenches

Go Solo, but Stay Wired to Virtual Partners YEARS ago, when portable computers were a luxury, I borrowed one for a bench trial. All I had on the screen was a list of questions to ask the opposing party. The judge had never seen a computer used at trial. As I asked questions of the opposing party (knowing that I'd get answers that I really didn't want), I kept looking at the screen and furrowing my brow and turning my head in a negative fashion.

I did this several times as if the computer had the right answer and the witness was wrong. I could see that the judge was starting to appreciate the "testimony" from the computer. However, my case was poor, my client also lacked accurate memory and the judge "reluctantly" ruled against me and my computer. Had I pushed a little harder, the computer might have carried the day! --B.D.

* * * *

The Missouri Listserv Takes on Goliath

IN 1996, the Missouri Bar held its first "Solo and Small Firm Conference." Following the meeting, a handful of lawyers started a listserv, now known as The Small Firm Internet Group. Today, the forum is maintained by the Missouri Bar, and its 400-plus participants call themselves "the largest law firm in Missouri."

It's become an invaluable resource. Every day, solos refer cases back and forth; and lend assistance, advice, and expertise to other lawyers. In 1999, Karl Timmerman found himself in a face-off with the State Division of Child Support Enforcement. Like many states, Missouri has statutes designed to insure the payment of child support, by giving the state the power to prosecute parents who were not making their child support payments. But Timmerman believed Missouri's DCSE administrative judges and clerks were abusing these statutes, and circumventing the judicial process of modifying support payments.

Go Solo, but Stay Wired to Virtual Partners

He turned to the listserv for help, and found an undercurrent of anger and frustration among other attorneys. He asked if anyone was willing to research the child support enforcement statutes and government agencies in the other 49 states and help prepare a brief. Within hours, Timmerman had 39 volunteers from all over the state. They gathered information, knowing that they would not be receive any fees for their work.

In Dec. 2000, the challenge to the DCSE practices was argued before the Missouri Supreme Court. It ruled that the agency had abused its authority, but said it could not rule on the issue until a Missouri court issued a final judgment from which an appeal could be made. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the DCSE dismissed the case.

It looked as if the DCSE had lost the battle, but won the war. After all, there are very few people with the resources to again carry the battle up through the courts. All Timmerman and his colleagues had to show was a moral victory. That was until June 1, when an order was entered awarding his client attorneys' fees of $40,000. Stay tuned. . . .

--John L. Mellitz

Editor's note: The Missouri Bar honored Timmerman with its Distinguished Service Award, and the SFIG Listserv group will receive the GP Link award from the American Bar Association's General Practice section, Aug. 2 at the ABA annual meeting in Chicago.

I'M A SOLO attorney in a 895-lawyer firm. The sun never sets on my firm's partnership spanning the globe from Japan to Israel, Scotland and New Zealand, where partners call meetings at any hour of the day or night. I have partners who practice in every area from domestic relations, commercial real estate, bankruptcy, criminal law and international transactions.

Every day is casual Friday; I could show up in my birthday suit and no one would even notice. I can withdraw from the firm at my pleasure and, no matter what I do, they can't diminish my compensation.

Am I hallucinating? No. What I have is the benefit of an online community of attorneys; a virtual law firm of like-minded practitioners who band together through the use of an electronic mailing list hosted by the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners, called SOLOSEZ.

As the Internet has matured, so have listservs that address specific types of practices and interests. Among the most active are MacLaw, TechnoLawyer Community, and LAWTECH.

For small firm attorneys, the SOLOSEZ list can be invaluable. Any member of the list (or as I call us, partners in the firm) can post a message to the list asking for help, advice, assistance, or just to vent about a difficult situation. The message is immediately sent by e-mail to each partner in the firm, filling the partner's e-mail inbox with rafts of messages for perusal, reply, filing away, or deletion.

Topics discussed range the full gamut of interests, from technology tools for the law office to personnel matters, to political intrigue, and unique legal fact patterns that require the input of our learned members to help develop a plan to assist the client of the posting attorney.

We also serve as a support structure for our members and provide encouragement and understanding when emotions peak and pressures mount, ranging from ethical connundra, vexatious opponents, mean judges and non-paying clients.

Sometimes, we learn that the judge simply doesn't understand the brilliance of our argument or doesn't understand the applicable law (said with tongue firmly planted in cheek). On those occasions our members offer virtual hugs or suggestions on how to frame the appeal.

Referrals

Our SOLOSEZ firm also acts as a referral service to our members. For example, if I need an attorney to handle a workers' compensation matter in Oklahoma, I can contact Sheryn Bruehl. If I need assistance with a matter in Japan, I lean on Norm Solberg. If I have a management concern, I can rely upon Ed Poll in California. When I have a client in New York with a problem, I know that Christina Kallas is available. Environmental matters in Chicago go to the attention of Shell Bleiweiss.

In short, within a few hours of posting a request to the list, it is quite common to have the names of several attorneys in any given area of the country who will offer help, advice, or assistance for your client.

One of the most recent developments of SOLOSEZ arose out of the never-ending search for the "perfect document" to handle a variety of legal matters. We all want the killer petition, pleading or memorandum. But the fastest way to alienate members of a listserv is to start loading it up with attachments.

We found an alternative, when one of our partners, Neal Kennedy, opened a storage facility on a Web site called idrive. For free, we immediately had a 50 MB storage vault to hold sample documents, forms and pleadings. Now, our members post a request for sample documents in just about any area of law, and the responding attorneys simply send an e-mail stating the name of the document and in which folder they placed it at our Driveway storage facility.

Social Animal

The SOLOSEZ family also has evolved into a social animal. We now have regional meetings developing in the metropolitan Virginia/D.C. area and in Dallas, Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and more. The partners get together for lunch, a little social encounter and to discuss anything about their practice, family, or concerns that might be of interest to the group. There are no officers and there are no dues or meeting requirements. It's just an amazing opportunity to share, learn, and participate in a fashion that lifts the veil of isolation that shrouds the solo practitioner.

Wonder how expensive it is to join our firm?

Believe it or not, it's free! Join our firm by pointing your browser to ABANET, select SOLOSEZ from the list and click on the "subscribe" button. I look forward to welcoming you to the firm.

However, I offer one caution: be sure you know how to manage e-mail. List traffic may run from 75 to 150 messages per day. Choose the digest version, or set up rules or filters for your mailbox, to sort the topics of interest and delete those that are not of personal interest.

Bruce Dorner, a solo attorney in Londonderry, N.H., started SOLOSEZ with Deb Owen (former staff director of the ABA Standing Committee on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners). E-mail: callmylawyer@attglobal.net.

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