The great thing about having your own firm is that you get to choose who you work with. It’s easy to get along with your boss when you are your own boss.
You have ultimate control over the staff, too—if you don’t feel like you’d get along with a paralegal candidate, don’t hire him. Your co-workers are all of your own choosing. More importantly, your clients are all of your own choosing as well. If you don’t like a potential client, you don’t have to take the case.
The problem with that is that it’s not really true. Of course you can choose the staff. Of course you can choose the client. And if you decide, for no particular reason, that you don’t like a potential client, you pass on the case.
The problem is that if you do too much of that, you end up without any clients. I know I’ve certainly passed on plenty of clients—and in extreme cases, fired clients—merely because I didn’t want to put up with their nonsense. I’m not sure I was right to do it, though.
When it comes to serving our clients, solo attorneys are freed from one layer of interest that other attorneys have to deal with. When you’re a junior associate at a firm, you have to consider what the client wants, what is best for you, best for your business, and what your boss wants you to do. Solo attorneys only have to worry about the first three.
Balancing those can be tricky, certainly. Let’s say that you have a client who texts you at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning asking you to file a conciliation court case for him. He texts you half the details you will need, and says he will put a check in the mail soon. You don’t reply, deciding to file it on Monday. Then you get a message Sunday night asking if it has been filed. Your client doesn’t understand or care that what he’s asking for is silly.
You probably haven’t had that happen to you exactly, but if you have ever represented clients, you’ve had something just like it happen. For you, maybe it was spending a week drafting an airtight contract on a complicated transaction, only to have a the client call and say that he thinks the contract that took you took 35 hours to research and draft could have been written in two. The details aren’t important. Whatever happened, it made you question your continued relationship with your client.
Being a solo attorney, in theory, frees you from being assigned a problem client by your boss, and then stuck trying to meet ridiculous needs. It can be taken too far in the other direction, however. It’s certainly something I’ve struggled with.
The more successful you get—as a solo attorney or not—the easier it is to chase the illusion of the “perfect client.” You know the one. He always pays his bills on time, listens to your advice, responds when you need him to but accepts your word when you say “we’re just waiting for the judge’s decision on the summary judgment motion, so you might not hear from me for a few months.” He might not have the perfect case, but he is the perfect client.
The perfect client isn’t a fantasy, but they are few and far between. You can’t build a business on perfect clients. Most clients, like most attorneys, have their quirks we just have to work with. And balancing those interests of client, yourself, and business, sometimes your own interests (or sanity) should take a back seat.
It’s not just that we have a duty to our clients to keep them well-informed, even if they’re asking silly questions, asking for more information than they will really understand, or asking for updates when we have repeatedly assured them that there is nothing to update. We do have that duty, but that’s not the point. I’m not talking about balancing your interests with that of the client, but your interests with that of the business.
When you were a young solo, you both (1) didn’t know what that balance was supposed to look like, and (2) didn’t have the luxury even if you did know. You were willing to do way more than you reasonably should have done, because you needed to weigh that business interest very heavily. So when a client would call without warning and say “I need you to meet me in an hour in Maple Grove” and you live in Woodbury, you said “Sure,” and you went.
As you got more clients, and more of the ability to pick and choose, the temptation is to say “no.” You have enough clients, and you don’t need to put up with crazy requests. There’s a line between reasonable and unreasonable requests, true, and that’s where the temptation is to draw the line with clients.
Telling your lawyer they need to drop what they’re doing and drive across town to meet you is an unreasonable request. But that’s probably the wrong place to draw the line. Clients who become hostile, intractable, or set irrational expectations will be a drain on your business. Clients who expect a quick response to a 6 a.m. weekend text are merely a drain on your sanity. It’s worth getting rid of the first, and as a solo, you have that luxury.
But for the price of building a successful business, even if you have the ability to avoid annoying clients, you probably still shouldn’t.