State Bar of California California Bar Journal
Home Page Official Publication of the State Bar of California October2007
Top Headlines
MCLE Self-Study
You Need to Know
Trials Digest
Contact CBJ

Put safety nets in place for solo lawyers

By Diane Karpman

Diane Karpman

Until about a decade ago, the legal profession was in a state of denial. As a group, it was difficult to admit that small and solo practice lawyers were the main recipients of State Bar discipline. 

Then studies were done. Lo and behold, a fundamental truth known to all street lawyers was found to be accurate. Small firm and solo lawyers are far more likely to receive discipline. In “12 step” recovery programs, everyone learns that they can’t recover until they acknowledge they have a problem. There are many reasons why small firm and solo lawyers are subject to discipline, including practice areas, client status and sheer numbers (the majority of lawyers practice in small or solo environments). According to the 2006 Commission to Examine Solo and Small Firm Practice, an astonishing 83.5 percent of the lawyers in New York work in small firm and solo practice, and only 1.8 percent work in firms of 10 or more attorneys.

The discipline system is largely complaint-driven. Since small firm and solo practitioners provide legal services to human beings (as opposed to corporations, carriers or financial institutions), it is common sense that they would be subject to more complaints. People accused of crimes are often unhappy with the “unfairness” of the system. Victims of personal injury may be suffering from chronic pain or dealing with disabilities. They are understandably grumpy. When was the last time a client exclaimed in delight their satisfaction with a settlement or litigation? It is much easier to blame the lawyer than the less-than-satisfactory facts of a case.

Tall building lawyers don’t handle routine criminal cases, fender benders or marital dissolutions. When a major corporation is dissatisfied with legal services, they simply sue for professional negligence or take their business elsewhere. Institutional clients tend to hire firms that mirror their own image. IBM or Ford are not comfortable with street front lawyers.

Organized bars are beginning to realize we are all in this thing called “practicing law” together. Although a myriad of reasons explain the problem, that’s not a solution. We all want to provide outstanding legal services, so the organized bar is attempting to analyze what support systems exist in big firms that are absent in small firm environments. We need to identify those safety nets and replicate those programs for everyone.

Mentoring makes small firm and solo practice much less risky. Also, early programs designed to identify substance abuse exist in many states, including California. The Washington State Bar has “manufacturer authorized” software programs that lawyers can use before purchasing, sort of a “test drive.” It would be helpful for lawyers to have access to something like that. Software manufacturers, looking at the sheer size of the California bar, might be interested in a program to get their product into the legal marketplace.

So many complaints are filed against family lawyers that some people joke that the overarching objective of “family unification” occurs after the dust settles, when the former warring spouses jointly file State Bar complaints against their lawyers.

Legal ethics expert Diane Karpman can be reached at 310/887-3900 or at

Contact Us Site Map Notices Privacy Policy
© 2024 The State Bar of California