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Help for the solo or small firm lawyer

By Holly Fujie
President, State Bar of California

Holly Fujie

I don’t know about you, but I have never in all my years in practice seen such difficult economic times for the economy or for the legal profession. Every day we hear more gloomy economic forecasts and more news of unprecedented attorney layoffs — sometimes hundreds in one day — and that is only from the large firms that report such actions.

The financial meltdown has caused a tsunami of other economic problems, including massive numbers of foreclosures and bankruptcies of businesses both small and large.

Moreover, it does not appear that this trend is close to ending, and those who predict only an additional year of recession are being scoffed at as optimists. California lawyers are hurting, as are California’s citizens in general, and the State Bar is looking for ways that it can help California lawyers and all Californians being hit by this crisis.

One phenomenon which the State Bar has been seeing as a result of the current economic situation is an increase in the number of lawyers, especially new lawyers, going into solo or small firm practice. Whether it is in response to the economy or out of preference and circumstance, the bar has heard from many lawyers that they want help in setting up, organizing and running a solo or small firm practice.

Until we host another Solo and Small Firm Summit, however, there are a number of State Bar resources available to those opening or practicing in a solo or small firm. First and foremost, I recommend membership in the Solo and Small Firm Section.

Not only is that section incredibly active, with a dynamic chair, Lisa Martin, and a very active executive committee, it also publishes four publications, including “Big News for Smaller Firms” and “The Practitioner,” geared towards helping the solo and small firm practitioner survive and thrive in the legal marketplace. These publications are full of practical advice to serve the needs of section members.

The section also has an amazing “Lawyer to Lawyer Network” for its members. This service is designed as a source for section members who have questions relating to specific areas of law as well as the everyday issues of running a solo or small firm. It provides networking, mentoring, education and referrals to section members. Access to the service is limited to section members.

The section is also constantly looking to expand benefits and services for its members. If you are starting or already have a solo or small firm practice, you would be well advised to join the section for great advice on weathering this financial storm.

The bar has also published a guide to running a solo or small firm — “The California Guide to Opening and Managing a Law Office.” This 602-page guide, published with the help of the California Young Lawyers Association, State Bar staff and the bar’s Law Practice Management and Technology and Solo and Small Firm sections, aims to walk lawyers through the law practice process as well as help attorneys determine whether they are good prospects for opening a solo practice.

It provides information on the legal formalities of running a small practice, as well as advice on how to avoid common pitfalls encountered by such firms and commonly used forms for those practices.

The guide is a terrific resource for all solo and small firm practitioners and those who are thinking about becoming such. You can order the book online on the State Bar Web site,, in the Sections Bookstore.

The bar is also trying to help Californians in need of legal assistance to obtain free legal services. We are planning to work with local legal aid organizations and law firms that have either laid off or are not fully utilizing their lawyers to help those lawyers provide pro bono assistance to Californians in need of legal work.

We are hoping to facilitate the use of these lawyers in giving help to those who are in danger of losing the necessities of life and to make California lawyers part of the solution to this difficult situation.

The board of governors is also working on efforts to increase funding for legal aid organizations and to make it easier for California lawyers to provide pro bono assistance to the poor.

We are looking into a number of different ways in which we can make this happen, including the possibility of providing MCLE credit for certain pro bono training and activities and making it easier for government lawyers to do pro bono work.

To this end, we have been collecting ideas from lawyers all over the state on how we can help California lawyers and residents in this difficult time.

For example, at the excellent Kern County Pro Bono Summit sponsored in February by Greater Bakersfield Legal Aid and the Kern County Bar Association, Jonathan Wong, the Pro Bono Coordinator for Donahue Gallagher Woods, LLP in Oakland and a panelist in the discussion on “Why Pro Bono?” discussed a policy in Alameda County Superior Court by which law and motion judges are encouraged to give priority on the calendar to any lawyer who is there to represent a client pro bono.

This practice not only helps the lawyers at that hearing to make their appearance quickly and get back to their paying work faster, but it also provides encouragement to all lawyers present to do pro bono work in the future, since they are made aware that they can do so with less time wasted in waiting to be called for a hearing. We are hoping to encourage the adoption of such a policy throughout the state for it to have the widest possible effect.

The State Bar is acutely aware of the horrendous effect of the current economic situation. Great ideas for helping to get us all through these difficult times are always welcome. I wish us all good luck for a brighter financial future soon.

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