No lawyer is an island

Tim Miller reports on the increasing number of sole practitioners who meet kindred spirits in legal networks

The joys of working alone – independence, flexibility, and control. But lawyers know that life as a sole practitioner comes at a cost.

Overheads cannot be shared, support staff are thin on the ground and office politics may be replaced by feelings of professional isolation.

Sole practitioners, however, are a hardy bunch unlikely to let a few practical problems stand in their way. It is no surprise then to see single lawyers devising ways of overcoming the difficulties.

Many who “go it alone” want things to stay that way – but others are now beginning to recognise the benefits of “networking”. Independence is retained, but sole practitioners reap the benefits of pooling resources and sharing ideas.

Six lawyers working to the south west of London set up a network, or self-help group as they prefer to call it, about two years ago.

Stephanie Griffiths, Diana Creasy, Gillian Cockburn, Pamela Clemo, Fiona Bell and Jill Trelfa cover a range of work including divorce, property, family, children, tax, trusts, wills and conveyancing.

“It's very much an informal set-up. The last thing we want is any sort of constitution or rules. It's meant to be effortless but effective,” says Trelfa.

“What's more, the only cost is a bottle of wine or two bought by whoever is hosting the meeting,” she adds.

The group meets about once a month to discuss various practical issues and professional developments. Staffing is often on the agenda, with members recommending secretaries and book-keepers who have provided a good service. The solicitors often cover for each other during holiday periods rather than being lumbered with the expense of a locum.

Costs are also cut by sharing resources – books and articles are passed around between members and occasionally one of the lawyers will attend a training course and glean relevant information for the rest.

“For sole practitioners there is the danger of becoming isolated from new ideas so we often compare notes on the developments in the profession, such as franchising or new technology,” says Trelfa.

“But it's not just about meetings. We keep in touch regularly and feel free to call each other. There is an understanding between us which would not exist without the network,” she says.

That understanding extends to work referrals. Each member has her own specialist areas but with some overlap. A key advantage is the reassurance that clients will not be poached.

But there are limits to the co-operative spirit. Each firm remains distinct and independent with members running their businesses in their own way. There has been a limited amount of joint marketing but, as yet, no common advertising.

At all times the emphasis of the group is on immediate practical help which is why networks can offer advantages over local law societies.

“They tend to concentrate on policy issues and liaison with the national Law Society,” says Trelfa. “What our group provides is something useful on a day-to-day basis.”

The network has deliberately shied away from rules, constitutions and hierarchies in a bid to remain flexible and informal. “We don't have any office-holders. Having to do a stint in the chair is the sort of thing that can put people off from joining groups,” she says.

But elsewhere, local law societies have been the catalyst for establishing sole practitioner groups.

Martin Phillips, of Leeds-based Phillips & Gillis, set up one of the first local networks three years ago when the president of the Leeds' Law Society was himself a sole practitioner.

There are about a dozen active members who attend meetings with no pre-set agenda. Over the years, the cost of default, separate representation, indemnity insurance and franchising have been among the topics for discussion.

“As sole practitioners we are very much doing our own thing. We don't have communication with other members of the profession or partnerships so it is important we get together to exchange views, to discuss problems and matters of common interest,” says Phillips.

“We now have a representative on the Leeds Law Society committee and so the influence of sole practitioners is being felt more widely. We like to think of that as one of our successes,” he says.

The best known network is the national Sole Practitioners Group which is keen to encourage local off-shoots, but so far few have taken up the idea.

Group secretary Fay Landau believes this may have something to do with the nature of those who work on their own.

“Sole practitioners are either successful and so they tend not to be interested or they are unsuccessful in which case they don't want anyone to know about it,” she says.

Landau predicts that interest in networks will gather momentum as the challenges facing single lawyers begin to mount. One Bath solicitor recently described sole practitioners as “an endangered species” gradually becoming excluded from specialist panels.

But Trelfa says that self-help groups should not be seen simply as a response to mounting pressures.

“If I had thought of the idea nine years ago when I first set up, I would have done it then because of the many advantages,” she says.