Starting out Fresh: Just because you’re “solo” doesn’t mean that you have to do it alone

October 17, 2012

Solo Practitioner(Editor’s note: “Starting Out Fresh” is a five-part series on common questions tackled by new solo and small practitioners that will appear weekly on WestlawInsider throughout the month of October.)

Week 1: Hourly billing or flat-fee?

Week 2: What can (and should) I charge for as an attorney?

Yesterday, the Lawyerist blog posted a great piece entitled, “Why Every Law Student Needs a Mentor.”

One of the article’s subheadings – and reasons why every law student needs a mentor – is to learn things you won’t learn in law school.

The article provides more detail on this, and it’s very apt advice for law students.

However, it doesn’t stop being good advice after law school graduation.

Instead, it’s extremely important for new solo and small attorneys to have a mentor, and for essentially the same reason above.

There are a lot of things that you need to know as a practicing attorney that law school simply doesn’t teach you.  A lot.

What “things” am I referring to?

  • Customary procedures and practices before, during, and after a court hearing or trial;
  • The actual procedure of a particular court hearing;
  • Common practices in serving the opposing party; and
  • Forms of filings and other legal documents.

In law schools’ defense, though, there really isn’t a practicable way to teach these things in a classroom setting – mainly because many of these practices may vary by geographic area, even within a given state.

Some of these above-stated practices can be gleaned fairly easily from a mentoring attorney, such as particular court hearing procedures and common service practices.

For others, though, you’ll likely need some continued guidance.

The most glaring example of this is forms.

As a solo or small practitioner, you are unlikely to have a paralegal or some other kind of legal assistant to draft forms for you, so you will be stuck doing it yourself.

And the first time that you have to draft a certain kind of legal document – such as a subpoena, a will, or a proposed order – you’ll undoubtedly undergo that feeling of terror when you realize that you have no idea what this thing that you’re supposed to write should look like.

Trust me, I’ve been there.

To make those of you who are or will ever be in this situation feel a bit better, I’ll tell you something a more experienced attorney once told me:

“Half of litigating is making it up as you go along.”

The other half is following the example of others.

In other words, if you have an example of a document or filing that you yourself are supposed to draft, great.

If not, go off what you do know and put the document together as best you can.

A caveat, though:

This might go without saying, but always follow any court rules laid out on the form and format of your filings – especially in more restrictive venues such as appellate courts.

Even when court rules specify the requirements on font and margin sizes, however, they don’t typically describe how the document is supposed to look, which leads us back to the need for new attorneys to have a mentor.

If your mentor doesn’t happen to have an example of a document that you need, there’s always Westlaw, which has both PDF scans of actual court filings and state practice guides that include forms for many different legal documents – including ones such as wills that aren’t meant for court filing (well, until probate anyhow).

Anyhow, what it comes down to is that there’s help out there for solo and small attorneys; many experienced attorneys are more than willing to help out newer ones.

Just because you are a “solo” attorney doesn’t mean that you should to do things alone.