U.S. Capitol building

On Building a Support Network as a Solo Practitioner

Jamison KoehlerLaw Practice, Social Media and Technology

One of the things I liked best about the Philadelphia public defender’s office – in addition to the camaraderie and sense of shared mission — was the support you got from other lawyers.  If you had a legal question or wanted feedback on a possible trial tactic, you could step out into the court hallway or into the office next door to run it by a colleague.

Whenever there was some new development or change in the law, the handy-dandy guide provided to us by the office made us the envy of the private criminal defense bar.  We had in-house experts on immigration, probation, the sealing of criminal records, and sentencing issues.  And if you had a more detailed question about a point of law or a particular case, you could consult an appellate attorney, in some cases the very person who had argued the case in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Similarly, Keith Lee over at An Associate’s Mind writes about the support new lawyers receive at a law firm:  “My failures never leave the office.  They are purely internal.  My work is reviewed, scrutinized, edited, and improved.  I’m sent back and told to try again.  I receive advice on how to handle matters.  I have fellow associates with who I can commiserate and bounce ideas off of.”

Sadly, solo practitioners do not have this same support network.  Upon moving back to the D.C. area in 2009, I had hoped to hook up with the public defender’s office in D.C. or a law firm specializing in criminal law to help bridge the gap between my experience in Philadelphia and my plan to start my own defense practice.  I was looking for an apprenticeship to ease my transition to a new jurisdiction. Failing that, I was forced to accelerate the timeframe for hanging out my own shingle.

In a couple of days, I will celebrate the two-year anniversary of my firm, and I have to say that, despite all the benefits, solo practice has not always been easy.  You can spend hours puttering around your office until the calls start to come in.  It is hard to get excited about a legal issue when it is still in the abstract.  And, if you are new to the jurisdiction and go over to the courthouse to observe, you can find that the lawyers there are referring to strange case names and using short-hand terms that sound to you like a foreign language.

Fortunately, there are many places a new lawyer can look in order to build a support network outside an established organization. The sources of support are there. You just need to work harder to access them.

For procedural issues and trial tactics, I begin with my colleagues.  As Paul Kennedy of The Defense Rests puts it:  “That’s the thing about criminal defense lawyers – we’re all on the same side.  Each of us takes our duty to defend the Constitution very seriously and we know that working together and collaborating allows us to do it that much better.”  Other lawyers can in fact be a valuable source of information on navigating the court system, dealing with particular prosecutors, and predicting how individual judges will react to an issue.  Most lawyers are only too happy to help out a newbie, and the initial contacts you make through these consultations can often turn into friendships.

Unlike any other jurisdiction in which I have practiced, the D.C. Public Defender Service (PDS) takes an active interest in the quality of representation from all lawyers representing indigent defendants in the District; it is not just interested in its own lawyers.  The PDS lawyers who participated at the Juvenile CJA Panel training offered their continuing support for whatever we might need, and I have taken full advantage of this offer.  This past week alone, for example, I consulted Nancy Glass, Mani Golzari, and Hannah McIlhenny on trial strategies for different cases.  Hannah McIlhenny, who is deputy chief of the Juvenile Division at PDS, took my call one evening on her cell phone as she ferried her children from one commitment to another.  PDS and the D.C. Bar also host a number of training courses open to all criminal defense lawyers, including the Criminal Practice Institute (CPI) seminar held every November.

You can often find Tim Curry of the D.C. Law Students in Court program or Kristin Henning of the Georgetown University Juvenile Justice Clinic in court supervising students.  Both of them are only too happy to help out.  After all, working with new lawyers and giving advice is what they do.  I warned Tim Curry the first time I met him that he was going to very much regret giving me his business card. He chuckled.  He didn’t realize I was serious.

As proof that Temple University is committed to helping its students even after graduation, I consulted my former criminal law professor, Professor James Strazzella, on a recent gun case in Virginia.  I have also benefitted from the network of support I have developed through the criminal law blogosphere and other social media sites.  For example, you can’t beat the advice you can get from an experienced trial attorney like Norm Pattis.

While I have already discussed the potential dangers of relying too heavily on the advice you will receive on a listserv, I believe it would be malpractice not to at least monitor the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association (SCTLA) listserv in D.C. The listserv run by the National College on DUI Defense offers you immediate access to some of the best DUI lawyers in the country.  And the ABA listserv Solosez has helped me considerably with the mechanics of setting up a law firm, including providing me with information on websites, professional liability insurance, billing, and marketing strategies.  My approach with that listserv has been to take what I can use and to leave all the rest.

Continuing Legal Education (CLE) classes provide a good excuse to get up-to-speed on an issue of interest to you, while broadening your contacts within the legal community.  And both D.C. and Virginia offer hotlines that provide you with immediate access to lawyers who can answer any question related to professional ethics.  For example, I emailed the Virginia contact with a couple of questions on my website when I was admitted to practice in the Commonwealth and had a very helpful answer back within a couple of hours.

Finally, at least for me, there is my wife.  Although as a civil litigator she has never practiced criminal law herself, she has a lawyer’s grasp of the issues I am dealing with. Naturally biased in favor of the prosecution, she also has an uncanny ability to zero in on the heart of any issue and to predict how a judge will respond to the arguments I am considering.  I have found that if I cannot convince her on an issue, I will never be able to convince the judge.  And that, finally, is the most important advice of all.