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A Solo Practitioner as Trapeze Artist

Jamison KoehlerLaw Practice


Years ago, back when the children were little and we lived in Arlington for the first time, we decided to go to the circus.  I drove over to the baseball field in Ballston earlier in the day, and bought the tickets from a young Hungarian woman working out of a trailer.  It was a small, family-owned circus with one ring, a couple of clowns, and a tiger or two.  Elephants were being used to raise the tent when I arrived.

When we returned to the tent later that afternoon, the same woman took our tickets and escorted us to our seats.  A couple of hours after that, the very same woman appeared in make-up and costume as the trapeze artist.  We saw her a final time at the end of the show, back in her usher’s uniform, when she re-appeared to help direct people to the exits.  She was standing next to a man who looked an awful lot like the guy who had just been shot out of a cannon.

I have often felt that solo practice – or at least my solo practice – is a little bit like that circus and that my role as a solo practitioner is similar to the trapeze artist’s.  No, we don’t face the same risk of death or bodily injury.  But we don’t have – dare I say it? — a safety net either.  After all, last month’s success in bringing in new clients is no guarantee of future business.  And we don’t have the luxury of colleagues to carry us through lean times.

I share my wife’s office in Georgetown, which has all the trappings of a fancy law office. We have a receptionist and support personnel, large offices, a kitchen, two bathrooms, and a spacious conference room.  Note that I say “share.”  It is actually my wife who pays the rent, who hires the staff, and who makes all other decisions affecting the office.  I rarely use the office set aside for me, and do most of my work out of my study at home or from the courtroom cafeteria, library, and hallways.

Assuming things go according to plan, I will eventually be forced to hire my own support staff and potentially an associate or two.  I am already having trouble covering overlapping court appearances.  At some point, I may also want to move my office across town so that I can be closer to the D.C. courthouse.  However, for the time being, having spent my first career as a federal manager, it is remarkably liberating to be entirely unencumbered by the hassle of worrying about other people:  Are they gainfully employed?  Are they getting along?  What would I do if they decide not to come to work that morning?

The flip side of all of this, of course, is that, like the Hungarian trapeze artist, I have been forced to become a jack-of-all trades:  office manager, paralegal, book-keeper, part-time investigator, chauffeur, and, yes, criminal defense lawyer.  But even here, there are many advantages.  Back when I had my own dedicated secretary in government, I allowed myself to become wholly reliant on this secretary and would find myself at a loss whenever she called in sick or took some vacation time.  Not so here.  Having gone through the trouble, for example, of developing an accounting system that works for me, I know every detail of the system. Self-sufficiency is empowering.  I cringe at the thought of having to train someone else to take this over from me.

I write this on a day in which I have no court listings or other commitments.  So today, facing a mountain load of clerical work that has piled up on my desk, I take on the office manager/paralegal/book-keeper role of my practice, not something I cherish, and remind myself – once again – that there are many advantages to being a solo practitioner.  Yes, liberating. Empowering. Woo hoo. Soooo many advantages. If I thought about it a little longer, I am sure I could think of some more.

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