To be or not to be a prisoner of Bay
I recently received a letter from an articling student in the Toronto office of a large national firm.
He was considering starting his own practice and leaving Bay Street behind when he came across
my column “Surv iving in priv ate practice” ( Law Times, March 8, 2004 ) on the Ontario
Lawyers' Assistance Program web site .
Although he had a guaranteed position awaiting him after he was called to the bar, he was
interested in starting his own practice. He was leary, however, of leav ing a comfortable situation
for an unknown future. He was looking before he leaped and hoped I would be able to give him
The litmus test for me, after 35 gruelling y ears of sole practice, is asking whether I would do it
again. Years ago I had an irresistible itch for independence and scratched it. I would not scratch
it the same way again.
I would also tell new lawyers to take with a grain of salt the usual moral injuction they hear from
speakers at calls to the bar about the most valuable hours being those for which you never render
a bill. Pro bono is very admirable, but the landlord does not want to hear about all your good
works when it's time to pay the rent.
That's why I applaud Treasurer Frank Marrocco for his remarks at this year's calls to the bar. He
talked about the social obligation that underlies the priv ilege of being a lawyer and the
importance of public serv ice, but he candidly stated that in the real world “you can't eat good
works and you can't support a family if all your serv ices are given away for free. You can't have
much of a social life, nev er mind the good life, on zero dollars an hour.”
The recent study commissioned by the Law Society of Upper Canada's sole practitioner and small
firm task force revealed some brutal facts. “Fully 25 per cent of sole practitioners who work alone
reported an annual income of less than $50,000. Fifty -sev en percent of sole practitioners who
work alone...reported earning less than $100,000 annually .”
The freedom of a sole practitioner is illusory. The hours are not necessarily less than those of
lawyers in large firms, nor is the stress. When you practice law, stress comes with the territory,
but big firm lawyers get paid more for theirs.
I recently talked to a young lawyer who started his career with a monster firm, then entered sole
practice for a few years, and then went to another large firm. I asked him why he did it and found
his answer succinct but profound.
“I decided I want to spend my time practicing law, not running an office. I may have to worry
about business development and attend more firm meetings than I like, but I have more time to
practice pure law in a big firm. My clients can afford to have me practice law the way it should be
practiced. I do all the research and preparation I need to get the best results.”
The best advice I can give to a new lawyer who wants to practice solo is not to do it right away .
Y ou will spend too much time reinventing the wheel and then needlessly spinning it. Specialize
and learn the ropes from the best lawyer or firm you can get a job with. Dev elop the knowledge
and the competence for priv ate practice for which law school has not equipped you, and for which
the newly revamped bar admission process will not adequately equip you either. Dev elop your
sea legs before you set sail alone.
That being said, all is not grim for those who choose to become sole practitioners. There are
resources now av ailable that did not exist when I sallied forth on my own 35 years ago. The law
society offers new practice workshops at nominal cost. The practice management resources on
the law society 's web site (www.lsuc.on.ca ) are superb, and there are substantive information
resources as well.
There are also excellent materials on the LawPro (www .law pro.ca) , PracticePro
(www.practicepro.ca) , Ontario Lawyers' Assistance Program (www.olap.ca ), and on the Ontario
Bar Association ( www.oba.org) and Canadian Bar Association (www .cba.org) web sites.
Continuing education programs offered by the law society and the OBA are more accessible and
relev ant than when I was first starting out, although there is still an economic barrier which
prevents many lawyers from attending as much CLE as they like.
The Ontario Legal Aid Plan is more lawy er -friendly than it was many years ago. There are
resources on its web site ( www.legalaid.on.ca ) and you can electronically bill.
Do not misinterpret me. Sole practice has never been easy, and even in the age of the Internet,
with helpful resources av ailable on your desktop, it is still hard. Indeed, the surplus of resources
can be overwhelming, and becoming and remaining technologically proficient has its own
challenges, particularly in terms of money and time.
You need an independent temperament, the ability to constantly adapt, and eternal optimism to
surviv e as a sole practitioner. You should also not ex pect a pot of gold.
Above all, you must take to heart the wisdom expressed in the Ethics of the Fathers; in order to be
happy, you must be satisfied with your lot.
Gary Lloyd Gottlieb can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The pre ceding article has been re printed with pe rmission from the author, Gary Lloyd Gottlieb. Mr. Gottlieb is a Toronto Sole
Practitioner and a Law Socie ty of Uppe r Canada be ncher.