Monday, 24 August 2009

Small firms are viable - Letter of the Month - De Rebus April 2009

Small firms are viable

As a proud and viable sole practitioner I am outraged at the sweeping and arrogant generalisation of the title given to the news article in 2009 (Jan/Feb) DR 18: ‘Small firms no longer a viable option’.

How could anyone in his right mind make such a gloriously ridiculous assertion?

I looked in vain for any such assertion in the article itself. What I found were a number of practitioners who listed the disadvantages of practising as a one-person firm.

Some of the disadvantages mentioned were:

‘Losing work to Justice Centres’: I have any number of clients who are perfectly free to use the Justice Centres but prefer to use the services of a practising attorney because they perceive the latter to be in general more effective. I would like to see some concrete evidence to demonstrate that Justice Centres ‘get most of the work that could otherwise have been handled by a smaller firm’. More likely, they get most of the work that would otherwise not have been handled by anybody.

‘Clients moving away because of disgruntlement’: What an outrageous statement! Is there any evidence to show that more clients move away from small firms because of disgruntlement than they do from big firms? This allegation is totally and gratuitously unjustified.

‘Always under pressure due to carrying all the expenses’: Of course the larger firms have the advantage of being able to share many costs, but the cost of running an effective legal research facility, more than adequate for my needs, by no means puts me under pressure. I have a better equipped library than I have seen in many a larger firm and the cost of maintaining it certainly does not put me under pressure.

A one-man practitioner ‘has to look after everything’: Exactly – that’s what makes it so easy. He has his finger on the pulse because it is his own pulse, without any number of nooks and crannies in the structure where inefficiencies and unacceptable practices may lurk.

‘Professional development is limited’ – what nonsense! It is just as much, if not more, open to sole practitioners to attend seminars, explore uncharted legal territories via publications and the Internet, etc than to any modular partner in a larger firm bustling away in his little specialist legal cubicle.

He is ‘always trying to catch up’ – this statement is amazing in its pomposity and presumptuousness. Who is Louis Rood of Fairbridges to apply this breathtaking generalisation to every sole practitioner in the country? According to Hortors, he is the senior partner in a firm, the Cape Town office of which alone has about 20 partners. Of course he never tries to catch up. And how he presumes to know that only sole practitioners try to catch up, I’m not quite sure. Methinks that all effective and successful practitioners are busy ‘catching up’, because if they have caught up, it means they do not have any work to do.

‘Delivery can be patchy’ – where does he get this from? I have an endless stream of clients who have left larger firms in utter disillusionment not only with their patchy delivery but also with the extraordinary amounts they charge for it.

‘You do not bill properly’ – and why not? What is stopping one, simply because he is a sole practitioner, from billing properly? Another preposterous and arbitrary statement.

There is ‘no time to market your firm’: How much time does it take to market one’s firm? Ten minutes or quarter of an hour to place one’s details on a relevant Internet website repeated five times or so is as much marketing as I need because if I had more I would have too much.

As for clients ‘moving to bigger firms’, this is a pipe dream. It would be interesting to have objective figures on the relative interflow between large and small firms but, in the absence of those, the allegation made is akin to fiction.

Oh dear, oh dear: We one-man bands get sick, we go to funerals, we go on holiday. So? We make the necessary arrangements and get on with it. Let the secretary run the office. Get in a locum. What is the problem? Where is the strain?
There is more, but what has been mentioned is more than enough. Come on you negative old pessimists! It seems amazing to me that a panel discussion on the nature of individual practitioners versus big law firms at the Cape Law Society’s annual general meeting, appears only to have had a single participant making a positive observation about sole practitioners – and that accompanied by gloom and doom. Little mention of the joy of being one’s own master instead of locked into a private sector version of the civil service; the satisfaction of always dealing personally with one’s clients instead of fobbing them off to some underling; the fun of being nimble, swift, sometimes a little creatively unorthodox; the enjoyment of informality and relaxed if intense productivity – ah dear big firm colleagues, you do not know what you are missing. On second thoughts, perhaps you do. Is envy the reason for all the dark and miserable comment?

Roland Darroll,

attorney, Cape Town

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