Update 4/10: Ross Kodner wrote a post on his popular blog Ross Ipsa Loquitor after this post came out (and which stimulated (mostly) healthy debate.) The link got buried in comments on the ABA Journal Online and it is truly worth reading. In explaining in more depth his attitude, those pricked by the ‘marketing message’ of the terms ‘BigSolo’ and ‘SmallSolo’ as I was can feel less offended. Marketing messages are powerful. We can’t always control the impressions they make or the unintended consequences. But how we handle the subsequent fallout is just as important. And this was done with class.
Years ago I was driving through a predominantly African-American neighborhood and stopped at a stop sign. To my right was a parking lot and there I spotted a hand painted sign which said, ‘White’s Only ‘. I did a double take because I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I then looked at the building attached to the parking lot saw it was a diner called ‘White’s. I now understood why the sign was there. It made perfect sense. But given the neighborhood, the immediate offense I felt, even though the proprietor had an absolute right to post a parking sign designating reserved parking for his patrons, it showed an incredible insensitivity and possibly a not so well disguised prejudice. Clearly, he or she could have chosen different wording. But technically, one could argue, there was nothing wrong with sign because it did its job – let you know this was parking for ‘White’s Only.’ (Yes, I’m aware of the apostrophe.)
This is the same reaction I had to this article written by Ross Kodner in which he attempts to coin, in my opinion, a similarly offensive phrase or slogan, ‘BigSolo.’ My first reaction was, ‘you’ve got to be kidding. What WAS he thinking? (And I was not alone, trust me.)
But these folks aren’t ordinary solo practitioners in the way we’ve come to think of the category. (Really? How do you know how I think about solos?) So many solo practitioners have always practiced either on their own, or in small firm situations. They come up the hard way, fending for themselves, often with literally no staff at all, having to learn how to run a business, which most law schools never teach. Traditional solos not only have their JDs, but also a Ph.D from the University of Hard Knocks.
The lawyers emigrating from BigLaw are different. I call them “BigSolos” as opposed to the traditional “SmallSolos.”
BigSolos have pinnacle level substantive knowledge in their single chosen practice area.
I have absolutely nothing against Ross Kodner. I’ve met him. He’s a nice guy. Very knowledgeable. Very good at what he does. And he’s known for being generous with an abundance of information for the solo community. Actually, this blog post has little to do with Ross. My issue is with the phrase. In an effort to create a catch phrase which has soundbite potential and maybe even to position a business venture, a catch phrase is being introduced into legal jargon which can be very destructive to the solo community, the same way a legitimate sign “White’s Only’ can be destructive and divisive for a predominantly African American neighborhood and any racial relations initiatives. It’s not illegal. But should it be done?
Ross is trying to coin the phrase “Big Solo” – a lawyer who has been dislocated from or choosing to leave Big Law and has a clearly defined skill set ‘at the pinnacle’ of their expertise (another phrase which really pricked at people), but lacks law practice management knowledge. And in attempting this, he slights all other solos by calling them ‘SmallSolos’. Yikes. On a desert island with no other natives around this would seem catchy and descriptive of one’s journey to becoming a solo. But it’s a really, really, really bad idea, offensive within the ranks of the solos and deceptive to potential clients by conveying superior knowledge.
Solos have longed suffered an image of one clinging to the lowest professional tiers within a caste system first starting within law school and perpetuated with the image of BigLaw as being the apex of professional success. Solos have been seen as somehow lesser than, also rans and less expert. And we know this couldn’t be further from the truth. With the implosion of Big Law there has been somewhat of a leveling of the playing field. Solos have captured the imagination of the profession in ways not seen before. They have an opportunity to shine now because they are much more capable of surviving then those being dislocated from their corner offices. They are accustomed to the professional roller coaster ride, more familiar with technology and social media and more. For the first time in a very long time, those who run solo practices are actually seen as having enviable knowledge by those who are now entering their ranks from BigLaw, mavericks, wonderfully self-sufficient. Former BigLaw lawyers and solo alike can now stand on level ground in the aftermath of the meltdown, and solos may actually be seen as having a leg up.
By inadvertently, and I do believe it is inadvertent, attempting to create a new term like ‘BigSolo’ (and ‘SmallSolo’) there is the potential to construct a new caste system within the ranks of solos, establishing another wedge between professionals. The distinction is both false and unfair. According to Ross, BigSolo is descriptive of both the journey to solo status and the pinnacle of expertise. Is he really that insensitive (and wrong regarding expertise) considering he has spent much of his career helping solos?
The term BigLaw caught on because it defined an institution, a structure, a way of professional life separate and apart from small firms and solos. It is a concept. Solo is about individualism. However, when you marry the terms Big and Solo together a very different picture is painted, the solo who seems to have superior expertise within the solo community. All of a sudden I now see ‘SmallSolos’ as an indigenous poor people who stave off attackers with rocks and sticks and whose ranks are now being infiltrated with trained legions of soldiers carrying machine guns. Who would you rather have protecting your legal rights?
That is the power of a catch phrase.
While I appreciate what Ross is trying to do in order to get his point across, it’s a meaningless and bad point and the intentions ultimately become irrelevant. In my opinion, the power of this phrase creates more harm than good. It’s no different then mixing two inert ingredients in an attempt to get cleanser and discovering you’ve accidentally created a highly flammable substance ….while arsonists with flamethrowers are standing near! The intentions no longer matter.
Whatever the motivations, I propose the phrase BigSolo die today. Ross, if you are looking to capture a market of BigLaw lawyer who now finds themselves in the ranks of the hundreds of thousands of solos, find another term that is less offensive to those ‘SmallSolos’ out there with incredible expertise and serving their clients admirably the same way the owner of White’s restaurant could have found a better way to designate parking if he wanted to.
In my opinion, regardless your journey, once you become a solo, you are a solo, neither big nor small. Just Solo.