Owning the Practice

Passion is a beautiful thing

Tanya Witt

The Witt Law Firm P.C.

The new prime-time television show "Body of Proof" starring Dana Delany as Dr. Megan Hunt, a neurosurgeon turned medical examiner, provided me with interesting reflections on a smaller law practice. Hunt shares a number of similarities with Frank Galvin, played by Paul Newman, in the iconic legal drama "The Verdict." Like Galvin, Hunt is a gifted, highly trained professional whose career has been reduced for medical reasons (a car accident in Hunt's case and alcoholism in Galvin's case). Like Galvin, Hunt finds professional and personal redemption in her career's second chance.

Hunt's intelligence, passion for her work and brusque commitment to uncovering true answers frequently ruffles the feathers of her less astute co-workers. Characters like Hunt are not uncommon in legal dramas. Greatness in law often requires the conviction and confidence to take an unpopular position and change the law, and the world, for the better. Legal dramas such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" as well as real-life cases such as Brown v. Board of Education , demonstrate this important aspect of good lawyering.

The problem for Hunt is that she works in a government medical examiner's office and must work closely with detectives and other examiners. The tension between the gifted Hunt and those around her might make for interesting TV, but in a real workplace it would probably be tiring. It occurred to me that the tension between Hunt and her co-workers might be alleviated if she were in a smaller private practice instead of the county medical examiner's office. One of the many attributes of smaller firms is the ability to accommodate strong, independent personalities.

By way of example, in the pilot episode Hunt is called into the chief examiner's office and reprimanded for ordering a test that costs $1,000 and did not appear to be warranted. Hunt is confident in her professional judgment and strongly stands her ground. Results later show that Hunt was correct to order the test, as it solved a perplexing case. That exchange spotlights the importance of independent decision-making among professionals. Independent decision-making is particularly important for attorneys, as we owe a fiduciary duty to our clients. Attorneys need a certain amount of autonomy to represent clients properly. We must put our clients' interests first. Independence is one advantage of solo or smaller firm practices.

I remember reading about a premier family law attorney in Texas who represented high net-worth individuals in dissolution of marriage matters. He practiced for years with a large firm, often representing the executives of the firm's corporate clients. He eventually started his own smaller family law boutique because, he said, there were too many instances when his representation of an individual in a family law matter was at risk of conflicting with the firm's representation of the corporation for whom his client was an executive. There were instances where he could not accept a case because of a potential conflict of interest. The risk of conflicts that prevent the acceptance of cases or that compromise the representation of accepted cases is reduced in smaller firm settings.

Another segment of "Body of Proof" that resonated with a smaller firm practice involved Hunt's passion for her work and her intense individuality. Toward the end of the show, Hunt's new boss tells the hard-working, fiercely independent Hunt to develop some friendships. She warns Hunt that without friends she may burn herself out in her demanding profession. That discussion resonates with all attorneys. The nature of our profession can burn us out if we are not mindful of that risk. The daily practice of law is not the most team-oriented work. Solo attorneys in particular can be isolated if they are not social or outgoing. I became even more social and involved in the legal community when I left a large firm and started my own practice.

If, like Hunt, your work is causing you to be more isolated than you would like, you can easily remedy the situation. Perhaps the best way to counteract isolation is to build a network of other attorneys, professionals and entrepreneurs who provide advice and support. Many of us smaller-firm attorneys assist and guide each other in our practices. Sometimes the assistance is of a technical nature and other times it may be moral support.

The collegiality most Chicago attorneys share with one another, regardless of age, gender, race or practice area, may be the aspect I most admire about the practice. Most smaller-firm attorneys are very willing to share their knowledge and experience with less experienced attorneys. If you encounter an attorney who is unwilling to provide assistance, realize that they are probably the rare exception and not the type of lawyer you want guidance from anyway. Successful small-firm attorneys who enjoy their work find sharing their knowledge rewarding and will find the time to talk with a newer attorney. Those who share their wisdom realize that teaching usually enhances their own understanding and they stand to gain from the experience. The excitement and energy that new attorneys have can rub off. The best law practices allow you to balance independence with interpersonal connections.