In a recent post on My Shingle, legal blogging rock star Carolyn Elefant laments the demise of the solo physician. Among her chief concerns are an anticipated lack of physicians available to care for patients in rural settings and an erosion of physician autonomy. However, she suggests that both the legal profession and legal blogging face similar concerns. She writes:
The same concerns that flow from the gradual extinction-by acquisition of solo doctors in the medical profession are evident in both law-related blogging and broader legal profession.
I’m not sure I agree that this is a valid concern on either front. Is there really a risk of large-scale migration from would-be solo practitioners to law firms? Doubtful. While many students enter law school with an expectation of at least starting their profession at a law firm, the news I read suggests that firms are actually hiring fewer new lawyers, meaning more are, by choice or necessity, opening a solo practice. Those same news reports warn that, even if the economy shows signs of long-term improvement, law firm economics have changed permanently, particularly with respect to the practice of staffing cases with newer, untrained lawyers at high rates. We are unlikely to witness a mass exodus of solos in favor of law firm life any time soon, simply because there is a shrinking demand for them.
Additionally, from my admittedly unschooled understanding of the overhead of running a medical practice, I hold the opinion that it is increasingly easier for lawyers to start and maintain a solo law practice, while it is increasingly difficult to start and maintain a medical practice. While I presently practice in a Big Law environment, replete with layers of infrastructure, there is no question in my mind that technology has made it easier than ever before for a lawyer to open and effectively operate a solo law practice. A computer, printer/scanner, some key software and a place to work is about all that’s really required for a bare bones practice. (Though this presumes the practitioner has both clients and skills.)
I presume that the infrastructure required for even the most spartan medical office (not to mention the cost of purchasing an ongoing practice) has, if anything, become more expensive with advances in technology. I know my own health care providers always have several pieces of squeaky-clean, cutting-edge machinery, each of which probably costs more than my car. As Ms. Elefant correctly points out, while the costs of medical school and other expenses continue to rise, the amount health insurers pay for procedures has remained constant, if not declined, making it more and more expensive to be a solo physician. It’s no mystery solo doctors are fleeing to hospitals and group practices.
I share her view that our profession benefits from solo and independent lawyers, and would definitely lament any sign of their demise. But, unless I misunderstand Ms. Elefant’s argument, I don’t see sufficient similarities between maintaining a solo medical practice and a solo law practice to make me concerned that solo lawyers will become scarce anytime soon.
Are quality independent law bloggers becoming extinct? I’m not sure I share this concern, either. Purely by virtue of her tenure in the blawg community, I trust Ms. Elefant both when she describes the “independent voice” that characterized legal blogs a decade ago and when she suggests that group blogs lack the spark or edge of the early legal blogs. My feeling, however, is that the business of practicing law has changed so substantially due to the explosion of technological tools and the recent turbulent years of the economy (What’s that overused catch phrase? Oh yeah, “the New Normal.”) that what was considered edgy a decade ago really is “normal” now. Perhaps the “New Normal” should morph into “What are we supposed to do now?” or “Where Do We Go From Here?”
I suspect also that, beyond the proliferation of group and corporate-sponsored blogs which might not have the same spark and edge of early solo-written blogs, there is still a strong community of independent voices out there who write what they personally think, without the group dynamic or corporate “dilution” effect. They might just be harder to hear amidst the louder noise around them.
Ms. Elefant’s underlying message is valid. Our profession and clients need solo and independent lawyers, and the legal blogosphere benefits from ample solo and independent voices. The question is, do we really need to worry?