Michele Allinotte – https://yourcornwalllawyer.com/ 

[What follows is a twitter thread, reformatted and reprinted here with permission, posted by Ontario lawyer Michele Allinotte on February 24, 2019 – find the original thread here]

#BencherElection2019 candidates (and others) this is a thread on the financial realities of solo and small firm practice in Ontario.

I have been a lawyer since 2002. I have worked in two small law firms in North Bay and Cornwall and I have been a sole practitioner/manager of my small firm since 2009. 

I have never made six figures.

I am good at what I do. I enjoy the work. I have a good practice and I am fortunate to have lots of work. I pay my staff a decent wage. I enjoy working with my clients and now, with multiple generations of families. 

Yet, if I had it to do over, I would likely not choose this.

The Clio Legal Trends Report 2018 shows that of an average of 8 hours worked by lawyers, only 2.4 of those hours are on billable work. Ultimately only 1.65 of those hours is billed and collected.

I need to do the math, but my numbers are likely higher than those Clio Legal Trends numbers. I do know that the amount of time I spend on non-billable work equates to three to four month of my year.

This does not take into account that I cannot always work full time. I am a single mother and for a variety of reasons, I need to be away from the office (scheduled and unscheduled) for significant amounts of time. Thankfully, being self-employed affords me the flexibility to meet the needs of my family. I have worked in hospitals, schools, cars, on every single vacation, in arenas, when I am sick, when my children are sick, after someone has died, etc.

As a small firm and solo lawyer, there is limited back up and limited ability to take time off. I have managed it, but live in fear that I will break my leg or get into a car accident or become suddenly ill. Yes, I have disability insurance and I have a POA for my practice.

If a tragedy strikes me and I cannot work temporarily, my practice could be decimated. There may not be any coming back from an unplanned several month absence. Oh, and I have personally guaranteed any debt my practice has, so if my practice were to have a financial crisis, I would lose everything. 

The latest LSO statistics are based on the 2017 MARs, but at that time, just over 50% of lawyers in Ontario were in Toronto. The rest of us are outside of Toronto, and many of us are in smaller communities like mine. According to the same report, the highest type of employment for lawyers in Ontario are sole practitioners. The report doesn’t show those who are partners or associates in small firms. If someone has this data, please share. 

I have felt for my entire career a disconnect between my colleagues in larger firms in Toronto (and sometimes in larger cities like Ottawa or Hamilton as well). Your experience of the practice of law is not necessarily the same as mine. Financially, there is so much pressure. I know my numbers. I work efficiently. But the financial pressure is SO MUCH. At various times, I have gone months without taking a draw, put my own funds in the practice to cover expenses and do various financial juggling.

The monthly expenses to cover my practice are significant (to me). I look at expenses every month. There is not much to cut. Yet still, my wage is only slightly higher than my most senior non-lawyer staff member. My practice pays me a wage and no more. There is no “extra” money. So every single time more obligations are added to the practice, by the LSO, or by banks or by the province (NRST, I’m looking at you), that means more non-billable time my staff or I spend, and reduced profitability. 

Every added responsibility means either working more to make less or charging more, which impacts A2J. The right to be a lawyer is a privilege, and I do not mind fulfilling my obligations, when it is clear they help protect the public (#proSOP, FWIW). 

Many added responsibilities also mean added costs, and fees, insurance, etc are always increasing. For the privilege of simply being a lawyer, it costs about $8,000 per year – insurance, LSO fees and CPD. That is more than one month of my draw.

I also do pro bono. In all, it amounts to a few weeks to a month of my time. This is the pro bono that I choose to do, the time I spend with someone crying on the phone who I cannot represent, but I listen to them and send them to someone else or to the LSO Lawyer Referral Line. So to Bencher candidates, and anyone else involved in decisions that could impact me (hello to Chief Justice Wagner), please consider the actual financial realities of solo and small firm lawyers in any policy discussions and policy decisions. 

On the pro bono work, I forgot to mention that pro bono is often forced upon me when clients don’t pay. The nature of my practice areas means my A/R is small, but when someone doesn’t pay, it is literally money that comes out of my pocket. In the past, I have been on OBA Council and I have written, presented and chaired many conferences. I feel I have served the profession well. Except I cannot afford to do it any longer. I cannot afford to take more time away from my practice.

I have thoughts of being a Bencher some day, but it is likely not a financial reality. The cost of the mailing lists and advertising alone would be more than what I make in a year. I, and many of my colleagues in similar situations, would bring an important perspective to Convocation. Yet many of us could not even afford to run for Bencher. It is cost prohibitive. 

If I were starting law school now, I could not afford to attend. I finished my educational career just as tuition was being deregulated. The jump in tuition in my third year of law school was a financial hit, and I had to sell some assets to pay tuition. 

A2J isn’t only about what our clients can afford, it is also about what lawyers can afford. It is about who will be able to access a law school education. It is about who will be serving the public. I think that is all for today, but now that I have ripped off the bandage, I may come back to this thread. Good night.

(For clarity, I do formal pro bono beyond my time on the phone with potential clients daily. I also do a significant amount of public education (unpaid).)