Office of Bar Counsel, 0220 WYBJ, Vol. 43 No. 1. 12

AuthorMark W. Gifford, Wyoming State Bar Office of Bar Counsel Cheyenne, Wyoming.
PositionVol. 43 1 Pg. 12

Office of Bar Counsel

Vol. 43 No. 1 Pg. 12

Wyoming Bar Journal

February, 2020

Ethical Challenges for Small/Sole Practitioners: The Hazards of Flying Solo

Mark W. Gifford, Wyoming State Bar Office of Bar Counsel Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Though approximately two-thirds of active, in-state Wyoming lawyers are either sole practitioners or work in association with one other lawyer, these practice groups draw a disproportionate share of lawyer discipline. In reviewing disciplinary orders of all types (disbarments, suspensions, public censures and private reprimands) going back to 2011,1 was alarmed to see that 70% were issued to sole practitioners. Add in the number issued to lawyers in two-lawyer firms and the total climbs to 80%. In contrast, government lawyers account for 11% of total discipline; lawyers in firms of three or more lawyers account for just 9%.

The numbers provide even greater cause for concern when these totals are broken down by type of discipline. 90% of all suspensions (18 out of 20) and 95% of all public censures (21 of 22) go to lawyers practicing alone or with one other lawyer.

The majority of public discipline meted out to small (i.e., two-lawyer) firms and sole practitioners involves client neglect in all of its varieties-mainly, lack of diligence and failure to communicate with clients. Occasionally, dishonest conduct is thrown in, as when a lawyer who has fallen behind in tending to a particular client matter begins offering fictitious excuses and even fabricating what the lawyer has been doing to further the client's cause. Poor client communication, lack of restraint in screening engagements and poor office management practices are the common markers of a law practice gone awry: A lawyer accepts an engagement that should have been declined; the case rests on the back burner because the lawyer would rather work on something else; the lawyer stops returning the client's calls because there is nothing to report. Eventually, the client turns to my office seeking accountability for the lawyer and return of the fee.

In 2005, the Law Society of Upper Canada issued a comprehensive report on the challenges faced by sole practitioners and small firms in Ontario. The passage of 15 years has not diminished the relevance of the report's findings to Wyoming lawyers. Summarizing the plight of the sole practitioner, the report states: [Sole practitioners] earn less, are...

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