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Solo Practitioners

In terms of the structure of legal practice, solo practitioners and large law firms represent the two extremes of private practice. In between, there are partnerships and small law firms of relatively modest size. Solo practitioners typically received their law degree from the lower ranks of law schools. They are generalists, performing a range of tasks and roles. Many of these attorneys engage in marginal areas of law, such as collections, personal injury cases, rent cases, and evictions. They face competition from other professionals, such as accountants and real estate brokers, who are increasingly handling the tax and real estate work traditionally carried out by solo practitioners.

In general, solo practitioners rank at the bottom of the legal profession in terms of prestige, influence, and income. As Jerome E. Carlin (1962:206) noted long ago in a classic study, these lawyers are “most likely to be found at the margin of (their) profession, enjoying little freedom in choice of clients, type of work, or conditions of practice.” In another classic study, Jack Ladinsky (1963) found that solo practitioners tend to come from much less wealthy (parents’) backgrounds than lawyers in large firms and also tend to have graduated from nonelite law schools. After graduating from these schools, they find it difficult to obtain a prestigious firm job and thus end up doing the relatively low-paying, low-status work that solo practitioners do.

There are also differences between solo practitioners and large firm attorneys in acceptance of and compliance with ethical norms. Carlin (1966) found that solo practitioners were more likely to violate ethical norms (for example, cheating clients), and recent research echoes this finding (Gunning et al., 2009). A major reason for this finding is that the types of clients and cases (for example, personal injury cases) handled by solo practitioners are more likely to yield opportunities for such violations.

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