Happy Law

One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. — Bertrand Russell

If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have paradise in a few years. — Bertrand Russell

The other day I was participating in a webinar (that godsend to rural lawyers everywhere) and was struck by a comment made by a member of the live audience. He prefaced his question to the speaker by mentioning that he was in the process of transitioning his practice from family law litigation to, as he put it, the “happy law” of estate planning. While I found both the question and response that followed to be unremarkable, the phrase “happy law” stuck with me.

For those unfamiliar with family law litigation, it is an emotion-laden, stress-filled morass characterized by petty bickering, pointless arguments, and infighting and political maneuvering worthy of the US Congress – and that’s just what it’s like for the lawyers. So, it is easy to see why a lawyer would describe a transition to an area of law where there are courteous and willing clients as happy law – the hours are regular, the clients want to reach the same goals, there are no more 4 AM complaint calls; in general the work/life balance thing gets better (the work-life balance also gets better if one transitions to a rural practice, but that’s a whole ‘nother post). Continue reading Happy Law

Relationships, Not Contacts

This type of balancing act is more the rural lawyer's speed

Here’s the rub, if you are going to build a solo practice you’ve got to network to get clients, but when you get clients you’ve less time to network, but when you network less, you get fewer clients, which gives you more time to network, which gets you clients which … a cycle that can repeat ad infinitum while your accounts receivable develops more humps and bumps than a roller coaster. The cure – as suggested by many a wiser author than I – is to always schedule time to network into your daily routine regardless of client load; constant contact for constant clients. The problem is that it is way to easy for constant contact to simply become a rut – a once a month lunch with the local bar association, a few “how ya doing” weekly e-mails to your lawyer buddies, the bi-weekly chamber of commerce get-together, and a bit of on-line social networking.

The question is: is this really a good way to spend your time – are you really maximizing your return on your investment? Sure an e-mail to Bob the contractor (the guy that referred the last 3 real estate closings to you) puts your name in front of him for the 20 seconds it takes for him to delete it, but did it really buy you anything in terms of network building? And lunch with Delores the banker (a statuesque nordic blond that has never referred a client to anyone) may be an hour of divine and picturesque conversation but other than briefly making you the envy of guy-kind did investing that capital really do anything for your bottom line?

Given that you have limited time to invest, the business of relationship building comes down to a balancing act between the frequency of the contacts, the type of contacts, and the quality of the relationship you want to build. Now, the easy way to handle this is to cop out and simply grab minute amounts of face-time with your network at mass attendance events like bar association lunches or chamber of commerce breakfasts – develop a taste for scrambled eggs and baked chicken and you’re set for the business world’s version of speed dating. The hard way is to develop a tickler system that reminds you to take someone out to lunch on a regular basis and then to remember that “someone” needs to alternate between old friends and new contacts. Continue reading Relationships, Not Contacts

Not Dressing Respectably

George Bernard Shaw said that his “main reason for adopting literature as a profession was that, as the author is never seen by his clients, he need not dress respectably” – I’ve been test driving a Virtual Law Office in the hopes that, like Mr. Shaw, I could, on occasion, dress a bit less respectably (or at the very least wander about the office barefoot) and  TotalAttorneys  has been good enough to allow me to abuse their product, picking nits, and ask odd questions since mid-June. I’ve come away very impressed.

Continue reading Not Dressing Respectably

Yesterday’s Myths, Today’s Needs

We must not be hampered by yesterday’s myths in concentrating on today’s needsHarold Geneen

There are a number of reasons not to embark on a rural law career – the daily Starbucks run is going to take a good hour (and then there is the wait in the store), your typical small town is not, generally, one of those places of rarefied refinement and culture attractive to the movers and shakers of the business world, so it’s not ideal for a lucrative mergers and acquisitions practice. However, there are a few common misconceptions that should be put to rest.

1. There is not enough work out there

It may not be raining soup, but there is work out there. The rural bar is small (only 20% of practicing lawyers practice in towns with populations of 50,000 or less), aging, and getting smaller as rural lawyers retire. Yet the need for legal services remains constant, so the result is that access to legal services is reduced and small town folks end up having to either travel to find legal representation or do with out. The secret is: people in small towns prefer to spend money locally – create a favorable environment (affordable services, a reputation for competence) and the work will come.

2. I can’t afford to work at a lower rate Continue reading Yesterday’s Myths, Today’s Needs

Hey, I Knows Dis Guy See

The other day I found myself visiting a business networking group and thinking about the meaning of referrals. For those of you who are not familiar with this particular marketing beast, networking groups are social gatherings in which business people meet, practice their elevator speeches on each other, and (hopefully) pass on a referral or two. These groups can range from (in my sister’s oh so appropriate words) “micro-managed, by-law abiding exercises in pedaling in place” to useful opportunities to build one’s referral network.

The $64,000 question that comes with every referral comes down to “can I vouch for this person?”A referral says that I trust this person, that I know this person is competent. Since my referrals are going to reflect on me – the rural grapevine will be quick to remind you of the time the plumber you referred Joe Bob to caused Joe Bob’s drains to all run backwards – I want to have a track record with my referrals; these are people who pass the “mom test” – someone so reliable, competent and trustworthy I’d have no trouble recommending them to my mother.

Sure there are non-referral referrals – you know the ones where a client asks “do you know someone who…” and you hand them 3 or 4 names of “guys who might be able to help” in an effort more to promote good will with your client than to actually foster a business relationship. The non-referral referral lacks the implied warranty of an actual referral, is much more polite than a curt “can’t help, go away”, and seems the reason d’être for these business networking groups – a 60 second elevator speech, even if given on a weekly schedule, is not a foundation for a true referral.

That Look

We are given senses to receive our information within. With our own eyes we see, and with our own skin we feel. With our intelligence, it is intended that we understand. But each person must puzzle it out for himself or herself. – Sophy Burnham

It has taken me some time to understand what that look means. It is but fleeting a fleeting thing for the potential business client – they have been down this path before and come in with a sense that, once again, all is not quite right in their world. But for the potential private client, the one who through no fault of their own finds themselves sitting across the table from a lawyer, it comes in that moment when they start to realize that perhaps, just perhaps, this simple little issue is not quite so simple after all.

I have come to realize that look heralds the moment when I must switch roles, to move from attorney/advocate – gatekeeper to the arcane mysteries of the law to attorney/counselor – to provide plans, action item, expectations (mine and theirs) – to provide perspective, showing the forest and its paths rather than simply examining this solitary tree  – to move them from the mindset that solutions can be found outside of the  binary decision: litigation or nothing.

My results are a mixed bag – sometimes potential clients become clients, sometimes there are those occasions where I’ve fail to assuage the needs underlying that look and the client moves on slightly more confused and disheartened , or the rare occasion when the client actually listens, takes my advice and is able to come to a satisfactory resolution through a few small self-help steps – I get a “won’t need you, it worked just like you said it would, I’m going to tell everybody I know” call (which is great, but doesn’t pay the bills) that puts a few more credits in the bank of karma.