Once in the dark of night, Inflamed with love and wanting, I arose (O coming of delight!) And went, as no one knows, When all my house lay long in deep repose – Saint John of the Cross

One of the more nerve-racking things about public speaking is the wait between the speaking engagement and the receipt of the program evaluation sheets. It’s a giddily self-deluding period where, based on the positive feedback from the 3 people who talked to you in the 5 minutes between speakers, you are sure that all went well and that you are on the road to becoming the next great orator of our times. Then the evaluation sheets arrived and you realize that it will be some time before you are a threat to Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King or Emmeline Pankhurst. But, as often is the case, it is the comments and not the numerical evaluations that strike a chord , and it is one of these comments that I would like to take a moment to respond to. The writer states:

Rural [law] equals less rich (not necessarily ‘poor’). At age 28, I was desperate for a job, so I moved to a small town to work with an experienced attorney who is nearing retirement. Now, almost 7 years  later, I want to leave and will if I can. Modest income clients don’t (or won’t) pay attorney fees even though we charge much less per hour than attorneys in urban areas. Fact is, attorneys in rural areas make far less than in urban areas, often have bad clients, and can get better & more interesting jobs elsewhere. 

As our young writer has travelled halfway down life’s path, let me play Virgil to his Dante, and let our journey begin not in our Dante’s dark wood or in the proponent’s idealized celestial sphere, but rather at the foot of the craggy mountain of boots-on-the-ground reality. Young Dante,  I’ve yet to run across a lawyer (big city or small town) who has not had at least one the-grass-is-greener moment at some time or other in their career. Lawyering is a tough slog for anyone who gives half a damn about doing the best possible job they can for each client, and it sure doesn’t help that, for the average lawyer, it sure ain’t the high-paying, jet-setting, celebrity career the law school brochures described. Even I must admit to having the occasional lustful thought about packing it all in and heading off to look for a quiet associate’s position with a regular salary. However, if this is not merely a passing fancy but is one of those dark nights of the soul, then it is far better to move on to those greener pastures than to unhappily till the same dismal furrow. But before you go, talk to someone (a mentor, a friend, your local branch of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers); perhaps there are other options out there and it may be easier to fix what you have than to start something new.

The comment continues:

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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). (more…)

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. (more…)

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.

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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 (more…)

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