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).

But, it strikes me that there is another variable in the happy law equation – it’s not just what you practice, it’s also who your clients are. While a rural practice can have a particular focus (an area of law the rural lawyer would prefer to be doing), rural practices are pretty much “take what comes in the door” operations where you take the client as you find them. So, getting happy, cooperative, willing clients is pretty much a catch as catch can thing.

When I ventured out on the rural solo path, I did some market research and identified a few common client expectations – dress like a lawyer, have a brick & mortar office, always return calls, have office hours that won’t cause a man to lose a half-day’s pay just to see a lawyer, and when the farmer can’t come to the lawyer, the lawyer should come to the farmer (the corollary to this is always have a pair of tall rubber boots in the trunk of your car ’cause it’s really tough to get manure stains out of a suit). I’ve found that consistently meeting these basic expectations provides the foundation for happy clients (as well as a few grins – seems that pinstripe suits are not common dairy barn wear).

As my practice progressed, I found that often doing less created both happy clients and the opportunity to do more (3 cheers for repeat business). As a general rule, rural clients are a fairly self-sufficient bunch more comfortable doing things themselves than asking for outside help. So always providing the “full lawyer experience” is not always the right path – more often than not my happiest clients have been those I’ve offered  limited scope representation, alternative dispute resolution, or simply the time to listen and a few suggestions on things they might try before dragging a lawyer into the mess.

Wishing You Happy Law in the New Year