The Dark Night of the Solo

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:

In my experience:

  • 1 in 2 (maybe 3) clients pay fees. 
  • Family law is expensive, and ironically, the most needed by poor clients. 
  • Clients in rural areas thing of the local attorney as a friend and neighbor, so they often feel they shouldn’t be charged for legal advice
  • Sometimes they get angry to be billed for  “just talking” with us
  • We depend on repeat business, so we often have to just accept not getting paid, billing less, receiving less
  • If we represent resident A versus resident B (both residents live in the rural community) it usually means resident B will never come to you for legal help ever. And he’ll advise his friends & family to not do business with you. Meanwhile, resident A doesn’t even pay the bill.
  • We cannot sue client for non-payment. Why? The community will find out and be angry at us
I must respectfully disagree with Dante’s assertion that modest income, rural clients don’t or won’t pay their fees. Rural clients can and do pay their fees, in fact my experience tells me that my rural clients are far more likely to pay their bills than their suburban counterparts. Unfortunately, the truth lies somewhere between our two disparate experiences. It is a given that there will be clients who, for whatever reason, won’t pay their bills and this fact of like leads to Foonberg Rule #1: Always get paid up front. Sure, talking about money is unpleasant – frankly, I’d prefer it if people just shoved envelopes of cash through the letter slot in my office door – but the thing is, if you don’t ask, you won’t get. So, bite the bullet and ask for that retainer. Failing that, make it easy for clients to pay you; accept credit cards – I find it far more palatable to take a 2.75% cut in my fee than a 100% loss. The other thing that transformed my collection rate was switching to a fixed fee pricing model – hey, if the local tractor mechanic can quote a fixed price to overhaul a 1939 Ford 9N’s engine, I should be able to quote a fixed price for my services. Now, this is not a one-price fits all kind of fee, this is a given these facts here’s what you’ll pay kind of fee (again, that mechanic is gonna charge a whole lot more if that ’39 9N needs a transmission as well) so, the price will vary according to the matter but for any one particular client’s particular matter there will be one particular amount charged.
As for family law being expensive – ain’t it the truth; conflict (and family law is ripe for all kinds of conflict) is expensive plain and simple. Conflict also leads to the resident B, his family and their friends never coming to you for legal work (that, and those pesky conflict of interest rules that might preclude you from working for resident B any way); it seems inevitable that the loser (and every conflict has one) walks away bad-mouthing the winning side’s attorney. So, you can either man up and accept it or you can change the game and de-escalate the conflict from the start. Having an aversion to unnecessarily losing business, I try my best to get clients to try the available ADR options before playing the litigation card. Small town and rural clients understand the importance of maintaining relationships and they find ADR attractive because it is far easier to maintain an ongoing relationship if both parties work toward a mutually agreeable settlement than it is when a third-party dictates an outcome.
Of course clients, friends, and neighbors are going to ask the local lawyer for legal advice; they are also going to ask the local doctor, the local veterinarian, and the local plumber for advice. In small towns, neighbors help neighbors; its all part of being a member of a community, so you have to learn how to handle it, and as our friend Dante seems to have discovered, one (less well received) way to handle it is to send ’em a bill (if you are going to bill them, be up front about it and tell them they are on the clock). I’ve found a slightly more giving approach to be far more effective – give away general information, but let them know that legal advice comes with a charge. This generally means I start (or interrupt) a lot of conversations with “I really don’t want to hear any specifics…”,  “I’d love to talk to you about this in my office…”, and “well, I can’t give you any legal advice, but generally…” all of which saves on shoe leather since I’m no longer running away from people at town picnics.
Rural practice or big city practice,  an attorney’s livelihood depends on repeat business and referrals, but you are missing a tremendous opportunity if you believe that price alone drives repeat business to your door. The functional aspects of your practice (good work, fair price) are the least significant factors in a client’s determination of value (one expects a lawyer to do good work), and it is value, not price, that brings business in your door, turns clients into fans and referral sources.  A client’s determination of value incorporates sensory and experiential cues as well as the functional – get any of these cues wrong and you can cut the perceived value of your services to $0, effectively killing any repeat business. In a small town, you are living cheek by jowl with the rest of the community and because of that fact, every contact you have with that community may affect the perceived value of your services (as you so rightly put it, suing for fees is a quick way to alienate the entire community – it can come across as bullying, as being greedy, as airing one’s dirty laundry).
 Small towns are not for everyone and neither are small town practices. Successful rural lawyers seem to be those who come to their practices with some sense of passion (be it a love for small town living, a desire to have clients that are friends and neighbors, or an entrepreneurial drive to leverage a niche market) and who are able to maintain a passion through out an ever-evolving career.