Do it yourself

water pump

There are times when duct tape just won’t do

Rural communities pride themselves on their independent spirit and the idea that an individual or a community can accomplish anything if they just set their mind to it. This is the land of do-it-yourself; there are few things these folks won’t or haven’t done be it a simple matter (say rebuilding a tractor’s motor) or the more complex (building a home). Sure, they’ll hire a “pro” to handle the tricky bits, but out here the term “pro” can mean “someone with more tools than you” or “someone who’s done it at least once” – it does not, necessarily, mean “someone with actual training, skill and expertise”.

This do-it-yourself spirit also extends to things like sewer and water – things generally considered basic infrastructure items in metropolitan areas. Given the lack of population density, private sewer and water systems are far more cost-effective than their public utility equivalents; when the distance between homes is measured in terms of miles (or fractions of miles) and not feet or yards, it is hard to recoup the cost needed to install and maintain a public water system. And, for the most part, private systems work well and once installed are reliable and simple to maintain – that is until they stop working and you realize that getting water out of the ground is a bit more complex than simply turning a tap.

One of the advantages of being in solo practice is that it’s fairly easy to get your boss’s OK to stay home and deal with the crisis du jour. One of the advantages of being a rural solo is that your clients understand when you call them at 7:00 AM to tell them you can’t meet with them that day because your well pump is out and you are hand-watering your livestock. The big disadvantage is that once you’ve cleared your calendar, you now have to (a) actually see to your livestock one bucket at a time, and (b) fix your well pump – if you are lucky the problem is electrical, above ground and easy to fix (provided you remember to turn the circuit breaker off first), if not, then there’s a couple of hundred feet of slimy, wet pipe that needs to be pulled out of the ground and it’s time to call in a pro.

Besides putting a kink in your morning ablutions, this rural fascination with DIY can put a kink in a rural law practice. It is the rare rural client who’ll see a lawyer at the first sign of a legal problem (cherish these people for they make your life simpler), most will either put things off until the last moment or try to handle things themselves. While these DIY’ers can have significant impact on your bottom line (inevitably, it costs far more to fix a problem than prevent one), they represent a far more valuable marketing opportunity and can become some of your biggest fans. When the DIY’er reaches the call-the-pro stage, they are (a) looking to resolve a very immediate problem and (b) are at a very teachable moment – if you can find a satisfactory, cost-effective solution and show them in a non-judgmental way (a) how much more cost-effective this solution would have been if… or (b) how many more options would have been available if … these do it at the last-minute consumers can be transformed into loyal call-at-the-first-sign clients — plus, pulling someone’s butt out of the fire (it may be a small fire to you, but it’s a big fire to them) is always good for positive word-of-mouth advertising.

Now, it’s time to get back to watering the critters.

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:

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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

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

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.

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