One thing they spend very little time teaching in law school, if any at all, is how to make money as a lawyer. Which is ironic, because all of us have heard the jokes about lawyers and their greed. How do you make a penny into a wire? Give it to a lawyer. Or how about this one?
An elderly and somewhat hard-of-hearing man was sitting in a stylish downtown attorney’s office as his lawyer handed him his will. “Your estate is very complex,” said the lawyer, “but I’ve made sure that all of your wishes will be executed. Due to the complexity, my fee is $4500.”
Just then, the phone rang and the lawyer got involved with a long call. Thinking the lawyer had said “$500,” the old man wrote out his check and left.
When she got off the phone and realized the old man’s mistake, the lawyer ran after him down the stairs and into the parking lot just as he drove away. Feeling frustrated, the lawyer looked at the check and decided to accept the situation philosophically. “Oh well,” she said to herself, “$500 for half an hour’s work isn’t bad.”
Really, though, turning law school into a paying skill is more difficult for a lot of lawyers than our reputation says. Many of us went to law school in the first place because a) we got a bad grade in organic chemistry and were not sanguine about taking the MCAT, or b) we didn’t have the math skills to slam the GMAT and go to b-school. By default, law school was the logical alternative (yeah, all that baloney about “loving the constitution” and “wanting to help people” is just that–baloney. Sure we want to help people, sure we love the constitution, but we also want to eat, and a law degree seemed a logical means to that end…or at least it seemed it was when I was asking my father-in-law for his blessing to marry his daughter).
So we pass through law school, or it passes through us, we graduate in over-priced robes that we’ll never wear again, we listen to graduation speakers about lofty ideals and human rights attorneys, then walk out the front door to our waiting parents/spouse/in-laws and their questions: where will you be working? Because life isn’t cheap, and neither are the student loans we took out to get through law school. Graduating during the “great recession” doesn’t make it any easier.
I’m not a solo practitioner, but I have a lot of friends who are, because law firms weren’t hiring. So a lot of us went solo, or did office shares and the like. A very “eat what you kill” environment. It meant that, despite wanting to practice one type of law (constitutional law, human rights law, corporate mergers and acquisitions, etc), we usually end up doing something that has higher case volume–individual bankruptcy, criminal defense, family law, wills and probate or personal injury (not including products liability or medical malpractice. Those are case types that generally require more than a young solo prac can offer.), etc. And, as I’ve reiterated, attorneys are natural businessmen. Or at least many of us are not.
Fortunately, as they say, “it can be taught!” Constantly watching for the day my own employer comes to me and tells me that business is just that bad, I’m always trying to watch, read, and learn the entrepreneurial side of the law. And today I think I’ve hit on several great suggestions for solo pracs, especially those just starting out. The key to staying in business, and eating, for a solo practitioner is paying clients. Emphasis on the paying part of that. Bill Gibson, in the November/December issue of the ABA’s Law Practice, had four suggestions and, interestingly, none of them had anything to do with the practice of law itself. Your success, he says, depends on several critical factors:
- How thoughtfully you develop and execute a sound business plan
- How well you look for, create and seize upon business opportunities
- How well you surround yourself with people who are committed to succeeding
- How well you manage your finances
I recommend Bill’s whole column. It’s commonsense advice, the most important of which I thought was this: market yourself non-stop. Oh, and you can succeed. Nothing about the law in that, but plenty about good business principles, about which there are whole libraries of books out there to help you find and navigate your way to business
success. One I’m reading right now is called “Influencer: the Power to Change Anything,” written by Kerry Patterson and Joseph Grenny. Patterson is also the author of “Crucial Conversations,” another great book for business or personal improvement. Check out the business or self-improvement shelf of any Barnes and Noble or Borders bookstore, and you are bound to find the one that fits your need at the moment.
While your over at the November/December Issue of Law Practice, take a moment and look at their excellent tips on managing your law firm’s finances, “Finance Tips: 25 Quick Tips for a Healthier Bottom Line.” One of the most intimidating things about starting a practice is the nuts and bolts, and the tips the ABA offers are very useful. Don’t miss Tip #11: don’t work for clients who don’t won’t pay.
Last word: the economy will turn around, and if you’re working hard now to get ahead, the pay off will be that much greater when business is better for everyone. In the mean time, work hard, rise early, and strike oil.
- The Secret To Inflating Employment Rates? Only Survey Law Grads Who Are Employed (abovethelaw.com)
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Small Law Firms (abovethelaw.com)
- Solo’s Regret: Wish I Had Taken The Long Term View (simplejustice.us)
- Caveat Small Firm Hopeful: Socially Inept Need Not Apply (abovethelaw.com)
- Under the Shingle: 11.15.2010 (abovethelaw.com)
- So You Want to Go to Law School: The Backstory, and a Sequel (abovethelaw.com)