Balancing the Bar

Happiness and the Practice of Law


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Gratitude in the midst of a hectic week.

This week was a quick one.  A few days of feeling like a dart board and by Friday afternoon I left the clean up my office and the aftermath of chaos.  As the week wound to a close, I found a lot to be grateful for in the spite of the hectic nature of my work week.

National Alliance on Mental Illness – I attended the Hamilton County NAMI Annual Celebration Dinner on Thursday.  It was great to be with people who share your common thoughts and common cause.   Also, finding a way to give back to Society and grassroots volunteerism was the theme which invigorated me as well.  I was accompanied by Betsy Jameson, Katherine Jameson & Pat Ross.  Despite their personal loss, the Jameson clan is strong, resilient and at the end of time spent with them, I was grateful for their companionship and our shared commitment to make something good come out of Ken’s tragic death.

Connecting with others–  Feeling connected to those around me is a way I keep myself grounded and more than that I find that as I know people longer there are deeper connections that reveal themselves.  I had that happen a few times this week.  Clients and colleagues I have known  for a long time only to  discover some shared issue,  something deeper that connects us and I am amazed to find these things.  Suddenly, our close connection makes sense.  This happened a few times this week and I am grateful for the revelations.

The ability to say No to others.   I am exceedingly grateful for my ability to say no, to set limits and to maintain my client’s position in the face of hostile and aggressive adversary clients.   Sometimes NO is the best word in the English language.  Learning to set limits on others, to be obstinate and  stoic if necessary is an essential skill.  Being able to do so without aggression has taken a lot of practice on my part and somehow that practice seems to have clicked this week.

A view from the Witness box.  Today I spent time testifying at hearing to enforce settlement agreement against my former client.  Uncomfortable to say the least.  However, by being the witness and not the attorney, I realized how much I miss being in the courtroom.  I was also very very grateful to have fired the client.  Sometimes, it is best to move on because a client and you can no longer agree.  Leaving the case may cost you some unpaid fees, but it may save you time and aggravation.

A busy week, but a lot to take stock of.  Also, for the record, a lot to be frustrated about.  Somehow, however, in light of all that happened I am more grateful than stressed.


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THE LAW SCHOOL MYTH: STUDYING VS. PRACTICING LAW

The formula seemed simple. You do well in undergraduate, spend three years studying the law and then graduate, pass the bar exam (or two if you are me) and then viola you are an attorney.  Sound familiar?   All attorneys I know have been there at some point.  But, quickly this stellar accomplishment falls to the wayside and you are stuck with the business of practicing law.  The preparation of law school seems suddenly useless as you figure out what your client or senior partner wants.

As we attend law school we are filled with anticipation and hope at finding ourselves as advisors and advocates for others. We are also told that if we excel at the law school game (good grades, law review and/or moot court) we will land a lucrative big firm job.  We are never told what the reality of practicing law is really all about.   As we progress through our career, we find that there is little if anything about being an attorney that is predictable.   There is no easy way to sugar coat this fact – we cannot control everything in your business, your job or life for that matter.

What does your average lawyer struggle with – control, imagining and forestalling against worst case scenarios, and attaining perfection. Some of us also struggle with being what our clients want and how to manage that expectation.  The biggest challenge of all is making money to support ourselves and in most cases our families. Has money become the primary motivator in our business has passionate advocacy and dedication to improving our profession fallen by the wayside?

As we all know, there are many ways to deal with lawyer compensation within law firms.  So, many that I will not go into great detail here.  Money at th e large firm can be great but there is a cost you pay in terms of quality of life.  On the other hand, there are lots of solo and small firm people who have to live life on a tight rope monthly and yearly.  One of the great things about being an attorney is the ability to set out a shingle and be your own boss.  Even if you are not a solo, you can still be quite entrepreneurial in your own office.  It is thrilling to get that first fee check and first client.  But there can be downsides.  Depending on the type of practice you have you may go months without steady fees.  Contingency personal injury, class action and probate fees can take months if not years to earn.  Then you have clients who you allowed to pay on a monthly basis and stiff you.  Not to mention the ones that fain outrage when they find out you bill for emails and phone calls .

So, how do you manage the instability which comes with the business of being a lawyer?  Personally, I find that my practice goes through a change every few years on its own as the needs of the credit community changes.  What used to be a stable income ,can go away when the regulatory climate changes or the economy collapses.  It is best to understand the industry you serve and to develop back up plans.  Further, never lose contact with possible client referrals.  Stay connected even if it is a Holiday Card.  People need to know where you are and what you do even if they can’t use your services right now they may be able to later.  Also, whether you realize it or not, the practice of law is all about clients.  Specifically, attorneys who seem to do the best are those with the ability to get and keep clients.  If you don’t feel comfortable with the “sales” aspect of being an attorney, then you need to accept that your earning potential will be lower, that you may never make partner and or that you will have less control as you would if you had clients of your own.

Also, law school was law school. You can’t always be the best and the brightest.   Sad but true, law school has little if anything to do with being a successful legal practitioner. Many very smart people graduate and never practice.   Or, they practice for a while and find alternative careers which better suit their needs. If you are not satisfied with the instability and frankly, drudgery, of a legal career then it may behoove you to pursue other options.  There are many things you can do with a law degree which can be rewarding and enjoyable.

Finally, just because you ranked highly in your law school , does not mean you will succeed at the business of law.  The instability and constant retooling is not for everyone, but for those who can and do want to be practitioners there are ways to stay ahead of or keep pace with the constant changes and demands.  In the alternative, we can learn to accept instability is a part of life and embrace each change as a new opportunity to grow and learn.   Personally, change is something I have learned to be grateful for.  The sooner you realize that uncertainty is a part of  the job then the quicker you can make the life adjustment you need.


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Building a network for business and human connection.

I get asked by younger attorneys and attorneys who are trying to build a practice exactly how to get clients.  I remember well the first time I heard someone say “you should be a good rainmaker”.  Fact is, the best way to advance in your career is to get a keep clients or should I say “paying clients”.  For many this is very challenging.  To newly minted attorneys this is like asking them to run before they can walk.  How can you sell your legal services if you don’t know how to practice law?  So the challenge for managing attorneys is to teach new attorneys how to practice and simultaenously push them to sell their abilities to others.

There are two good books out there on these subjects by Jay Foonberg which are must reads.  Ultimately, however,  it is a individual process.  The process  often leads to discouragement and disillusion especially for those who are worker bees at large firms who decide to strike out on their own and those who cannot find a job after law school  (approximately 45% of this year’s graduating attorneys) who decide to hang out that shingle.

As any good rainmaker knows, it takes awhile to hone these skills and to develop the confidence in your legal ability.  I remember the first time I realized that people were hiring me because I actually DID know what I was doing.   The feeling that you are appreciated for your years of education and skills is good feeling.

Recently,  I ran across a reference to the 7 Pillars of Connecting With Absolutely Anyone which is a blog post from April written by Scott Dinsmore for Forbes.  I read it and said “I must share this.”  Mr. Dinsmore lays out a simple plan for how to make connections in life and this is the essence of what attorneys do when they try to sell their services to clients.  I think the quote at the beginning of the article says it best:

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” – Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

At first read, many may say that connecting with everyone you encounter may not lead to business and or I am too busy to speak to and act interested with the clerk at the courthouse or the cleaning lady in my building.  But the reality is your reputation as a person and as an attorney is built one person at a time.  Every person you meet may be connected to someone else.  The moral is that you need to invest interest and time in others in order for people to invest in you and feel confident in recommending you.

In addition to building of your business, these interactions can help you feel more open hearted, at ease and safer. Being kind to people is a way to stave off the isolation many attorneys particularly solos feel.  For more on the benefits of being friendly you can check out Rick Hanson’s blog post and his book Just One Thing.

The bottem line is that martketing isn’t just a sales pitch.  A law practice is built on interactions and relationships.  Building a network of people from varying industries can benefit you throughout your career and is a great way to feel more centered in your daily life.  Plus, it can reduce your stress and connect you to others who can provide resources you may need in the furture.


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A New Year .. yet a sense of Deja Vu

There is something about working for yourself as an attorney even if you are in a firm that happens toward the end of the year.  There is a financial instability most in private practice feel.  In January you start the year with hopes and dreams of having a “good year”.  You see your colleagues bringing in clients and fees and you plug away – day in day out.  If you are lucky you get a week of vacation or sometimes two in a year. Sometimes you have clients that are ongoing relationships for you and you can count on a certain amount of work and therefore, income.  These clients are yours for years.  Sometimes, clients leave and you must fill the gap.  One must constantly mind their staffing cost and their profitability.  As the year goes on you have good and bad months.  You hope that in the end you will make enough money to support your family, pay your taxes and maybe even afford to toast the New Year with bottle of vintage Champagne.  Alas, November roles around and you realize that even if you could pull a rabbit out of your hat it wouldn’t help.  Then the end of the year roles around and you guessed it you start the rat race all over again.

If you get the mix just right one year you inevitably try to repeat the same thing the next year and bam you have no luck.  The reality is there is no perfect formula for success each year.  Things are constantly changing from clients, to judges, to overhead, to your own health.   So, what do you do?  One of my elder colleagues said recently that you do the daily stuff well and things fall into place.  It seems simple but to a certain degree makes perfect sense.   If you can accept that everything around you is impermanent then you can see the wisdom in focusing on daily pursuits and short term thinking.  Does this mean you must give up on your long term goals and stop striving for more clients and security?  No.  But, by looking at the here and now or in essence being mindful daily we can string together successes that build a semi solid foundation for a New Year.  

Or perhaps, as Churchill once said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”