Lawyers don’t like to be honest about not making money. (Unless you’re Jordan Rushie.)
I went out on my own in March of 1998. I did no advertising. The first month, I made three times what I was making monthly at the small firm I worked at for nine months. I was well on my way.
April was about the same, and so was May.
This was awesome. No looking back. Who said starting your own firm would be hard?
Then came June.
Nothing. No new cases, no money. The phone didn’t ring.
It was over. Three good months, and now I was done. I, of course, freaked out.
A few days into July the phone rang, and I was back. Whew. So I had one slow month. Now it would all be fine.
Then it happened again, and again, and again….
While I’ve learned in the past 14 years to actually appreciate the slow times and use them to my benefit, I never forgot my first “June.” (The month, not the girl.)
“June” became code for the slow months. I had one or two a year. One year, I had six slow months — it was right after 9/11. I considered shutting down, until my Dad yelled at me. At the time, I was sharing space with a partnership of two successful lawyers in practice for 20 years. I asked one of them, “When do you stop worrying about money?”
While the public face of Biglaw may convince you that slow times only occur in small law firms, don’t be fooled. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Slow months happen everywhere. We’ve seen whole departments in Biglaw firms doing “other” work. Ask any real estate lawyer about his business over the last seven years.
In small firms, it just matters more because you may not be handed a paycheck every two weeks just for showing up. Rent comes due, the new iPad is out and yours is seven months old, and you are generally more aware of firm finances because there’s no accounting office on another floor that’s “not your concern.” Your money is a click away on Quickbooks, or written on a checkbook register in a drawer.
Small-firm lawyers take slow times personally. When you’re young, you fear telling your colleagues that “things have been slow.” You think it’s just you, and you start to rethink your decision to go out on your own. It can consume you.
Unless you have a “volume” practice where you send out mailers or help fund Google AdWords and undercut your colleagues $500 so you can get the case, you’re going to have slow months. You can’t create cases or legal matters, and depending on your reputation and referral sources, sometimes the phone just doesn’t ring for a few days, or weeks, or months.
So I’m not here to tell you that you get to a point where there are no slow times. If you think slow times are not a general part of the profession, you are probably one of those people who say, “but they looked so happy,” when you hear of a divorcing couple.
When you’re just starting out, slow times can mentally consume you. You’ve got to learn to work through them.
The first thing you need to do is to try and base everything on months, not weeks. There are too many weeks, and you’ll just get depressed. There are only 12 months. (I know this even though I went to a TTT law school.)
You also need to determine whether it’s you. In the beginning, I never asked if other lawyers were slow. That was a no-no. I was in private practice, and everything was wonderful. No room to admit weakness or failure. Then one day I asked a friend, “How’s business?” “Slow.” “Yeah, me too.” Then I spoke with others. I felt better. It wasn’t me, it was just a slow time.
One caveat: never brag if you’re doing well. Misery loves company. If you’re not slow and your friend is, then things are “fine.” And don’t be afraid to give some advice, if you have any.
If you’re the only one that’s slow, then you need to evaluate why. Are your fees too high? Is your name not out there enough? Did you jump into a practice area because it was “hot,” and now it’s crowded with cheap lawyers? Did your SEO guy get a real job and abandon your account? Regardless of how long you’ve been practicing, you should always be re-evaluating the business side of your firm — and not just when things slow down.
At some point, you’ll reach a level where you appreciate a few slow weeks. It will give you time to re-focus on the work at hand, and plan for the future. You’ll also learn to use the slow times to get out of the office (or coffee shop, or dining room) and go talk to real people about real things. While I am a proponent of lawyers taking a break from their work to actually live life a little, you can also take the time to maybe drum up a conversation with someone who will become a new referral source.
At some point, and that point may be ten years into it, the slow times will be just part of the year, and you’ll use the time to your advantage. The economy may dictate your income, but at least you can control how you use your time when you’re busy, and slow.
Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at email@example.com.