California, Lawyer Advertising, Small Law Firms, Travel / Vacation

The Practice: What I Did On My Summer Vacation

I’m one of those lawyers that goes on vacation. Not just long weekends, real vacations. I pity those of you that pride yourselves in announcing, “I don’t take vacations.” Good for you, you pathetic drone. I didn’t take vacations at first, as I was always fearful that someone would call to hire me on a non-emergency basis and wouldn’t wait until I came back. Now I don’t care. If you can’t wait until I come back, there are plenty of lawyers on the internet to hire that can take your PayPal payment online and send you whatever documents you think you need to handle your case.

When was I able to take my first two-week vacation and not worry about business? After 14 years in private practice. I say that because I know how patient all of you are out there.

First, let me congratulate the commentariat, who I found in San Francisco had turned their child-like recurring comments into a t-shirt business. See, there’s all kinds of ways to make money as an unemployed lawyer, not to worry. (For those of you that tell me you don’t read the comments, it’s okay, just look at the picture and imagine those phrases being said over and over again, anonymously.)

Anyway, when I’m on vacation, I think about my business. I think about what I love, what I hate, and what I want to change. There is nothing like thinking about your business (not the cases or the clients) while you are away from the phone calls (if your phone is ringing), other interruptions, the deadlines, and all the trappings of a lawyer’s day. (That was tip number one of today’s column for those of you shallow folks that can’t comprehend messages that aren’t in your face with drawings.)

One of the things I do a lot while I’m away is watch other businesses. I try to figure out how they make their money, why their employees are happy, or unhappy, why their customers patronize the store, restaurant, tour company, and how they handle problems. You’re an idiot if you are trying to build your law practice solely by watching how other lawyers run their practices. Client dynamics can be found in many places, and ideas come from everywhere. Most lawyers are doing it wrong anyway. (Enter tip number two — see how that works?)

Here’s what I saw over two weeks in California….

Big advertising, no substance.

A restaurant with a banner touting “world famous breakfast.” It was full of people. Big bold banner, full of people, what could be bad? The food and the service. They were both awful. The next day I went to a place I heard people talking about in the hotel. I also found some detailed reviews online. The place had a small sign, it said “home cooking.” We went back two days later. Even though it was more expensive, it was one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had. It’s called Hollywood Café. It’s in San Francisco. The other place? I can’t remember the name.

What goes up, may not come down, but if it does?

Went to a winery with a stellar reputation for their wines. Wine Spectator had just named one of their wines at the top of a recent list. Those that have been to wine country know there are wineries that have big signs on the road advertising “free tasting,” and there are those that you can’t find because their sign is the size of a wallet-sized photo. They don’t have free anything, and they aren’t looking to attract the idiots that came to get drunk with $5 — you know, those people (maybe you’re one of them) who wouldn’t know wine from grape juice and aren’t buying anything anyway?

If you were at this winery, you were there to buy some wine with a well-known reputation. The staff wasn’t overly friendly, they didn’t have to be — they’re on top, and they know you know that. You didn’t find them from a big road sign, you looked for them. I wondered though what may happen when their wine won’t be at the top of any ratings list and they will have to rely on those buyers that have been loyal to them because they feel like they are part of the family. Have they thought about their relationships with their customers? They surely weren’t trying to develop any relationships deeper than the “buy-sell” relationship, and that’s called a “transaction,” not a relationship.

The importance of the receptionist.

Then there was the doorman at one of the hotels. This guy was a genius. Upon arrival, he immediately started joking around with my kids. Every single time he saw them he started up a conversation with them. One night we returned from dinner, said we were going to a big chain ice cream shop, and he literally took them by the arm and walked them down the street to the “best of the city” ice cream shop. When I checked out, I gave him a tip that reflected my appreciation for the attention he paid to my family. One of my daughters joked that he “loved his job too much.”

As with any vacation, there were problems, mistakes, misunderstandings, and opportunities at every corner to watch business owners and managers teach me lessons, both good and bad. Yes, I took a vacation from my clients and my cases, but not from the recurring work of learning how to better run my practice.

When you run your own business, you either look for ways to do things better, or someone else will. And let me just add that none of what I speak of here had anything to do with owning an iPad.

There are those to whom only skills matter — those clients are few and far between. Most clients want skills, and… They want you to deal with their quirks, they want you to pay attention to the concerns of their spouse, they want you to admit when you failed to satisfy them, they want brutal honesty (well, a couple do), and their loyalty to you is based on more than your ability as a lawyer. These are things you don’t necessarily learn from other lawyers.

Enjoy your vacation.

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

(hidden for your protection)

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