I’ve always marveled at lawyers who continue to represent clients when they’re not getting paid, or are too weak and fragile to engage in a serious conversation with the client over the unpaid bill(s). It happens more in the civil arena, as any halfway intelligent criminal lawyer knows you get the money up-front. Bad results with open bills is never a good way to pay the rent.
But there are those criminal lawyers who are too stupid to get the money up-front. They claim “where I practice,” you have to offer payment plans. Problem is, there is no such thing as a payment plan. What I call it is a “non-payment” plan.
I can count on one hand, well, maybe one and a half hands, the amount of times I’ve been stiffed by a client. In most cases, it was where I was waiting for the “money up-front,” and decided to do some work in the interim because I (wrongly) believed the client was good for it. The client wasn’t good for it, and I quickly withdrew from any court case or ceased doing work.
And I know, there are those out there that believe it’s pure arrogance to claim that I get paid or I don’t work, that chasing money or waiting for money that will never come is part of the practice. There are criminal defense lawyers that get paid, sorry if you don’t know any, and not getting paid is not “part of your practice,” unless you let your practice run you instead of running your practice.
So let me tell you what I hear — you probably hear it too — or say it to yourself, and how to make it stop, and stop now…
When I first went into private practice, I was doing exclusively criminal defense. A lawyer I didn’t know, who didn’t practice criminal law, got my name and wanted to refer me a case. He told me his client was arrested and asked, because the client only spoke French and he had an assistant that spoke French, if I would come to his office and consult with the client.
Sure, no problem.
I went to his office and sat in his conference room with the client, the assistant/translator, and the referring lawyer. As I went through the substantive and procedural aspects of the case I noticed that the referring lawyer, let’s call him “Joe” (because his name is actually Joe), was taking copious notes.
A couple days later, I called Joe to ask whether the client was going to hire me. “Actually Brian, I was surprised to hear from the client that he wants me to represent him.”
So Joe sat there, listened to my 90-minute road map of how I would handle the case, decided he needed to pay rent, and told the client he could do it. Maybe that was the intention from the beginning; I don’t know. I do know that I no longer allow anyone to take notes during consultations, and I rarely go to someone else’s office to meet with a new client…
I know it’s not popular to write about lawyers doing well, because misery loves company, but the sad truth is, there are lawyers who don’t spend their days blaming their law school for the fact that they should have never thought of becoming lawyers, or trying to figure out how every new “future of law” tool on the internet can bring them clients.
There are lawyers, regardless of what you’ve been convinced of, who are actually making a living off the time and sweat they have put into their practice. These are the lawyers getting multiple calls a week, whose main concern is not counting the days until their worthless LinkedIn connections bear fruit, but how they are going to get all the work done, and if the stride will continue.
So for the whiners out there, the heartbroken dreamers, the ones who believe expressing their anonymous anger on the internet will one day result in something positive, take the week off. I want to talk to the success stories out there in Small-Law-Ville (anyone own that term yet?)….
I just returned from my annual Bar convention. Have you been? Hundreds of lawyers, judges, and a smattering of law students attending meetings, receptions, CLE seminars, and having chance meetings at the real “bar” with opposing counsel — it’s a day or two to realize you’re part of something bigger than your law office.
I know, some of you hate your state Bar. You don’t hang out with “Bar-types” and see no value in spending a day or two running around a hotel and saying hello to lawyers you know and don’t know.
Being involved in my state Bar has been one of the most important components of building my practice…
Lawyers like to say, “I’m a lawyer, not a psychiatrist.”
If you’re dealing with people’s problems, you’re a lawyer and a psychiatrist. While clients understand you are the person hired to try and resolve their legal issues, the not-so subtle secret of a successful practice is a slew of clients that believe their lawyer actually gives a crap about how their legal issues are affecting their personal life.
In small-firm practice, you’re dealing with someone who just got served, or is going through the anxiety of deciding whether to initiate litigation. Your client may be going through the stress of trying to buy a business, or asking you to split up his family. Someone is trying to get her spouse out of jail, while the person in jail is wondering about his future. The type of legal issues that we deal with in small law firms aren’t whether the corporation will have to pay a million dollar fine or whether the bank will have to write off a loan, they’re issues that cause people to lose sleep and sometimes just freak out.
And I know, I get the calls too. Clients want to talk about things that have nothing to do with the legal work I have to do. They ask the same questions that you can’t answer: “When will this be over?” or, “Do you think (this) will happen?” You’re tired of telling the client, “I don’t know, but just be patient.” The client calls and says he “read” this, or “heard” this,” or worse, “My friend had a case like this and…”
Lawyers who practice in small law firms are frequently in the media. The reason is simple: the cases we handle are interesting. When’s the last time your local TV station wanted to interview a Biglaw partner about a corporate transaction?
Stories of divorce, crime, ethics violations, catastrophic injuries caused by plane crashes, and whether the building collapse was caused by a construction defect are why Don Henley had a hit with “Dirty Laundry.” (I love the fact I was able to weave in a comment about Don Henley. Big fan.)
At some point, you may get a call from a local reporter because you either have a high-profile client, or the reporter knows you and there is a case in your practice area where your comments are requested.
Let’s begin with the obvious: lawyers like to talk. Lawyers like to talk when lots of people are listening. Lawyers like to get calls about cases. Lawyers like to get calls instead of the other lawyer getting calls. Media appearances are often considered free advertising. One of the best things about media appearances, paper or TV, is that most people don’t remember what you said, just that they saw you or your name. It goes like this: “I saw you in the paper.” “Oh yeah, what did you see?” “I don’t remember, I just remember seeing your name.” Thankfully, no one seems to remember you said something so ridiculous that it made you look borderline incompetent…
I imagine there are a few dozen articles on the internet about “dealing with difficult opposing counsel.” There’s probably some good advice in some of them, but I thought I’d offer my own, as, well, I deal with difficult lawyers and have found a way to cast them into the abyss of irrelevancy, causing them to either question their own disgraceful way of practicing law, or wonder how to proceed next.
First, where I learned how to deal with these self-important blowhards. When I was a young lawyer, I had the opportunity to work on a case where a well-known securities lawyer was involved — he was on our side. I went to see him at his New York office, and after an all-day session with the client, he invited me to dinner. (See what I did there?) He told me the story of an opposing counsel in another case that sent him a “lawyer letter” laying out his position on the case, and making several threats and demands.
My friend responded with a letter of his own. It was two words: “I disagree.”
That dinner taught me two things. One, there is no requirement that your response be as wordy as the initial screed of threats and demands. Two, there is no need to respond in detail to bluster, regardless of who is blustering.
I’ve used this tactic many times. I read every email with this question in mind: “Does this require a response?” I also maintain a philosophy that I practice law my way, not opposing counsel’s way. Just because you yell, doesn’t mean I need to yell. Just because you’re a piece of crap, doesn’t mean I need to join you in the gutter….
With a struggling legal economy, lawyers are doing everything they can do to stay afloat. It’s understandable — homes have been bought, cars you can’t afford have been leased, and Taco Bell doesn’t taste as good as it did in school at 3 a.m.
I’ve met with lawyers over the past few years who have told me to send them anything that comes my way that I don’t want. These are real estate lawyers that will now draft employment contracts, and civil litigators who are ready to draft a Will for the asking. (By the way, random question: do you capitalize “Will” when referring to the document? I know I can look it up, but many of you have nothing else to do, so let me know.) I see criminal defense lawyers taking on matters so far out of their practice area that I fear for the clients. Actually, I fear for all these clients.
Back in the day, the so called “country” or “neighborhood” lawyer did what today we pejoratively call “Door Law” (whatever walks in the door). There’s a difference between a lawyer who handles several types of practice areas, and the lawyer who doesn’t, but will in order to make rent. The latter is dangerous…
Two factions of the legal profession seem louder than the others — those wallowing in the past, the ones spending their days blaming their law schools for forcing them to attend based on the promises of wealth and happiness, and those predicting the future of law who want you to believe that if you know now how the practice will be 10 or 20 or 500 years from now, it will help you today.
So tell me, which one has helped build your practice: whining about the past, or thinking about how things may be in the future?
I like to live in the present, while remembering the mistakes of my past and knowing that the future will eventually be here, and I may not.
But when I talk about the present, how I do things, how people I respect do things, I often hear that “those things don’t work anymore.” You haven’t tried “those things,” but because someone you don’t know seems to have the best crystal ball (at a reasonable price), they know better.
Most of you are looking to make money now, not in “the future of law,” and knowing that in reality, bitching about the past does nothing — even if you are delusional enough to think anyone cares….
Living in a post-Oprah Show world is tough for people like me. Oprah was the one who convinced many that no matter what happens in your life, it’s not your fault. There’s always how your mother treated you, how you were bullied in third grade, your bad relationships, and, of course, the law school that held a gun to your head while showing you fake statistics and promising a job handed to you at the same time you shake the dean’s hand and receive your degree.
While I believe anyone stupid enough to choose a law school based on their job placement statistics should never, ever, ever, be a practicing lawyer, there are many of you out there. Even though you should run as fast as you can to another profession or career, I want to help you at least try to find a legal job so in a year you can realize that the real problem is that you never wanted to be a lawyer anyway — you were just looking for some easy cash, like everyone promised.
As a favor to you, and for the five-figure fees I receive at ATL for writing this column, I provide these little nuggets of weekly advice which are both appreciated (privately) and excoriated (anonymously). I realize one of the problems that causes seemingly intelligent people with law degrees to respond with unintelligible rants about how I “don’t understand” is that I am actually working, as a lawyer. As misery loves company, there is the notion that because I’m not sitting in my parents’ basement lashing out at the computer screen in an effort to convince people not to go to law school, I am just wrong.
So before you throw in the towel and go to that world of becoming a social media rock star, I want you to know that I’m not the only one out there giving you advice that does nothing but anger you. There’s also Anna Ivey….
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