Chapter 26 - Conclusion
Building the type of practice outlined in this book involves skills you must develop on your own. If it is not in your character already, you will have to change your character. The process is straight-forward and non-technical. You either "click" and get it, or you do not.
A colleague who reviewed this mini-book had this to say: "For all those attorneys who feel victimized by the law school scam, they will read this, and even though it is true, they are not going to do anything about it. These people just have victim mentalities." This is a revealing truth, except I remember my days of despair when I was thrown out into the pond and had to learn to swim. Many of these "victimized" attorneys are only in temporary jams.
The biggest impediment to a lawyer's success is his or her own ego. For so many lawyers, the ego is both foolish and cowardice. Moreover, damage to an ego this big is bound to result in deep despair - the kind of despair that makes you question whether law school was worth it (as you think back to how you felt like king of the world when you stepped upon the law campus for your first day as a new 1-L).
The most common problem lawyers have is that they are too afraid that they will not look like lawyers if they do not start taking on overhead to put on a show for clients. This is self- defeating for the profession as a whole. Lawyers are driving themselves close to sub-standard wages just to keep competing to look successful. Clients are paying you for your knowledge and skill. If you can deliver the same result out of a gutter, they will be just as happy. Of course, I would not suggest you let them see your gutter.
Moreover, many lawyers can talk the big talk about $200, $250 and $300 an hour, but how many of them really make that much based on the number of hours they work? The truth is that a great many are working their tails off to make a rate commensurate to that of a UPS driver or school teacher - maybe even less! This is not the life intended for a lawyer who spent $150,000 to get an education, put aside three years of life to do this, and sat for one of the most grueling written exams known to mankind.
Stay lean on expenses. Get good clients who can pay. Make them pay what your hourly rate really is. Do not take small chunks and work hours and hours knowing, as you should, that full payment can never be expected. If you want to go without pay, you might as well go to the beach or go fly a kite. Legal work is work, and it is the type of work that deserves the rates in full - or darn close to it.
In addition, know for a fact that conspicuous consumption and being broke go hand in hand. Study some income and wealth statistics. The median household income is roughly $50,000. This is household income. When a lawyer makes $100,000 and the lawyer's spouse makes $60,000, you are on the top of the totem pole. This is, contrary to popular belief, not middle class. This is upper class. Yet, too many people in this income category are strapped and miserable. It is because they do not know how to live below their creditworthiness.
This problem does not only vex lawyers. It defines what it is to be "American." Know these basic income, wealth and credit statistics so that you can adequately size-up your clients and their abilities to pay. These statistics abound all over the internet. Look up "wealth and income distribution." Find the average consumer household debt. "The guy with the McMansion and the Mercedes is having a slow month, but not to worry, he's good for it. Just look at his house and his car." Think again. This guy cannot pay your bill. Watch him very carefully. Do not let him get too deep into debt to you. A couple thousand or so is okay. Over $5,000, and you are risking it beyond what should be an ordinary level of discomfort.
If you follow the basic principles in this book, you will succeed. It takes a bit of time. Not too much, though. Maybe a year or two. Then, you will find that, indeed, you can make $100k+ per year by working only a few hours a day. As you are working your way up the totem pole, you will encounter the hoards of attorneys who are miserable, and you will begin to have doubts here and there because they speak as if they know that "reality for lawyers means being overworked and underpaid." Have faith. They are wrong. Learn what not to do from people who are not happy.
Remember all you learned in this book. Certainly, you will be able to easily discern what makes most lawyers miserable by getting candid answers to a mere few, simple questions. You will see that they are violating the rules set out above. They are likely "entitlement mentality" lawyers who just cannot dispel the myth and feel driven to perpetuate the façade that success is demonstrated by high overhead, voluminous clients, and being overworked.
On a few final notes, you will see lawyers regularly out there just bickering away and getting snotty with each other and sometimes even to courthouse personnel. Especially in family law, for whatever reason, this is prevalent. Family lawyers really seem to let themselves have a personal attachment to their cases and clients' positions. Law is business. Keep it professional. Do not let a client's stress become your stress. You do your job the best you can, and that is it. Roll with the punches. Do not return snide remarks with those of your own. Getting snotty and trite really drags a person down. I do not know how these lawyers remain functional while carrying on like they do day after day.
Do not interrupt others when they are talking. This rule should apply everywhere, not just during oral arguments in court. It is aggravating to see lawyers cut each other off, and sigh and roll their eyes and laugh and chuckle. This does not gain you any ground. It looks unprofessional, and it is. No need to get loud when making a point, either - unless your audience really is hard of hearing.
If you have exhibits and case law to cover during a hearing, make copies for the judge and opposing counsel. Be organized. Find whatever method gets everyone to the documents they need to find with no gaps in time. It is aggravating to also see a disorganized lawyer who sifts through a mound of papers looking for a document while everyone sits and taps. I once tried a difficult will contest (and lost). But after the verdict, the jury told me, "Sorry the facts weren't good for you, but we have to say… you were the better lawyer by a long shot. When you needed a document, you knew right where it was and pulled it out in 1 second flat. The other attorney was so disorganized. It took her forever to find her exhibits." (Had my facts been a smidge better, this professional appearance could have made the difference)
Go watch lawyers in court. Go to family courts. Go to civil courts. Go to criminal courts. You will find that the various attorneys behave differently in these different venues. Listen for those cases which come up where there is an interesting, thought-provoking issue. I cannot speak for family law anywhere else, but if I was going to practice it in Houston, I would rather first learn attorney etiquette in the civil courts, and then, go practice family law. This does not mean lawyers without good etiquette are not smart. You can learn from all of them. Listen to how they make their points and counter-points.
Also, dress well in court. This is especially a message for the women attorneys. (Sorry, ladies) Men have basically a single dress code. Their wardrobes are predictable and drab. Put on a suit with a matching jacket and wear a tie. Women, on the other hand, have great latitude. The standard is not clear. Spandex is out. Pantsuits are in. Short skirts are out. Business- skirts are in. Those decorative-looking sweatshirts with beads and colors are not courtroom attire. Look sophisticated. You can look sharp on a tiny budget. Resale clothing is good for both men and women who are on a tight budget. Nobody will know you bought resale. I have done it and make no bones about it. It can be a bargain. You do not stock away wealth by spending your income.
It was not previously mentioned, but right here is the best place to say this: Record your time. All of it. Write it down. If you do not, you will forget the time you spent on minor matters. The 0.2 hour tasks add up. You need only 10 of those to make your 2 hour day. If you do not write down your time, from my own experience (during bouts of laziness), you will lose 20-25% of your pay or even more. Never bill 0.1 hours. I tried it a few times. Clients are repulsed by it. Wait for two 0.1 hour tasks and combine them into one 0.2 hour billable item. If the 0.1 hour task cannot be paired and collected elsewhere, forget about it. This is your pro- bono and charitable work - not sticking clients with 0.1 hour items.
You will write-off (never bill) for some of your time. It happens. Keep it to a minimum. Do not send a client an unrealistic bill and discount it. It is stupid. Billing for $15,000, less a $12,000 discount…. $3,000. When you do this, you are revealing that you work for cheap. Never let clients know you work for cheap here and there because you did some extra work that you know you cannot collect from them. Just do the work and do not bill for it. Learn from these situations and minimize the freebies. You can become very effective at it in many civil practice matters. This talent is harder to master in family law and flat-fee cases.
Also, you need to get used to accepting the fact that you are smart. Even if you had trouble with the bar exam, you are smart. The bar is about memory. The practice of law is about research and preparedness. These are vastly different and have no relation to each other. If this rule applies to the bar exam, you know it has to apply equally to the "name" of the law school an attorney attended. The practice of law is not reflected by the LSAT or your GPA. The tests are fantasy. They are testing your memory. Even in the courtroom, you can bring your case law and notes. The days of tests are gone. It is now time to work. Competence in the practice of law is one thing and one thing only…. research. The more you do, the more you know.
When you are young and starting out, your intellect is not reflected very well by your income. But if you remain diligent and conscientious, your income will catch up to your intellect in the very foreseeable future. For what it is worth, my starting pay was $2,000 a month. So put that in your pipe and smoke it! Looking back, I would not change a thing if I could. It took me months to land the $2,000 job, and this was after I sunk deep enough in despair to start thinking about joining the army just so I could run away from my life.
Finally, if you hone these skills and find the capacity to exceed your current ambitions for money, just keep in mind some of the other pointers in this book about all of the non-monetary aspects which are part and parcel of living a comfortable life. How much money do you really need? Live a good life below your credit score. Your next read should be a book entitled, The Millionaire Next Door. As an attorney, millionaire status is attainable. In fact, I would have to ask, "How can you not attain it?" The answer to this question is, "By doing that which people who will never be millionaires are doing." I would plot the road toward financial security with the advice and examples contained in The Millionaire Next Door. I would not try to achieve this status by swinging for homeruns, making life more complicated than it needs to be, and trying to look like a lawyer. After that, read Dave Ramsey's, The Total Money Makeover.
Hopefully, you enjoyed the pointers in this book and learned what real lawyers do to sustain reasonably successful practices without $300,000 in stress for $40,000 in pay. A little luck never hurts, either. Good luck!
P.S.: There is an appendix below which might help you to understand billing, research and drafting.
Constructive input is appreciated. Were some topics not covered? Could some have been covered better? Just want to say you liked it or didn't like it? Please reach out to me by creating a thread on the JD Underground Law Discussion Forum.
© 2015, Jeff M