Mediation Minute

Happy Thanksgiving: A Message to Lawyers Young and Not So Young

November 17, 2021

Recently I spoke to the Young Lawyers Section of the Florida Bar and the presentation was “Ten Things I Wish Someone Would Have Told Me 30 Years Ago.”  This article flows from that presentation. Balancing work, family, personal interests, fitness,  and other commitments is difficult, and most commentators now suggest “balance” is probably the wrong word. It may be easier to view the work/life demands as cyclical or ebbing and flowing in varying degrees of intensity. My thoughts are intended to be of some modest help to young attorneys in any practice area, although much of this material speaks to lawyers at any stage of their career.

    1. Play when you play and work when you work. Being absolutely focused in every moment is one of the biggest challenges. Be mentally present for your spouse and children. Life in the law – in an  age of cell phones and tablets – is far too attention grabbing and fixating. Manage your client’s expectations. Immediate responses are not required except for medical emergencies and fires. Stop checking email constantly.  Limiting your after-hours phone calls to true emergencies is not a sign of mental illness nor rude. We practiced law and made a living without email, smart phones, and instantaneous responses for decades. The clients were fine. We did not commit malpractice. We made money. You need to unplug to have the creative and deep thoughts necessary to chart careers, raise a family and move smartly through the world. The barrage of electronic stimuli leads to shallow thinking and stress; you have to get off of the hamster wheel.

2. The “staff” matters. Make your staff part of the sales equation. Hire quality people, pay a decent wage, and pay attention to their needs. There is no shortage of horror stories about good lawyers undone by incompetent assistants and bad actors. A good assistant can make a good lawyer great. If you have to cut the budget, I wouldn’t start with staff compensation.

3. Continue to look for work that pays better and you enjoy. You never know what you might like until you try it. After you look around, focus on becoming intellectually expert in something. Having expertise is attractive to clients and leveraging expertise is enjoyable and usually profitable. Chasing low-dollar high volume work is a hard way to make a living. Being a generalist is wonderful if you can find a way to make that work.

4. Don’t practice law alone. Find a co-conspirator in your law firm – someone who does what you do or at least supports it.  Have an informal advisor if you don’t have a law partner. It helps to have another set of eyes on your path, plans, and problems or do what I did and marry a smart lawyer.

5. Stay fit and healthy. It is a marathon not a sprint. Nobody likes to hire out-of-shape lumps of clay who can only talk about case-law and law blogs at parties. Stop smoking and other bad habits and for goodness’ sake read something other than advance sheets, industry press, and John Grisham novels. Get connected to the community and get beyond bar groups for your social connections. Be excellent in something other than your area of practice.[1]

6. If you are representing clients of modest means, get a retainer and do not finance the client’s legal services. It is better to decline work then accept a sketchy client which then leads to an uncollectible bill. You have to know when to say no.  There are occasionally clients with some strange problem outside your skill set that you best not touch.  Sending a referral to someone else is never a bad play when the client presents with a problem outside your wheelhouse.  I have taken on clients with weird cases two or three times over my career and always lived to regret it.

7. If you have large institutional clients, go see the people you represent. Email introductions are a poor substitute for face time. Everybody likes professionals who make “house calls” no matter what kind. It’s hard to get referrals if you have never met in person. You are more likely to get paid (and on time) if the client sees you as a friend and not just an email address.  Clients don’t know who the best lawyers in town are, so they do business with people they like.

8. The rising tide lifts all boats, but some folks don’t know that. Watch out for those who think success at a firm is a zero-sum game and that there is only so much success that can be shared. Beware of those who think they cannot share the limelight lest their own luster be diminished. Any firm of any size usually has one of these of people.

9. Get out of dysfunctional law firms and organizations quickly. Almost no one who ever left said I made a mistake leaving early. Conversely, you should not be quick to leave for a few bucks. It is not always easy to know you are in a bad place until you have spent too much time there. Reading management and leadership books helps you identify the characteristics of good and bad organizations and bad managers. Moving around too much may raise eyebrows with prospective employers but most everyone who does leaves a bad situation says later, “I should have left long ago”.  Talk to other professionals if you have concerns so you can get some perspective on your situation.  A lot of decent lawyers and kind people are horrible business managers. Your law practice is a business, and a law firm is not a fraternity or a sorority where loose standards can be tolerated.

10. There is nothing more noble than a person living within their means and nothing so pitiful as those who cannot. Keep your monthly living expenses or footprint to a minimum and in exchange treat yourself to occasional special events or blow-outs. You or a spouse will likely want to change jobs at some point and one of you may need to take a pay cut in the short term. A small footprint gives you flexibility and freedom. Avoid high end automobiles and car payments like the plague. Renting a home is not a sign of mental illness and caps your downside exposure. Put away 10% of your income as if it didn’t exist. It is hard to do for sure, but it is hugely comforting to have financial security.

11. On the lighter side, if you plan a cruise when the pandemic wanes, always book a room with a balcony. If you don’t get a balcony, your companion will be very unhappy. If you cannot afford a stateroom with a balcony don’t go! Windowless interior cabins reflect no light – only bad judgment.

I want to wish all of you a healthy and relaxing Thanksgiving. May your favorite football team beat its rival and may the gravy boat be full when it reaches you.

[1] Jeff Deery at the Winderweedle firm in Orlando speaks of the transitive property of excellence.  If you are excellent in some activity, skill, or pursuit that a client respects, that perceived excellence transfers to your perceived legal ability.