Today marks 8 years since I joined some 1,500 of my closest friends down at McCormick Place in getting sworn-in as an active Illinois attorney. It wasn’t the most memorable of experiences with such a large group…I rose from my seat, took the attorney oath and that was about it. Although I do recall a nice dim sum lunch in Chinatown with my parents after the swearing-in ceremony.
I wouldn’t say that “time flies when you’re having fun” applies here but the last 8 years of my professional life have included many high points and surely have been instructive and filled with constant learning. And frankly much of “Lawyerland” is pretty whacked!
So without further adieu, here are my 8 observations from 8 years as an Illinois attorney:
There are too many unhappy lawyers. I suppose this might be something like the chicken and the egg, meaning, what came first becoming a lawyer or the unhappiness but either way it can’t be too healthy. The work we do is serious work but too many lawyers take themselves way too seriously. If you’re working in a practice area that’s not meaningful to you, change; if you think being generally belligerent and treating everyone badly helps your clients’ cases you’re WRONG!
I observe too many lawyers who prey on clients during life’s darkest times. This bothers me greatly and motivates me to be different. Specific to my practice I see this a lot in divorce matters…the “simple” divorce that turns into a $30,000 lawyer debt. I had one of my contempt defense appointed cases recently for a young guy who had some clear mental illness and some of his past lawyers had just strung him along to the tune of many thousands of dollars in legal fees in a case where clearly he wasn’t going to be winning custody and there wasn’t much of a marital estate. BE DIFFERENT!
Client education & massaging client expectations may be the most important things I do. Plus, incessantly pushing clients to solve their own problems, particularly in domestic relations matters. Steering client expectations toward reality is probably the greatest wisdom that comes from my vast 8 years of experience. As with most things, you as a lawyer aren’t evaluated by some perfect/objective standard rather you’re evaluated against the client’s lawyer expectations (make sure they’re realistic).
The Circuit Court of Cook County’s antiquated technology = Injustice. I commented to my wife at dinner last night that if you want to experience information technology circa 1985 just walk into a Cook County Courthouse (seriously, where else would you see carbon paper?). I was looking at an archived 1985 divorce court file in Daley 1113 yesterday and it didn’t look any different than the 2010 version. But the fundamental problem is that the antiquated technology leads to unjust results as I’ve written about here & here.
What’s the deal with “Status Reports”? For anyone outside Cook County, Illinois, “Status Reports” are the most popular type of court date where ostensibly you’re coming to court to update the judge on the current status of the case. Plus, these are almost all set at 9:30 a.m. Problem #1 is that most judges I’m before don’t keep track of each case’s “status” themselves so what’s the point? A handful of judges are starting to have a computer up on the bench to keep detailed notes much like the minutes of a board meeting so at least their “status” is being measured. And there’s 8 hours between 830am & 430pm (hours courthouses are open) so why are 90% of cases set at 930am? The elevators at the Daley Center between 920am-1020am are the most needlessly stress-inducing part of my law practice.
Getting rid of a physical/permanent office (and associated costs) and going solo were my best decisions. These are 2 things I probably could not have envisioned 8 years ago that, currently, I’d have a hard time returning to their alternatives (single bricks/mortar location & being someone else’s employee). I’ve made the statement many times that the worst decision I’ve made as a solo practitioner was over-spending on office space…that’s still true. Using Regus for our client meetings allows me & them great flexibility and I’m never commuting somewhere simply for me to work at an office. And building a business is simply very satisfying (not easy, but satisfying).
Client payment security is my most critical issue. I was going to say something about too often allowing myself to compete on price and the negatives associated with that decision (which is generally a no-no). But even when I have likely charged a rate too low, I can make a nice living from the clients who are paying like clockwork. The practice killer is inconsistent income & I must solve this problem. Our early payment option to clients has been effective in 2010…clients get a 5% discount when they pay by a certain date. I think the other solutions to “client payment security” are using “Evergreen Retainers” (never allowing a client to have a zero retainer balance) and securing client payment plans (when necessary) firmly with a credit or debit card.
I need HELP with the business of law. Both law schools and bar associations are deficient. There is the occasional good program regarding “Law Practice Management” but there’s never adequate discussion about MONEY & PROFIT. I brought just north of zero business experience to my law practice when I began in April ’05. So I’ve finally retained an outside lawyer/business coach for year 9 & beyond.