Thursday, August 14, 2008

Frustrated Lawyers

I've been a little grumpy lately. Usually I'm happy, dopey, and a bit sneezy. Never bashful. But lately, grumpy. I think I'm frustrated with being a lawyer and with running an office.

I shouldn't feel that way. Life is good and so is business. Things are a lot tougher for a lot of other lawyers, and for a lot of other people. We're doing quite well. I had part of this conversation with a cop in a local court. An inmate was sitting in earshot. Hey, I'm not wearing a yellow jail jumpsuit.

But my current mood is helpful in understanding why so many lawyers are unhappy.

A couple of things touched this off for me. First, I had lunch with some lawyer friends and we talked about fees a little bit. It's something that makes many of us uncomfortable. Am I charging too much? Too little? There's always the story of the lawyer who handled this case for $25,000 or that case for $75,000, and you scratch your head wondering why you don't get cases like that.

Second, I read this article about "law practice management" and it had a great quote:
Some lawyers understand instinctively that those who can get and keep a clientele can write their ticket; some lawyers never get it and never figure out why they are working for the lawyers who do.

That's a reference to the importance of who brings in the business. I remember when I worked at Allstate that the agents were very important because they were the ones bringing in the revenue. It doesn't matter how good you are at the work if there's no work to do.

I think a lot of lawyers are frustrated because it's difficult work, and there are plenty of lawyers out there who don't make a lot of money. Young lawyers are drowning in their student loan debt. More experienced lawyers are wondering how they're going to pay for college for their kids. Some attorneys lose their jobs mid-career and struggle to get by at all.

There are so many different sources of frustration. A case doesn't go well. A judge makes a decision against you and it doesn't make sense. Too many deadlines. Every court seems to have a different set of rules. Clients unhappy with the results (fortunately we don't get a lot of that). Or just clients who keep calling when we have no news for them. You have a good case going and then the defendant goes into bankruptcy, or even worse, the insurance company does.

A big one for a lot of law firms is clients who don't pay their bills. We either get paid up front or work on contingency, so this is not a problem for us. But we get solicited by firms who help lawyers collect their receivables. They seem astonished when I tell them that no one owes us money.

Then there's the hassle of running an office. Hiring, firing, managing. I used to think firing people would be difficult. Well it is sometimes, but hiring is even harder. How the hell am I supposed to know if this person will be any good? You read three pieces of paper and talk to someone for an hour, call a couple of references, and then you're good? It's easier to hire someone and then make a decision after a couple weeks of actually watching them work.

I hate it when there are problems with the copier or fax machine. Why can't they make those things so they don't break down?

There are times when I just want to hang it up, and I hear that from others. A doctor friend is looking at declining reimbursement rates (the amounts insurance pays for visits and procedures) and increasing costs, and he's always talking about doing something else.

I think I'm a pretty good lawyer, but there are plenty of others just as good and some better at any particular area of law. I feel like I'm stronger in other areas, like building websites. Wouldn't I be happier if I just spent all day working on my websites? I could sit on a beach somewhere with a laptop. I'd never have to wear a suit again. Wouldn't care if the copier stopped working. Wouldn't have to hire, manage and fire employees.

Sometimes the other side of the fence looks pretty good.

So if that's how I feel, imagine how other lawyers are feeling. I'm doing better than most. I've got the clientele. Other lawyers work for me. I'm writing my own ticket. Right?

To anticipate some comments, yes, I do know how good I have it. I know I'm a big whiner and the smallest violin in the world is playing for me. I'm not asking for anyone's pity. This isn't really about me. It's a lament for the lawyers who really are struggling. And recognition that even for them life is a lot better than for a lot of others.


MattF said...

Cases of supply, demand, the free market for charging (because *someone* will always pay it), and how good is your service & marketing it. Not everyone gets all of that.

In the meantime, if you ever scale a side business of building websites for new/up and coming lawyers.

Unknown said...

I appreciate matt's comment. We (my brother and I) have looked at building websites for others. It's not a good business model. First, there's plenty of other options out there. Second, it doesn't excite me. Third, I don't think I'm that good at building websites for others. We're reasonably good at building websites for ourselves. In the end, it would probably take me at least 50 hours to build a half-decent website for someone else. If my effective billable rate is $250/hour, then that's going to cost over $10K. Not many new or up-and-coming lawyers are going to pay that.

Your effective billable rate is much lower than mine. You should build your own website (which is what I did when I got started - I didn't have so much work to do back then). I should probably offer a web consulting service, where I charge $500 for a two-hour consultation on how to build your website.

And the deep, dark truth is that most of our websites are built through outsourcing. We can do it ourselves, but it gets done quicker and better by hiring others to to the real work.

Anonymous said...

don;'t give up your day job. Your website leaves a lot to be desired. No one would pay for garbage like this

Unknown said...

Funny how the negative comments are almost always anonymous.