Volume 20, Number 5 July/August 2003


TOO MUCH RAIN,NO ONE TO DO ALL THE WORK

HOW TO MANAGE THE RISING WATERS IN A SMALL TOWN

By William G. Schwab

I practice in small-town America-not the type of place one normally assumes an attorney would have too much work, but unfortunately that is what I face each day of my practice.I chose to practice in a small county where I knew personally all the attorneys in the bar. What I didn't count on was that after 25 years, only six of the original 14 lawyers and firms in my town would remain to serve the community's needs-and two of the surviving attorneys are now in their eighties. I also benefited from unplanned marketing as my three children became unintentional recruiters for dad's practice whenever I would meet other parents at scouts, 4-H, soccer, little league, midget basketball-you get the point. The law in the meantime has become more and more involved, and people are resorting much more to litigation to solve their problems.

When I first began generating too much business in the 1980s, I attempted unsuccessfully to recruit associates to join me in the practice. Few law school graduates saw opportunities in a small town that didn't even have a movie theater or McDonald's. The basic necessities of life seemed missing to them.

At that point I chose not to turn away clients or limit my practice. Instead I initially turned to technology. I invested heavily in networked word processors with big, eight-inch disks. Suddenly I was the "quick" attorney who put out good work promptly. Paralegals were unheard of at that time in my town, so I recruited heavily of the best of the local high school's secretarial students and trained them to function as paralegals. At one time I had eight support staff working directly for me. New work and clients continued to overwhelm me, and for a while I used a national research service to provide support, but that still was not a solution, since I couldn't control the turnaround time.
Finally, after the sixth year without a vacation, I recruited an associate to join me. My associate liked family law and developed a niche in that area. Pretty soon "my help" needed help. Eventually I lost my associate, who wanted to practice in his nearby hometown. I panicked. How could I cover the settlements and all the court appearances by myself? In many ways this was a blessing in disguise, as I gave him more than 75 family law files to help him with his new practice. I immediately decided not to take any family law cases. I reviewed my accounts receivable and found that criminal defense work was not all that profitable, so that went, too. I started to refer both to my former associate.

Not only had I limited my practice, I also increased my hourly fees at the same time to discourage new business. Funny, but that decision had the opposite result. I would quote a high retainer and the highest hourly rate in the county, thinking that would discourage business, but instead it actually increased business. "He must be good because he charges more than anyone else." I found that my reputation suddenly improved again.

Next I limited new appointments. I scheduled in advance a set number of new clients that I would see each week, so that I could still have ample time to give good representation to existing clients. Otherwise I would see 15 new clients a week. A three-week wait for an appointment with me was not unusual. Again, waiting for appointments only enhanced my local reputation. I continued to tread water.

Finally, in the late 1990s I was able to recruit three associates to assist me. They were individuals who were returning to the area where they had grown up. Although they are associates, we work as partners and they have input in hiring and firing. I find myself seeing more clients again as the chief rainmaker, but now I have associates that can do the large part of the work, while I supervise and review it. We now are the largest firm in the county, but we know that we could use another associate or two, along with more support staff, if we had more physical space.
Technology helped me when there was too much rain, but we're still looking for a permanent solution to the problem: A thunderstorm is right around the corner. Long live the two attorneys in their eighties who maintain full-time practices, because their absence may create a cloudburst that we can't handle. By any chance, is there anyone reading this who wants to come to a 5,000-person town that now proudly contains both a movie theater and a McDonald's . . . and a Burger King?

William G. Schwab maintains a four-attorney general practice in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, where he also wears hats as a bankruptcy trustee, assistant public defender, and school solicitor. He can be reached at schwab@uslawcenter.com.

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