GPSolo Magazine - July/August 2006
Fire Your Clients. Or Your Staff. Or Yourself.
I can’t take it. Not another day! No money, no time, missing yet another family obligation. Burnout, frustration, whatever you call it, it seems to be an inevitable part of the package for the solo and small firm practitioner. Yet, many of our colleagues think this is the best way to live and wouldn’t change a thing. Assuming they are not delusional from lack of sleep, the rest of us really want to figure out how to get from here to where those “happy” lawyers are.
So, what interferes with the joy of practicing law? Clients. Staffing problems. That overwhelming feeling of drowning in work, of running as fast as you can to stay where you are. Here are three practical suggestions for things to do to address the most common causes of stress and subsequent burnout.
Fire Your Clients
Assuming you are honest and can balance your checkbook, the number-one obstacle to a fulfilling (or at least tolerable) law practice is your very own client list. Every malpractice insurance company tells us that managing our clients reduces our claim risk. It also reduces our stress and increases our own job satisfaction.
I make it an annual event every October to “fire” at least three clients. They are chosen and the “no thank-you for your business” letter is drafted as early in October as possible, with follow-up in two weeks. By December I am retiring the files as my own Christmas present to me.
Other lawyers often ask me how I choose those clients. It soon becomes apparent that those other lawyers already have their desired “ex-clients” identified but want a really good and palatable reason to get rid of them. I don’t know why a “good reason” is so hard to define for lawyers, who seem as quick and happy as the rest of society to dump a romance that’s gotten unpleasant or sell off an investment that’s just plain flat. But, good reason or not, my fired clients generally fall into two categories.
First, I eliminate the unprofitable cases. In my office, many of these are simply old cases at very old rates that need to be updated. A few years ago, I found several cases being billed at $50 per hour less than my current hourly rate, simply because I was originally hired for serial representation many years ago and never got the clients to agree to the increased rates.
I sent these clients a simple letter advising them of the great bargain that they had been receiving, along with a notice that the rate would be going up unless they wanted to come get their files and hire a new attorney. Not one client complained, and only one hired a new attorney, with great compliments to my office in the process. I do not miss that one client, personally or financially, because that was the client who was already complaining about the bills at the lower rate. Essentially, I suppose he thought he fired me, which is even better.
The other cases I close out by this process are those made unprofitable by requiring far more time and resources than they could cover. Clients who are behind on their bills are the first to go. The rule in my office is that lawyers have three options: Work and get paid, which is fine; don’t work and don’t get paid, which is also fine; and work and don’t get paid, which has to be carefully monitored and controlled.
If certain clients can’t get loans from MasterCard or their own families, why do you extend them credit? Are their legal issues more important to the world than your kid’s college tuition? Than the workout you’re missing to attend to the matter? Than returning your mother’s phone call or ordering flowers for Secretary’s Day? No, of course not. But by continuing to work these cases, you are telling your clients, your staff, and your family that you are not worth the fee you charge. Every state has rules and limitations on terminating representation for nonpayment, but those rules do not force you to work pro bono indefinitely. Follow the rules, incorporate them into your written fee agreements, treat your client fairly, and even the toughest judge and state bar will allow you to terminate representation in a reasonable period of time.
Finally, the true gift to yourself: Fire the client that you really hate working for. This is not financial management, it’s stress management. You know the client: He complains about every bill, sometimes itemizing what he will not be paying for. She calls your cell phone on the weekend, when she is neither in danger nor in jail. He sends an e-mail, then a fax to tell you to check your e-mail, then he phones three times leaving messages telling you to check your faxes and e-mails, all before ten in the morning. She whines and complains that things are just not being done as fast as she expected, because this is really just a simple case that you allow other people to delay and complicate.
You have to get rid of these clients. They suck the life out of you. Atticus Finch never had these people hanging around, and they never show up in those TV lawyers’ waiting rooms. They aren’t just bad for you; they are bad for the entire legal profession. They frustrate you and your staff. You become an angry and difficult person because of them, and your family and staff do not deserve that.
Start with the letter. Write it today, detailing every annoying thing that ticks you off. Mostly, this first draft is therapy, and you can edit out the profanities and insults later. When done, replace the unpleasantries with the euphemisms that our profession teaches us. For example, “You’re an obnoxious jerk who calls too much” changes to “I appreciate your interest and involvement in your case, and I believe you will be better served by counsel who can respond to your concerns in a more timely manner.” I have several letters that I have written through the years and keep on hand for examples of appropriate language. I also try to include three references to other counsel, along with the state bar’s lawyer referral phone number.
The fact is, you are not serving these clients well anyway. You are probably doing fine legal work, but there is far more to the attorney-client relationship than competent professional advice. These clients need to find the right fit for a lawyer, and it is not you. Give them a way out, and save your own sanity in the process.
Fire the Help
Your practice requires that you are surrounded by other people with parallel and dependent employment. Some of us have actual employees, some don’t. But all of us rely on independent people to support our practices in some way. Are they truly helpful? Or are they hurtful to your practice and your life?
Starting with actual employees, there comes a point when we have to confront problems in the office. And let’s be honest: Lawyers are generally the worst, most cowardly bosses in the professional world. Until there is money missing from the trust account or a bullet hole in the wall, we will generally do anything to avoid dealing with personnel issues. But, because we work in small offices, it is even more important that we handle these matters promptly and decisively. Our employees are not mere co-workers operating independently in overlapping office space. They are part of our work environment, and they usually have a fairly close involvement with our families and our friends as well. They are our clients’ primary contact with our legal representation. They are so intimately related to our whole lifestyle choice that serious issues must be identified and confronted before they become a problem.
A bad or incompetent employee must be terminated. This is easy in an “employment at will” state. But other states make it quite feasible to get these employees out—and require it when they compromise the legal representation of your clients. Document and act before it is too late. Sure, it means two weeks of stress, but you save an eternity of stress beyond that point. Plus, you can stop avoiding your office.
More difficult are the “good” employees who are not performing up to par or who have suddenly changed their performance for the worse. By working in a solo or small firm, your employees have made a lifestyle choice similar to the one you made. If they don’t realize that, it is your obligation to clue them in on the significance, the earlier the better. They deserve that their choice be recognized or acknowledged. They are part of a team with a common goal. They are working with people who know more about them and depend on them more than in other office settings.
These matters need to be discussed openly. My friend David Kauffman in Fairfax County, Virginia, refers to this as the “Come to Jesus” talk. Potentially or previously good employees need to know that their sins are revealed but that they have the chance for redemption if they make appropriate choices. And you need to listen because the confessions you hear will educate you about the quality of life for your employees, which directly affects the quality of your life and practice. Sometimes you will learn that your employee is at the end of her time with you but just hadn’t gotten around to telling you yet. Sometimes you will learn that this job is the best thing going in your employee’s life right now, and he is surprised that outside issues have affected his work. He wants to improve and typically welcomes your interest, your confidence, and your encouragement with difficult personal matters that the job helps him to escape for a few hours per day.
Now, about those other people who work for you but aren’t your employees: the computer guy, the answering service, the office supply company, the accountant. Are they truly helpful to your practice and your lifestyle? Do they have your full confidence? Can you count on them to do what you need them to do? Do they tell you the truth, even when it’s painful?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” you need to fire these nonemployees as well. Find a new marketing company, a new computer technician, a new insurance agent. Even in a small town like mine, there are people competing for business. Separate yourself from being a lawyer long enough to be your own law office manager. Between the yellow pages, the chamber of commerce, and your contacts with other lawyers and professionals, you can get the word out that you are in the market. Do your research and find the right fit. Are you willing to pay more for a computer guy who actually shows up when he says he will? Or do you simply want to keep the bill as low as possible? There is no eHarmony for locating vendors, but it sure helps if you know yourself and know what you’re looking for. Feel free to date around, too, before you commit. No abusive or one-sided relationships should be tolerated, from either side of this equation. Paying someone else to address your issues should be a relief, not a burden or source of conflict.
Finally, speaking of the chamber of commerce, eliminate memberships to voluntary organizations that do not serve your needs. Trade associations, civic clubs, committees, and volunteer groups are all excellent and valuable uses for your resources and efforts—until their expenses or time commitments create an unmanageable burden on your life. Has your chamber involvement resulted in enough legal work to cover the membership fee? Has your volunteer work left you with a sense of doing good or just the stress of conflict? Have you gotten enough value from the bar’s CLEs? Practice saying “no” out loud, then say it loud and clear when you are asked to be on just one more board of directors or committee. Take an inventory of those expenses, both of time and money. Weigh these against the benefits you receive, material or karmic. Then make your decision and follow through on eliminating those distractions that didn’t make the cut.
Perhaps the hardest analysis is self-analysis. Are you the employee that you want to have? Do you contribute to the team? Is your attitude part of the problem with the office environment? If you just can’t stand another day with those miserable people whining at you all the time, and you consider yourself so grossly underpaid and overworked that you regret going to law school, it’s time to fire yourself.
I fire myself regularly, though not as often as I used to. Here’s how the conversation usually goes:
Me-Boss: Frankly, I don’t like your attitude, and your work quality is really going downhill lately!
Me-Employee: What do you expect? You nag me all the time. I never get a day off.
Me-Boss: I pay you. I let you take that time off when your sister was sick. What do you expect?
Me-Employee: You don’t pay crap! I could make more across the street, and without all the headaches.
Me-Boss: You are unreliable! You don’t get your work done! You’re a terrible employee! I can’t stand your being here!
Me-Employee: Screw you! I quit!
Me-Boss: You’re fired! Get the hell out of my office!
A day or so later, I always come crawling back to me, full of apologies and wanting things to go back to the way they were. Really, we can make this work. But how?
Take a scheduled vacation. Your staff and clients can live without you just fine, you will be surprised to know. With advanced warning, all crises either will be managed or postponed until your return. My favorite trick, learned from my CPA brother: Send out your bills the day before you leave. You get to return to a mailbox full of checks! Although you did not, technically, get paid for having fun, it sure seems that way.
Another way to de-stress and change the attitude is to get some exercise. My associate, Chuck, is really dedicated to his lunch-hour workout at the fitness center up the street. I have no such discipline and doubt that you do either. But I have a friend, Sarah, who calls me once a week to walk two miles through the local cemetery. And my husband, Bill, loves to go bike riding on the weekends. So, if I can hit the ski machine or walk the dogs after dinner once or twice a week, I have an exercise program.
Finally, acknowledge that sometimes you are so annoyed with whatever is happening at the office that you feel ready to explode. You’ve seen your toddler when she is just too tired and stressed out to be reasonable. In fact, you may very well have sent her to a “time out.” How often do you call “time out” on yourself? Occasionally, I take the cemetery walk without Sarah, putting on the walking shoes and then announcing that I am out for an hour. One of the few perks of being the boss in the solo/small firm setting is being able to just walk out the door once in a while. Whether it’s 15 minutes for the decompress decaf or three hours for a matinee, sometimes you need to get away. Just knowing that you can step out restores that feeling of calm. You must be grown-up enough to know when it is time to simply leave—before you do or say something rash that causes a big problem later.
Like Kennedy’s space program, we choose to do this job because it is hard. It is rewarding, beneficial to others, and a justification of our existence. But it does not have to be draining, frustrating, and our own demise. Hopefully, addressing these three large areas will help you manage your work environment so that you begin to like your job again. Get excited about what you do! Get fired up!
Mary L. C. Daniel is president of The Daniel Group, Attorneys at Law, P.C., in Winchester, Virginia, where her practice focuses on judgment executions. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.