Now and again, all attorneys have a defining moment that alters their practice of law. Sometimes for the good, sometimes for the bad, but regardless, after that moment things change. I personally had such a defining moment approximately 15 years ago, and it radically changed my law practice for the good. The attorney who brought about my revelations outlined below does not even remember the conversation, but sometimes that is how defining moments work.
I have primarily a real estate practice and was at a continuing legal education seminar. I was so busy I had planned on only staying for the first half of the seminar and then jetting back to my office, where I would return the dozens of phone messages that had probably come in or work on pleadings that were fast coming due. I anticipated working until late that evening. Again. I would not have been at the seminar at all except that I had put off getting my necessary CLE credit hours until the last minute. Though I recognized that I was burning out in my law practice, I did not know what to do about it. I knew I enjoyed the practice of law, but the time demands and the lifestyle I was leading were wearing me down.
During a break I ran into an attorney named Joel Gordon. Joel is an excellent land use and real estate attorney practicing law in Seattle. He was in good spirits and seemed remarkably calm. I thought if I was obscenely busy, surely Joel must have my situation multiplied several times over. After attempting to engage in a mutual “ain’t it horrible” discussion with Joel, he let me know that his practice was, in fact, under control. He had heard about something called “the sine wave law practice theorem,” and after adopting it he has happy with his practice. Let me share with you what Joel told me in the hopes that maybe this article will have a similar positive impact on you.
As Joel explained, first picture a sine wave. For those of you who have shunned all math books since the third grade, imagine a graph with a horizontal line in the middle of the picture. The sine wave is a wave that fluctuates so that half the time the wave is below the line and half the time it is above. (See the illustration below.)
As concerns a law practice, the horizontal line defines the perfect volume of business—the level at which you are busy enough to keep interested and profitable, but not so busy that you are feeling desperate or stressed. According to the sine wave theory, sometimes your caseload should be below the line and sometimes it should be above the line, so that the average is a well-balanced law practice. Unfortunately, what almost every lawyer does is shift the line so that the bottom of the sine wave is as busy as the lawyer wants to be and the rest of the sine wave is always above the optimum line. As Joel explained, most lawyers have a terrible fear of not being busy enough. The solution to a law practice that is too busy—and too stressful—is easy: Take on less work. The hard part is mustering the courage to do it.
Ultimately, I think you become a better lawyer for having a more balanced life and being able to take time with a project rather than doing everything in a furious rush. So here are my suggestions on how to get there.
1. Fire the clients you do not like. This was the first step that I took in getting my caseload under control. All lawyers have at least one client or one file that they absolutely loathe. You know the one. When your receptionist tells you that this client is on line 1, you consider running away rather than having to pick up the phone. So I put together a list of these clients, called them all, and withdrew from representation. I never did this when it would jeopardize a client or in the middle of any kind of litigation, but when things were calm, I let the clients know that I did not want to do any further legal work for them. I cannot tell you how much fun that process was, making me wish I had done it years before. To ensure no ethical conflicts, I worked with our local bar association counsel to come up with a set of ethical guidelines for how, and under what circumstance, to let clients go. With most of these calls, the client would respond, “You can’t do that”; I received an unseemly amount of satisfaction when replying, “Well, in fact, I can.”
2. Fire the clients that are not paying you. There are some circumstances where you will work for a client and not get paid or not get paid promptly. These situations often involve pro bono cases in which there is motivation to represent the client for personal reason. I am not suggesting firing these clients. But otherwise, if you are not getting paid, it really makes no sense to continue representing a case only to increase your accounts receivable. You are stealing time that could be spent on enjoyable recreational pursuits, or on improving your office efficiency or administration, or on the cases of clients who actually pay you—all for the privilege of working for someone who is not going to give you a dime. In addition, you have the stress that goes with whatever that case may be and the exposure to any claims should something go wrong. The bottom line: There is no advantage in working for non-paying clients. Fire them.
3. Specialize in an area of practice you enjoy. You will find your practice more much pleasant if you focus on matters you actually find interesting. Almost as important, the process of weeding out cases or clients that are outside your area of specialization will keep your practice more manageable. If my area of practice is real estate and someone calls regarding a domestic relations issue, I am not going to take that case. Specializing also makes you a better lawyer—it is much easier to stay current and effective when focusing on a limited area of law.
4. Have the courage not to be too busy. Even with the tips above, which will give you short-term relief, you will be surprised how your practice grows. Much to my surprise, I found that by becoming a more exclusive lawyer, I had become a more desirable lawyer. Nor had I counted on becoming so much more effective in my area of practice; by specializing, I was now more accessible to clients, and as I accomplished my work more efficiently, my turnaround time improved. So even if you follow the tips above, you will find yourself getting too busy all over again unless you are careful.
As soon as you find yourself at your optimum practice level, stop taking new clients. One way I accomplish this is with our voice mail system: I always end my recorded message with the phrase, “I am not taking new clients at this time.” That screens most of my incoming phone calls. My paralegal plays a role, too. She knows that I am not taking new matters, so if someone calls, she refers them out. I am now so used to this process that I’ve become comfortable doing it myself; when a new client calls or reaches me directly on the telephone, it is second nature to refer them to one of my many local colleagues who can handle such cases. Both sides are happy: the clients because they have been referred to a good lawyer, and my colleagues because they welcome the referrals.
When you first stop taking new clients, you will find it extremely painful to turn away a matter that is within your area of specialty—especially when it is a lucrative assignment that you would have enjoyed handling—but you have got to do it. When in doubt, just remember the stress levels you had experienced before launching this program. Personally, I keep a picture of my wife and daughter on my desk at all times to remind me that although I might be interested in doing a particular real estate transaction for a new client, on balance I would rather spend my time with them.