I’ve been at least able to keep some ramen in my cupboards. I’m lucky: I never had to really slide down the slope by myself. I had friends and family willing to feed me, some who even helped with the rent periodically. I lived in my parents’ basement. Occasionally, my clients would pay. For this economic downturn, I’m extraordinarily lucky that I have an employed life partner. While it’s financially helpful, the psychological toll doesn’t change. In fact a partner can be difficult, especially when he or she wants to know when your clients will start paying.
Frankly, the Great Recession has a different feel. This is a time and a profession that require a lot of grit, sangfroid, and determination. This time, you’re on your own. Or at least it feels that way.
But you don’t have to be. Here are my top five ways to ride out the Great Recession and still practice law:
- Determine why you became a lawyer. For me, this is a daily practice. Did you want to practice law, defer student loans, or avoid working at Walmart? Look at yourself in the mirror and figure that out. You must love what you do or you might as well be working at a box store.
- Stop whatever you’re doing and have a business retreat. Don’t quibble. I thought “where will you be in five years” was the stupidest question a partner could ever ask. Now I wish I understood the business better. I left my last firm in 2009 with 20 years of practice but no better idea about how to run a business than when I graduated. Decide how you are going to get by for the next five years. At the very least, start with improving your LinkedIn profile. People do look at it.
- Find a mentor or hire one. Find someone who has had to do what you’re doing: building a business at a time when no one thinks they need your product. Hire one if necessary. It’s a necessary expense.
- Awaken your inner entrepreneur. There are books on this. I watched my dad do it and survive. It’s scary, but it’s a must.
- Have residual income. Dad owned real estate. At times, he owned a lot of it. But he also was an insurance underwriter, adjunct faculty at two community colleges, and a farmer. I’ve waited tables and taught school while maintaining my practice. Because you’ve followed step two, you have a plan for residual income and you can execute it.
Bonus tip: Have a network. Your network should be diverse both in age and profession. Don’t look at you network exclusively as a source of potential clients. These are people who will support you, be your sounding board, and care about you (and for you) when you get depressed. And you will get depressed, or at least suffer from general anxiety disorder. My network includes a woman who managed male strippers, a country judge, a tree farmer’s wife, a dairy farmer, entrepreneurs, nuclear engineers, and even some lawyers. Join an ABA listserve. SoloSez (www.solosez.org) is a great place to start. It’s there, it’s free, and the advice is the best you can get.
Riding out a downturn is never very easy. Give yourself a break. You aren’t on your own—we’re all in this, too.