As this issue of GPSolo magazine focuses on building your practice, my first idea for this column was to talk about building your practice as a Road Warrior. In thinking about it, I realized I was looking at the concept from the wrong perspective. Working as a Road Warrior represents a way of doing your job as an attorney, not a type of legal practice, such as family law, real estate law, employment law, or personal injury law. In reality, mobility functions in the practice setting as a way to facilitate the practice of all those types of law (and pretty much all types of law). Accordingly, you would not try to get clients based on the fact that you can work on the road, so much as you would try to develop clients as a result of the fact that you can and do practice on the road, allowing you to serve these clients better and more quickly than if you only worked in an office and did nothing when you were traveling, whether for business or pleasure.
The correct perspective, then, evolves into using your mobility to enhance the services you can deliver so as to build your reputation as a family law attorney, personal injury attorney, etc. Properly used, mobility makes you a better and more efficient lawyer, which should enhance your ability to draw and keep clients. In other words, mobility can help you develop your practice in whatever areas you work.
When I started practicing law, we did not have cell phones. There were some mobile phones that consisted of a radio station taking up the trunk of a car, but not too many lawyers had them, and they had limited value as you had no privacy. We had no e-mail and no fax machines yet. If you wandered out of the office and needed to communicate, you needed to find a pay phone or borrow someone else’s landline.
I had one of the earliest true mobile phones, and it taught me a valuable lesson. I had it with me while I was on vacation with my family. We were in Chicago, and I took my kids to a White Sox game at the old Comiskey Park. I had the mobile phone with me. As was my practice throughout my career, I checked in with my office while we were walking away from the stadium after the game. I learned that one of my best clients had left a message for me, so I returned it on my mobile phone. He was surprised as my office had told him I was on vacation, and they would let me know he called when I called in. He was surprised that I called him back so quickly. I explained that I was returning his call on my new mobile phone. He was even more surprised by that, but he let me know how much he appreciated that I took time out of my vacation to call him. There were no pay phones around where we were, so, without the mobile phone, it would have been quite a while before I could have called him back without the mobile phone.
He remained impressed that I had done this and commented about it several times. In the years that followed, his companies gave our firm more and more work to do. He continued to be impressed by the fact that I could service his legal needs from in and out of my office and that I took the time to do so, whether I traveled for business or personal reasons. That I could work as a mobile attorney induced this client (and many others) to provide more work to our office, even though (or perhaps because) we were a small office. The clients got my personal attention and felt comfortable that we would take care of their needs, even if I traveled out of the office for business or pleasure.
Other clients had similar reactions over the years, and we represented several very substantial clients that we might not have had but for the fact that I could practice as I did. From my perspective, the fact that I could and did work as a mobile lawyer enhanced my value and my firm’s perceived value to the clients. This helped build and sustain our practice over the years. As we did little in the way of promotional work or advertising, most of our new clients came by referral from existing clients or other attorneys. Undoubtedly, that I practiced as I did, becoming increasingly more mobile and efficient as technology evolved, continued to feed the clients’ perception of our work and value, helping us retain existing clients and causing existing clients to refer new clients to us.
As technology evolved, my ability to function outside the office increased dramatically, ultimately to the point that I could work just as efficiently out of the office as I could in it. As a result, I could continue to keep my clients happy while traveling hither and yon for personal reasons, business reasons, and in connection with volunteer work I did for a variety of charitable and sports associations. I continued doing this for many years. Ultimately, as I approached retirement age, I chose to close my office and work out of my house in what I call semi-retirement. In my semi-retirement, I continue to work part-time, servicing a select group of clients. As I travel even more now, I take care of an increasing amount of my clients’ needs from home and on the road with essentially equal facility, having learned that my clients do not give the hindquarters of a rat whether I do their work in a dedicated brick-and-mortar office, at home, somewhere else in the United States, or somewhere else in the world. They only care that it gets done well and timely. Similarly, they do not care what time I do it, as long as they get it when they need it and I do it well. Interestingly, in semi-retirement, I have become even more a Road Warrior than when I practiced full-time.
Communication with my clients about their needs, my work, corrections, etc., easily takes place by e-mail or by phone calls, although I may call my clients in their afternoon but my evening, after returning from a show in London’s West End. The same holds for my communications with other attorneys.
One of the important lessons to learn about technology remains that it represents a double-edged sword. From my clients’ perspective, the fact that I have made myself pretty much always available and able to handle their work no matter what else is going on has proven a positive thing throughout my career and has undoubtedly helped me build my practice and keep my firm in business over the years. The flip side of this, of course, is that in the lifestyle I chose, I rarely get away from the practice of law. This has not proven a significant problem for me, as (1) I have truly enjoyed working as a lawyer all these years; and (2) it has enabled me to have the freedom to live the kind of life I want and do the things I want while maintaining a successful and busy law practice. I consider the trade-off appropriate and worthwhile.
I never had a problem working an hour or two a day during my vacations, usually late at night when everyone else slept. Fortunately, I did not need as much sleep as most people, so it proved no problem. Sometimes I would work early in the morning when everyone was getting ready for breakfast. Bottom line: Where one has a will, one finds a way, and I always found the time to make it work for me and my clients.
Some of you may not relish the practice as much as I do. Some of you may not enjoy or desire travel as much as I do. For you, the trade-off may not work as well—perhaps not at all. While anyone can work as a mobile lawyer, not everyone should. How much you choose to avail yourself of the tools of mobility has to be a personal choice for each attorney to make. Just remember that it may make a difference to a client that you make yourself available, and that not making yourself available might cost you business. This remains the constant trade-off.
As much as I enjoy practicing law, I have found that there are times I do not want to interact with certain (or sometimes any) clients while on vacation or even on a business trip. This has not proven too difficult; I simply don’t answer the phone for a while or do not respond immediately to e-mail. My voice mail tells my clients I am busy with something else and will get back to them. I always do and almost always within a day (either by phone or e-mail). This practice has occasionally prompted a client to ask what took me so long; but I do not believe it has cost me any work, and it allows me to take a break (at least a short one) when I need to, which for me has proven sufficient to prevent burnout and keep me refreshed.