There are many paths to success as a lawyer. While many young lawyers assume that law-review-to-big-firm-partner is the only viable option, that path is not the norm. In fact, most lawyers in private practice are either solos or in small firms. Nor is Big Law the key to professional satisfaction. According to a 2022 Thomson Reuters poll, 90 percent of small firm lawyers rated their practice as successful. Fewer than 1 percent felt their firm was unsuccessful. While measures of success vary from person to person, an overriding theme should be work satisfaction. You should enjoy your job. After all, it’s probably where you spend most of your time. You aren’t successful if you’re miserable.
I went solo three years out of law school and maintained a successful civil practice until I took the bench 14 years later. During that time, I gleaned a correlation between job satisfaction and client filtering: Satisfaction is largely derived not from the clients you represent but from those you don’t. From this principle, I implemented two rules.
Rule 1. Don’t Take Every Potential Client Who Waves a Dollar Bill under Your Nose
One key benefit of small firm practice is that you can choose your clients. Accept clients more on the quality of their character than that of their claims—or their pocketbooks.
Rule 2. 90 Percent of Your Frustration Comes from 10 Percent of Your Clients
This is an adaptation of the Pareto Principle, which says that 80 percent of consequences come from 20 percent of causes. (Implementing Rule 1 shifts the ratio closer to 90/10.) This principle applies very well to work-related stress.
In small-firm litigation, every client is in distress. They constantly worry about their cases. It’s the last thing they think of at night and the first thing they think of in the morning. But while they each typically have only one case, you may have 100, which spreads you pretty thin. (And as we learned in the last column, you are entitled to take a vacation now and again!) While most clients are understanding, some get angry when their case isn’t prioritized. They call during off-hours, text their every thought, and basically harass you.
Step out of your job for a moment. Would you let someone abuse you for an hour every day for $300? Of course not! You’re not a professional punching bag. No amount of money should be worth enduring that kind of treatment. Abusive clients bring down your overall enthusiasm, negatively affecting your performance for the rest of your clients. And that frustration spills over into your personal life as well. So don’t put up with it.
Skeptical? Put it to the test! Right now, think of your biggest problem client (you know the one). Call them in, hand them their file and the balance of their retainer, wish them the best of luck, and never look back. You won’t regret it.