In the Media
RICHARD HANSEN, Attorney
Volume XVI, Issue IV
by Richard Hansen
Wanted! Motivated people to earn $10,000 a month or more in their spare time
Annoying solicitations like this fill your email with Spam every day. They offer false promises for a better life with more time at home, working for yourself, being in control of your life with higher income, lower mortgage rates, instant credit, maybe the woman (or stud) of your dreams. You may be tempted to open those seductive emails and read further, but you are afraid of unleashing some deadly virus to wreak havoc on your hard drive. So you hit the delete button and go back to dictating legal memos.
But is it really too good to be true? Didn't you go to law school with the expectation of good income, job satisfaction, and some modicum of control over your destiny? You are a lawyer, after all an attorney-at-law with a Juris Doctorate! And if you are successful, then you probably do earn ten grand a month, or more.
So why are you so grumpy about your law practice? Why the Prozac and midlife crisis?
The fact is, lawyers have one of the highest levels of dissatisfaction of any profession. According to a 1995 survey by the ABA's Young Lawyers Division, nearly two-thirds of us are seriously contemplating a job change because of concerns about quality of life, lack of professionalism, lack of job satisfaction and meaningful work. No wonder, you say, after the misery of three years of mind-numbing indoctrination at some law school Gulag. If you made Law Review or Order of the Coif, you were hired on as a litigator (rhymes with alligator) at one of the Big Firms, a position that promised partnership status. But you quickly discovered that 'litigator' at that big firm does not equate with Clarence Darrow or Johnny Cochran. It is a euphemism for a glorified paralegal and you have to spend 10 or 12 billable hours a day including weekends if you want to make partner sifting through the moldering archives of corporate business records and drafting endless pages of interrogatories and requests for production. So you expend all your vitality in a windowless cubicle deep in the bowels of The Firm to earn the right to an office with a window in recognition of your first ulcer or divorce.
Or maybe you never crawled into that cubicle, opting instead from the get-go for a solo practice to fulfill your dream representing the victims of corporate greed, injustice and discrimination. You took out a line of credit and outfitted your office with used metal desks, Naugahyde and Formica. Then you waited patiently for some paraplegic from a tire blow-out rollover to wheel himself into your office and sign a one-third contingent fee agreement or maybe 40 percent since the Goliath you hoped to slay would require a lot of rocks for your sling. A case like that would ensure your financial future and save your soul, right?
But all you got were whiplash cases, slip-and-falls from Wal-Mart, and malingering hypochondriacs in the clutches of accommodating chiropractors. Your line of credit ran out so you started taking DUI's and divorces, representing drunks, harpies and abusive husbands who vowed to fight to the death without regard to the cost, or their ability to pay.
It doesn't have to be that way. We do have the ability to be self-employed, in control of our lives, and make a decent living performing a meaningful service for people in crisis. So how do you get there from here? I offer a few observations and suggestions from my own experience.
Reevaluate Your Priorities
Push back from your desk and try to recall why you decided to become a lawyer in the first place. If the simple answer is 'money,' then stop reading here and get back to that cubicle where those mounds of moldering documents are waiting to stifle your creativity and crush your soul.
But if you were motivated by the belief that ours is a noble and fulfilling profession, then reread a book that inspired you to go to law school, like To Kill a Mocking Bird, or maybe watch reruns of "Twelve Angry Men" or even "My Cousin Vinny." Remember that Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, and nearly half the signers of The Declaration of Independence were lawyers. So rediscover your integrity and take a fresh look at what you should be doing with your life.
You Are What You Litigate
Who are your clients? What are their causes? Insurance companies don't give their lawyers spontaneous hugs or burst into tears of joy when you return a defense verdict against that paraplegic trying to prove that his rollover was caused by a defective tire. Wouldn't you feel better representing the guy in the wheelchair? Is it worth selling your soul for the wrong cause or a bigger paycheck? We can all affect real peoples' lives as they struggle through the crisis of a bankruptcy, a wrongful discharge, criminal prosecution, eviction, battle over custody of their children or seek compensation for a serious injury.
Time Is More Than Money
What is the value of money if you hate your life? The law does not have to be the jealous mistress they told you about in law school and success need not equate with misery and self-denial.
You should never turn down a good case, and always be willing to put in the long hours and weekends when necessary. But what do you do when your practice slows down? You probably take some dog of a case to bridge the gap instead of taking time off, coming in later or going home early. Then you are stuck with a client you can't stand and he probably stiffs you on your fee in the end anyway.
So if there is a lull in your practice take some time off, get re-acquainted with your wife and kids and go have some fun instead of sitting at your desk fretting. Rediscover your passions outside of work and make the time to pursue them. Your bank account may grow at a slower rate, but your spirit and self-esteem will soar.
Telecommuting, Flextime and Laptops
It takes some serious deprogramming to get to the point where we can enjoy ourselves without feeling guilty. My family has a cabin in the Methow Valley in eastern Washington State. I spend between one and three months there each year, skiing, fishing, hiking, reading, playing hockey and ice skating, or just plain relaxing. And I am not independently wealthy.
Best of all, I can walk out the door and take my fly rod down the to banks of the Chewuck River when I need a break to refresh my soul.
Find a Good Partner and Hire Good Staff
Dump that jealous mistress and replace her with a partner and staff who share your values. They will mind the shop while you are off having a life and give you the piece of mind that allows you to leave the office occasionally, knowing that existing clients will be cared for and new cases shepherded through the door.
Sharing a commitment to a well-balanced life is a far stronger bond than any partnership agreement. My partner and I have been neighbors and friends 25 years and our office manager has been with us 15 years. We split the profits 50-50 every year despite the inevitable differences in the fees we generate because quibbling over money is the surest way to end a marriage, a law practice, or a friendship.
We work the first four months of the year for Uncle Sam, but consider how many months longer you have to work to pay your share of the office overhead before the first dollars begin to trickle into your personal bank account. Taxes are certain (and so is death don't forget that when you defer the enjoyment of life). But we have some control over overhead, and keeping it down translates into more time doing what you enjoy.
So consider scaling back. If you hire a large staff of paralegals and associates, rent more space than you need, or outfit the waiting room with expensive art and furniture, your overhead becomes a ball and chain that holds you prisoner. (That jealous mistress has expensive taste.)
Most lawyers take home 40 percent to 50 percent of the fees they generate, but you can raise that percentage to two-thirds or more. Solo practitioners can sublet from those firms burdened with too much space and get a bargain rate that includes reception, a library, phones, conference rooms and all those other amenities that are killing your landlord's profit.
Shed Those Emperor's Clothes
The hardest issue for me is the metamorphosis from trial lawyer to dad, spouse and human being at the end of a day filled with crisis and catastrophe. I take my work as a criminal defense lawyer very seriously. The freedom of my clients is priceless, and sometimes their lives are even at stake. But we have to be able to shed our "law suits" when we cross the threshold at home after work.
We will be more effective as lawyers and as people if we are content with ourselves. We have to remind ourselves there is more to our identities than that Juris Doctorate framed on the wall, there are worthy pursuits outside a courtroom, and more meaningful relationships than any jealous mistress can offer.
This article originally appeared on lexisONE (www.lexisone.com) "the resource for small law firms." lexisONE is a division of LexisNexis.
Richard Hansen is a former public defender who practices criminal defense in a four-lawyer firm in Seattle, Washington. He was voted one of the 20 best trial lawyers in Washington in a 1991 poll of state and federal judges, and he is listed in The Best Lawyers in America.
© 2007-2011 Allen, Hansen & Maybrown P.S.