Friday, January 09, 2009

Lawyers: Beware of taking business on slow days

Every solo practitioner has had many dark moments. Moments when you realize that the phone hasn't rung except for sales calls, bill collectors, or reminders by your spouse to pick something up at the grocery on the way home.

We shudder in the silence of our empty offices. We stare mournfully at the phone. We practically assault the letter carrier when s/he arrives. Is there a check today? And all the while we think, will there ever be a check again?

In a firm, the workload is more spread out. And there are people with whom you can discuss your fears. Maybe. Maybe they can reassure you that you're fine, the work will be picking up momentarily. They might even ask you to help out on something they're doing. (Of course, they may also stab you in the back at the next partnership meeting... because you're so unproductive... but that's another story.) At the really big firms, when things are slow for a particular lawyer, there are always committee meetings. If you're senior enough, you can schedule these meetings according to your whim, thereby lessening the productivity of your rivals while still apparently doing something productive.

But I digress. This happens, sometimes, when you sit alone in an office. Waiting for the phone to ring. Checking it once an hour to see if it still has a dial tone.

Now... here is the paradox. The phone at long last rings. It is a prospective new client. Shouldn't there be joy unbounded?

Well, no.

The worst cases I have ever taken on -- the ones that have given me the most heartburn -- the ones on which I was most likely to get stiffed -- have come in on "slow days."

Today is not a slow day for me. On my desk are three hideously tangled pieces of litigation. None of them concerns a significant amount of money. They are cases of principle.

"Principle" is a legal term meaning that no matter how good a result you achieve for your client, he or she will still be outraged by your bill, especially since everyone should have immediately seen the obvious justice of your client's position in the first place. And heaven help you if you don't win. These cases generate a lot of fees for a lot of lawyers and most of the lawyer jokes you've ever heard. Or told.

I have different tasks in each one of these canine cases. But I didn't start any of them. I don't know two of the three lawyers, all solo practitioners, who are responsible for these abominations. (There are something like 50,000 lawyers in Cook County, so I make no apologies for this.) But I do know the third one. Because of my assigned role in that particular matter, I may never have the opportunity to talk to him about the case. But if I did, and if I asked, I wonder if he'd tell me that he picked up this business on a really slow day.

I'm pretty sure I know what his answer would be.


Empress Bee (of the high sea) said...

wishing you prosperity in the new year curmy. and no "clunker" clients either...

smiles, bee

Jean-Luc Picard said...

It's on the busy days the phone seems to go more!

Steve Skinner said...

When I worked at Forestry, it was the seemly quiet days that scared me because you knew that the other shoe was about to fall.

Shelby said...

this was funny. but real. 50 thousand?!

Patti said...

I hope you have a great 2009, Curmy, and like Bee said, no clunker clients.

landgirl said...

Quiet days up here are called a day between weather because we can be sure that something unpleasant has dumped on us and is just lurking around the corner.

When I worked as a freelance tech writer, I accepted it as a given that no one ever called for a freelancer unless the project was already late and mucked up by previous attempts. If you're not getting paid as well as you should, or appreciated as much as you should be, or even gaining valuable experience to sell to another better paying client, perhaps you can console yourself that you are building character.

Sometimes it is all we can count on.