Reprinted with permission from the American Bar Association GPSolo eReport.
This article is the third of four installments exploring ways to keep the spark of enthusiasm alive in your law practice.
In my first article in this series, I discussed the dissatisfaction that seems to permeate the legal profession, and the stressful nature of, and long hours associated with, the dual responsibilities of practicing law and running a small business. The questions posed at the end of my article were: “If you [knew that you] had six months left to live, or perhaps more practically as a long-term approach, six years to live, would you continue to work just as you are doing right now? Or would you make some changes?” My second article added the following queries: “If changes are needed, what would those changes be? How could the changes be identified and implemented so as to have a lasting and favorable impact?” The article went on to explore various approaches for self-examination, with the goal of identifying three areas for improvement. Here in the third installment of the series, I will offer suggestions for implementing these changes.
In my view, implementing change is where the rubber meets the road. Setting goals, but falling short of achieving those goals, is a common phenomenon. For example, Forbes has reported that only 8 percent of people actually achieve their New Year’s resolutions. What steps can you take to increase your odds?
As a hypothetical example, Bobbie is a 52-year-old woman who has been practicing law since she was 26 years old. Bobbie runs her own law firm with two associates, practicing family law. When Bobbie opened her law firm in 2007 as a 42-year-old attorney exiting a larger firm, she could not have been more excited about her new venture. She could hardly wait to get to work each morning, relishing the autonomy of making her own choices about which clients to take on, how best to approach her cases, and how to implement her brand to best reflect her values. Now, ten years later, Bobbie’s excitement has waned. She feels, at best, neutral about her work and, at worst, tired and bored. Bobbie wants to keep practicing law, but she wants to do it in a way that is more enjoyable and brings back some of that initial sense of fun, pride of ownership, and engagement with her work.
Bobbie spent some time scribbling ideas on a whiteboard, thinking of improvements she could make to help her feel more enthusiastic about her law practice. She also worked with a business coach who helped her identify the source of her discontent. She decided that the following three changes would most improve her outlook in the short term:
- Carving out time in the morning to exercise on a regular basis, like she used to do when she first started her practice and wasn’t so overwhelmed with work. For the last five years Bobbie has been consistently working about 60 hours a week and only occasionally squeezes in a workout on the weekends. Bobbie’s first goal is to increase her fitness, which she believes would improve her outlook and increase her energy level.
- Replacing her administrative assistant, James. Bobbie has worked with James for three years to help him excel in this position. Unfortunately, James continually shows negative behavior toward both her and her firm’s clients, and he doesn’t seem to learn from the mistakes he makes on the job. Bobbie’s second goal is to hire an administrative assistant who is more positive and competent. She seeks to make her workplace more pleasant, and also to eliminate the stress caused by the need to constantly check almost every aspect of the administrative assistant’s work.
- Withdrawing from representation of three of her clients, who continually complain about her work product. These clients call or e-mail her several times each day, often shouting on the telephone or labeling their e-mails as highly important, but then complain when the time she spends responding to them is charged on their monthly invoices. Bobbie’s third goal is to create space to work with more pleasant and appreciative clients and to implement better intake procedures going forward so as to avoid retaining demanding and unappreciative clients.
After identifying these three goals, Bobbie worked with her business coach to develop a plan to systematically address each goal. Note that she chose to take on only three goals at a time, so she wouldn’t bite off more than she can chew. Six months of work, focus, and commitment later, Bobbie achieved the following results:
- Goal 1: Bobbie now has a regular commitment to exercising three mornings per week before she arrives at her office, plus an extra workout on the weekends. She determined the best schedule and continually inputs her workouts into her calendar three months in advance to avoid scheduling conflicts to the extent possible. In addition, Bobbie hired a personal trainer and meets with him every Wednesday at 6:30 am. Both her personal trainer and her business coach hold Bobbie accountable for meeting her fitness goals on an ongoing basis. Bobbie has lost eight pounds, feels more positive and energetic, and is also noticing, to her delight, that she sleeps better at night and doesn’t seem to need that second glass of wine to relax.
- Goal 2: Bobbie consulted with an employment law attorney and developed a plan for the best approach in terminating James’ employment and hiring his replacement. This meeting allowed her to feel confident that she was proceeding in a well-reasoned manner. Although the termination meeting with James became unpleasant, Bobbie followed the plan to the letter and felt relieved when James emptied his desk and left the premises. Bobbie had worked with her business coach to find a qualified temporary worker, who arrived on scene within an hour after James’ departure. The temp performed high-quality work, correcting many of the errors made by James, and gave Bobbie the time needed to work through a well-thought-out hiring process, again with the assistance of the employment law attorney and her business coach. Two months after terminating James, Bobbie hired a new administrative assistant, Judy, who is experienced, pleasant, and professional. Judy seems happy about her new position, arrives early each morning, and consistently greets Bobbie and the firm’s clients with a smile and a cheery “hello.” Bobbie has noticed that, even though her morning workouts take a bit of time away from her normal workday, she seems to have easily recovered that time because she doesn’t need to continually follow up with Judy and correct her work.
- Goal 3: Concerned about the ethical implications of withdrawing from two of her three toxic client files, Bobbie discussed the situations with the professional responsibility counsel of her state bar. Based on that discussion, she developed a sound strategy to withdraw from the cases while fully complying with the Rules of Professional Conduct. One of the clients, as Bobbie feared, filed a bar complaint against her. Fortunately, because Bobbie had approached the withdrawals in an ethical and legally permissible way, the bar complaint was quickly dismissed. All three terminated clients refused to pay their final bills. Bobbie is now working with her business coach to develop a better intake system so that she can avoid representing clients of this nature in the future. By representing nice, responsive, and grateful clients, Bobbie finds that her enthusiasm for her practice and her passion for assisting her clients has dramatically improved.
Next up? Bobbie went back to the drawing board and found three more goals that she would like to tackle: (1) doing more pro bono work; (2) developing a plan to take a sabbatical; and (3) reducing the firm’s overhead by 10 percent so she can reduce her billable goals without seeing a loss in her net income. Similar to her approach to achieving her initial three goals, Bobbie plans to work with various professionals including her business coach, a travel advisor, and her accountant in order to garner the support and accountability needed to produce successful outcomes.
What are the first three steps you can take to ignite your passion for your law practice? And how can you implement those steps?