The three stages of a law career

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The way I see it there are three stages to a law career. Some lawyers go through all three stages. Some stay in one stage their entire career.

Stage one is where you love the work you’re doing or the challenge of learning and getting good at something new. Many new lawyers start out in stage one. Some skip over it right into stage two.

If you’re in stage one and you love what you do, congratulations. I wish you a long and happy career.

Stage two is where the work itself is no longer gratifying or challenging, or never was. You do the work because you have to but any joy or fulfillment you feel comes not from the work itself but from what your work allows you do.

You’re happy because your work allows you to get results for your clients, build a successful practice, or make the world a better place.

If you’re in stage two and the work no longer fulfills you, you might take on a new practice area or target a new type of client or market. You might look into teaching CLE classes or writing a book. You might find a charity or cause you care about and through it find new challenges and new ways to use your skills and training.

Stage three is where you don’t enjoy the work and the joy you feel from helping people or from personal success isn’t enough to make up for that, “Is that all there is” feeling that weighs on you.

If you’re in stage three and it’s just not working for you anymore (or it never did), you should probably do something else.

That doesn’t mean you have to leave the law. At least not right away. You can hire people and let them run the day-to-day of your practice while you explore and go find your plan b.

Of course, you may not fit squarely into any one of these stages. You may love some parts of your work and detest others. You may have good days, bad days, and days you feel like running away.

Those darn gray areas. They make your life complicated, don’t they? Hey, nobody said being a lawyer was easy.

You really can earn more and work less

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Do less

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You’re smart. Good at your job. Successful. But you want to be more successful so you do what most people do, you look for ways to do more.

More clients. More projects. More work.

To fit it all in, you look for ways to work faster and get bigger results.

You get busier and busier. You have less time and more stress. You’re frustrated because you’re doing more but not achieving more.

You’ve reached a point of diminishing returns.

It’s time for a different approach.

Instead of doing more, do less.

Take things off your calendar and to-do list. Start fewer projects. Make fewer commitments. Have fewer conversations.

Make room for what’s important and what you do especially well.

You’ll have more time to do more important things and more time to build on your strengths. You’ll have more energy, less stress, and fewer distractions. You’ll make fewer mistakes, waste fewer hours, and make better decisions.

You’ll build stronger relationships with key people. You’ll complete projects that take you to higher levels.

You’ll achieve more by doing less.

Get busy doing less.

Work smarter. Leverage your professional relationships to get more referrals

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It’s not just the money

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You’re looking at two possible new clients. Client A doesn’t have a lot of work for you but you like him and the work. You think his business will grow and that this will lead to more work for you down the road.

Client B has lots of work for you right now. The work is dry and unfulfilling. Plus, the client is an asshat and you’re convinced he’ll be a thorn in your side.

You want the money offered by Client B but if you take him, you won’t have time for Client A. How do you decide what to do?

You consider all of the factors, weigh the pros and cons, and seek advice from people you respect. Then, you get very still and listen to what your gut tells you.

Because your gut is nearly always right.

There I go again, advising big-brained, logic-oriented professionals to get all woo-woo with their feelings. But in the end, that’s what we all must do when we’re faced with a dilemma or we have a big decision to make.

When logic told me not to lease a much bigger office because I didn’t have the income to justify it, I went with my heart, not my head, and in a few months, I was earning enough to not only handle the rent but to hire more staff to fill the new office.

The same thing happened when I switched from a general practice to a specialty practice and turned away business that didn’t fit. I was scared to death, but within a few months, I had plenty of business.

Even when I made mistakes and had to change direction, things eventually worked out, often better than the original plan would have provided.

I once closed my office to pursue a business venture but the business failed. Two years later, I re-opened my law practice and started over from scratch. It was incredibly difficult but it eventually led me to start two new businesses which helped me earn more than I ever did in my practice.

I can point to other situations where logic said “no” but my gut said “go for it” and everything worked out. If you think about your past, I’m sure you can do the same.

I’m not suggesting you ignore reality or dispense with logic. Consider your current situation, your responsibilities, your strengths, and all of the possible outcomes. Consider them, but don’t depend on them. Ask your gut what it has to say. You might be very glad you did.

How to make sure your clients know how to refer

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What are you willing to do to be successful?

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You want to build a successful law practice. You want to make money, help people, and do things that matter. The question is, how bad do you want it?

Are you going through the motions in your work, waiting to see how things turn out? That’s not much, is it?

Are you working as hard as you can, doing your absolute best to achieve the success you desire? That’s good, but what if your “best” isn’t good enough?

Or, are you “all in,” willing to do “whatever it takes” (legally, ethically) to reach the summit? That’s what some lawyers are willing to do. Are you?

Your knowledge, experience, talent, and effort are important. So is a burning desire. But, as Vince Lombardi said, “Most people fail, not because of lack of desire, but because of lack of commitment.”

Are you committed? Are willing to do whatever it takes? If not, why not, and is there another career path that might be better for you?

A successful practice requires successful marketing plan

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Is hard work truly the key to success?

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All our lives we’ve been told that hard work is the key to success. And so all of our lives we’ve worked hard or felt guilty if we didn’t. But is hard work truly the key to success?

What about people who work hard and struggle all their lives? What about people who make it big without breaking a sweat?

It’s true that most successful people appear to work hard. They usually work long hours. They usually take on big challenges. They usually do things others see as difficult and stressful.

But are they really working hard?

If you ask them, I believe most successful people would tell you they love what they do and they don’t consider it hard work at all. They work long hours because they can’t think of anything they’d rather be doing.

When it’s fun, can it really be called hard work? Can it even be called work?

“When you do what you love, and love what you do,” it is said, “you’ll never work a day in your life.”

If you don’t love your work, change it. You don’t have to suffer your way to success. (I’m not even sure that’s possible.)

Get a new job or start a new career. Or give yourself permission to move in that direction. In the meantime, look for ways to make your current work more pleasant by focusing on aspects of it that you do enjoy.

If nothing more, see your work as a means to an end, that is, a way to pay your bills on the road to what’s next.

That’s what I did with my law practice. There were many things I didn’t like about it, which is why I decided to start a new career. But I didn’t dwell on what I didn’t like, I focused on the good things my practice gave me: skills, knowledge, experience, contacts, ideas, and most of all, time to start the next phase of my life.

Life is too short to do things you don’t enjoy. Life is supposed to be fun.

As you plan this year and beyond, make sure you’re planning to do something you love. Even if you don’t achieve the financial trappings of success, you’ll be happy. And that’s the real measure of success.

Get more clients and increase your income. Here’s how

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I’d rather be eating pizza and binge-watching Netflix

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I was out for a morning walk and saw a car with a license plate frame that read, “I’d rather be riding horses”. I thought about the work I had waiting for me at home and it made me think about what I’d rather be doing.

I like my work, but I don’t want to do it 12 hours a day. I don’t live to work. Never have. I’ve always had other things that were important to me and I always made time to do them.

How about you? What would your license plate frame say? What would you rather be doing right now? Not just at this moment but in your work this year and for the rest of your life?

You may be one of the lucky ones who love what you do and can’t imagine doing anything else. Or you might be like many people, reasonably content with your work because you’re good at it and it provides you with a good living but in your heart of hearts, you’d rather be doing something else.

Imagine that you had money out of the way and that you never had to work again. Would you suit up every day and head down to the office or would you put on your sandals and head to the beach?

If you’d rather be doing something else, it’s okay to admit that to yourself. That doesn’t mean you’ll drop everything and start over. But you might start thinking about the next phase in your life and take some steps to prepare for it.

The other day I thought about someone I went to law school with but hadn’t spoken to in over 30 years. I wondered what he was up to these days and searched for him online. Was he still practicing? Was he still doing family law? Was he retired? In another line of work?

I couldn’t find his website, nor any links on social media. I couldn’t find anything about him, which I thought was weird. But I knew him before “the Internet” and shrugged it off, thinking he was just another dinosaur who had refused to evolve.

“Surely he has an email address,” I thought and went to the California bar website to find it. That’s when I learned that my old friend was deceased.

He was my age and now he’s gone. Had he had a successful career, I wondered. A happy life? Did he always love his work? Or would he rather have been riding horses?

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What would you do if you knew you could not fail?

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One of my favorite quotes is from the late Dr. Robert Schuller, who, in his books and in his sermons often asked, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”

Asking yourself this question forces you to think about what you really want instead of what you think you’re supposed to do. It helps you to bypass your doubts and fears and speak the truth. It asks you to temporarily suspend your logical left brain and listen to your creative right side.

When I’ve mentioned this quote in the past, it has always been in the context of the big picture. Major career changes, for example.

If you asked me this question about my work right now, my answer would be completely illogical. It’s something creative, something I’ve never done before and, as far as I know, something I have no innate talent for. But if I knew I could not fail, it’s exactly what I would do.

Unfortunately, I know I could fail. So I’m not going to do it. Not now, anyway. I’ve got too much other stuff on my plate. They say, “trust your gut,” for a reason, and right now, my gut is telling me to wait.

Odd, isn’t it? My gut is telling me what to do if I knew I would not fail and also telling me to wait? I think God likes to mess with us.

Anyway, this morning, I was thinking about this question and I realized that we can also use it to make smaller decisions.

If you are scheduled to deliver a presentation, for example, and you’re not sure which topic to choose, asking the “cannot fail” question might guide you towards choosing the ideal, albeit not obvious (or logical) choice.

When I say ideal, I don’t just mean something you would prefer to do but are allowing other factors to stop you. I mean ideal in the sense that it might lead to superlative results.

One topic might get mild applause. Another topic, the one you would choose if you knew you could not fail, might attract someone in the audience who is so affected by your presentation that they invite you to deliver it again to a bigger and more influential group.

What if you’re wrong? Yes, that might happen. But what if you’re right?

How to get more referrals from other professionals: go here

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Your clients think you’re getting rich at their expense

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Your clients have no idea how expensive it is to run a law practice. Is it any wonder that some clients shake their heads at $400 an hour? Can you understand why a $10,000 retainer might be incomprehensible to someone who earns $40,000 a year?

How do we get clients to understand that we’re not getting rich at their expense?

Should you tell your clients how much you actually earn? No. It’s none of their business.

Besides, you want your clients to think that you earn a very good living.  Nobody wants to hire a lawyer who is struggling to pay their rent.

But perhaps you could help your clients to understand that running a law practice is expensive, and that what you bill out in no way approximates what you take home.

One way to do that would be to take new clients on a tour of your office. Show them how many desks and chairs there are. Show them your conference room and library. Point out the computers and copy machines and other equipment. Introduce the people who work for you and describe their function.

You might also want to explain, perhaps in a letter in their “new client welcome kit,” what you and your staff will be doing for them. You might point out that at any one time, there are at least three people working on their case. You could also provide a soup-to-nuts description of the major steps you take to do what you do.

Let them know how you investigate a case, conduct research, prepare pleadings and motions and discovery, and get ready for trial. Mention something about the costs you incur on a typical case. If your work is handled on contingency, remind them that while you are good at what you do and selective about the cases you accept, there is no guarantee that you will win every case and if you don’t, you will get paid nothing.

In your newsletter, talk about the things you do to hold down costs. Talk about how the forms and templates you have developed over the years allow you to save your clients money, for example. Let them see that while you don’t cut corners, you don’t spend money unnecessarily.

At the same time, unless your clients are wealthy, don’t talk about your new Mercedes, your lavish vacation, or expensive new toys. Don’t “dress down” — you’re expected to do well — but don’t give clients cause to believe that you are indeed getting rich at their expense.

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Why I stopped collecting coins

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I was a coin collector as a kid. My grandfather got me started. I subscribed to Coin World, and read it every week. I belonged to The Kennedy Coin Club, where I where I met with other collectors to buy, sell, and trade.

I always had my Want/Have list in my wallet–a list of coins I needed to fill in gaps in my collection and duplicates I was willing to sell or trade.

I remember how much fun it was to go through my pocket change (or my father’s pockets) and find silver coins or rare coins from the past. Sometimes, I’d go to the bank and “buy” a bag of coins so I could go through it to find the one or two coins that were worthy of saving. I’d replace them in the bag and exchange it for a new one.

Collecting coins was a fun hobby. But eventually, there came a time when you could no longer find rare coins or silver coins in your change, and I stopped doing it. It wasn’t fun anymore.

You know what? That’s a good metric for everything in life. If it’s not fun, don’t do it.

If you don’t enjoy practicing law, do something about it. Change your practice area or your clients, get good at marketing, or go do something else.

I said as much in an interview I did yesterday for a podcast. “What’s one piece of advice you could share that we haven’t talked about,” I was asked at the end of the interview. “If it’s not fun, you’re not doing it right,” I said.

Of course it’s not all black or white. There’s lots of gray. You may not like networking, for example, but you love the results so you keep doing it. That’s actually a good way to look at it. Focus on what you like, not what you don’t like.

Don’t forget, everything is relative. Maybe you don’t like marketing, but you don’t like getting calls from bill collectors even less.

Find some aspect of what you’re doing that’s fun. Because otherwise, why do it?

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Are you getting stale?

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You’ve been a lawyer for more than a few years and you’re good at what you do. So good, you could do most of your job in your sleep.

You know the forms to use and the words to say. You know the best places to park at the courthouse. You know the judges and other lawyers, and they know you.

Your job has become routine. Easy. Life is good.

Don’t get too comfortable. Before you know it, some rookie lawyer will come along and eat your lunch.

They may not know what you know or be able to do what you can do, but they’re fresh and hungry. Everything is new and exciting. They’ve got energy and drive and something to prove.

And let’s not forget that they have been using computers since pre-school.

If you’re not careful, as their practice grows, you may see yours diminish.

But you can stay ahead of them by re-inventing yourself and your practice. Become a new lawyer again. Look at everything with fresh eyes.

Imagine that you have just opened your doors and you don’t have any clients. Get hustling and bring some in before the end of the month.

Take classes in your practice area and also in practice areas you know nothing about. Take classes in business, marketing, sales, writing, and speaking.

Take some cases you’ve never handled before. Find another lawyer to associate with you or mentor you.

Start over, from scratch, and build your practice again.

In the military, for a day or for a week, a unit will periodically stand down and review all of their operations. You should do the same thing. Examine all of your office management procedures and forms, look for holes that need to be patched, find expenses that can be reduced or eliminated, and processes that can be improved.

Do the same thing with your marketing. Find ways to make it better. Eliminate things that aren’t working, do more of  the things that are, and find new ways to bring in business you’ve never tried before.

Examine every piece of paper in your office and every electron in your computer. Resolve to get organized, eliminate clutter, and streamline your workflow.

And from this day forward, do something new every week. New ideas, new projects, new people, will keep you fresh and alert and sharp and open new doors for you.

Get excited about the future you are about to create and then go eat someone else’s lunch.

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