Thursday, May 17, 2018

Tales Of The Law Office: The Hump

My so-called career in the law began in 1988, with the first three years consisting of law school (with one summer interning at a public interest outfit and one year clerking for a family law office). I actually enjoyed law school, although it was rather stressful. They keep you under considerable pressure to prepare you for the work that is to follow.

I passed the California Bar Exam on my first try and then practiced law in Los Angeles for the next twelve years. I worked for two law offices as a law clerk, and two others as an associate, but most of the time I was a solo practitioner.

For the first two years on my own I made court appearances for other lawyers. I knew a couple of lawyers who paid others to appear for them, and I called all of my contacts to develop a list. There was enough work to keep me busy, and with the overhead low it was paying the bills. I spent that time getting my feet wet and learning the business. After two years I felt like it was time to get an office and find my own clients.

The solo practice was a lot of work. It's much more important to be a good businessman than to be a good lawyer. You need to put butts in the seats without going broke doing it. That can be a real trick. Having incurred serious overhead, I had to continue to make some appearances for others. I implemented a marketing plan, which included direct mail and print ads.

I started spending good money every month, doing the work on the direct mail part of it my myself. I was working about sixty hours a week. It brought in a considerable amount of paying work, but the overhead was frightful. When my accountant did my taxes for that year, I ended up with a net income of $36.00 (thirty-six dollars). That was for the year. It must qualify as the lowest hourly earnings of all time.

But let's get to the hump part. Over the course of a few years, I dropped the direct mail as too expensive and refined my approach to print advertising. The trick there, as everywhere, is to keep the expenses as low as possible while generating enough calls. I realized that there were niches in the cultural landscape of Los Angeles that had their own book stores and newspapers. I focused on the two biggest examples: homosexuals and Christians. Both groups had multiple bookstores dedicated to their particular clientele, and there were multiple free newspapers available at each location. I started advertising in them all. Small column ads were almost free, $12 or so. In this way I kept the overhead manageable and began to make a living. I say, “a living,” what I really mean is that I was bringing home about the same as a decent apprentice plumber with a union card. Okay, we live and we learn, at least the graphs were trending upward.

Here's where I got to the hump. I was still “solo” in every sense of the word. I did everything myself. I made all of the appearances; I prepared all the documents; I kept all of the records; I answered the phone; I managed the marketing scheme; I paid all of the bills; I maintained the computer with its precious specialized programs; and I tried to get around a bit to schmooze other attorneys for ideas and referrals. I was still working about sixty hours per week, and the hourly pay computation was not encouraging. That, and the stress was killing me.

Sitting down with pencil and paper, I worked out what it would take to get a secretary for the office. Even a barely qualified secretary would require a salary about the same as what I was taking home. A real legal secretary would require a lot more. Even a real paralegal would take a bigger bite. So in terms of the rough math, let's say that I was billing about $75,000 per year, with overhead of about $40,000. In order to support an increase in the overhead to $80,000 (doubling the overhead), I would need to at least double the billings to $150,000. That would take more marketing, and more rent for the secretary's work space, and the Social Security etc. for the employee, so let's figure the billings would need to climb to about $200,000. In all that, I'd be lucky to increase my income by enough to justify the extra stress and effort.

The difficulties of getting over this hump were vast, and success was uncertain. The alternative was to continue licking every stamp myself and killing myself for a smallish salary. At that point, I asked around and got myself hired by a small insurance defense firm as an associate. My overhead disappeared, and my salary went up considerably. The hours per week stayed about the same.

This is, of course, the Disney version of the whole enterprise. Within a few years my wife (at the time) approached me with the idea of joining the Peace Corps to get off of the hamster wheel for a couple of years. We were accepted into that noble program, and we were assigned to a small agricultural province in a remote corner of Thailand. I've never gone back to the rat-race. After the Peace Corps I ended up returning to Thailand, and I'm still here. I have been teaching law and legal English at a big Thai university for over ten years by now, and I guess that I should stop complaining about my decision to go to law school, because that law degree did facilitate the great luck of getting my present job.

As for any young people who may be thinking of a career in the law, just be careful. It's not like it appears on TV. I have known quite a few lawyers who were very successful. Those men and women made millions of dollars in most years and supported large offices. I have also knows quite a few for whom the necessary aggression, bravado, and stress-management were not a good fit. That group generally fails to thrive in the law, or hangs on by it's fingernails because the alternatives seem even less comfortable. I know lawyers who drive Uber at night. Most lawyers are in the middle somewhere. They soldier away at it year after year, become accustomed to the stress and learn to tolerate it, and they find a way to put the mask on and off quickly so that they can have a normal family life and some friends. Bear in mind that that large group in the middle earns about as much as a licensed union plumber. There are only a few lawyers cashing those million dollar checks, and most of them seem to be on TV.

But who knows? If being a lawyer is your dream, go for it. Keep the student loans as low as you can manage, and don't expect anything to be easy. There are people still making a go of it. Maybe you'll be one of the lucky ones.

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