Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : October 2008

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 SOLO/SMALL FIRM PRACTITIONER

  

This article was due as soon as I got home from vacationing in South Dakota (because we have never been in South Dakota). It was an amazing trip for many reasons, not the least of which was the grandeur of the Black Hills and the Badlands.

Unlike most vacations where you almost never know what is happening in the “outside” world, rental cars in the west now come with satellite radio, so every time we were in the car we listened to CNBC. Since there is a lot of distance between trails and activities in South Dakota, we were in the car a lot.

As many of you know, my husband and I travel a great deal and never to the same place twice, so we are always learning about new places, customs and landscapes. Maybe it is being in the throes of a historical and contentious presidential election and listening to the daily turmoil in the financial markets, but this vacation caused me to consider a lot of fundamental issues, many of which relate to the way we practice and live.

It’s the Economy, Stupid

First, let’s start with the financial crisis. Maybe it was just because I was listening to it every time we were in the car, but it was unsettling. It certainly caused my husband and I to think about our financial future. I think that this is a good time for all practitioners to take a look at how they are positioning their firms and families for the future.

Readers of this column are all over the map when it comes to their level of professional development. Many are new practitioners just starting practices and families while still paying off student loans, others who have been in practice for many years are starting to think about spending less time on their practice and more on their personal activities. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, this is a good time to look at your finances and your spending (and collection) habits.

In November 2005, I wrote an article entitled “Fiscal Aerobics: Tips to Improve Your Financial Fitness”. In the article (which is available on line at www.msba.org/departments/loma/articles/index.htm), I wrote about many steps which should be taken toward this end, but there were three items that are as particularly true today as they were almost three years ago.

1. Manage expenses as though money was tight. Unless there is a good reason to spend more with a particular vendor (such as outstanding service, business referral, relative), if you can get it for less, do it.

2. All firms, no matter how small or how new, should have a written annual and monthly budget. This budget should be reviewed regularly. Ideally, you should work with an accountant familiar with law firms of your size. Your budget should include all fixed expenses for the coming year on a month-to-month basis.

3. Monitor your expenses. It is even more critical now to ask yourself if you, your firm or yes, your family really needs a particular item.

I just read an article that said “save your pennies so you can spend your dollars.” In other words, if you watch and control your little purchases and expenses, you will have enough to spend on bigger and more meaningful items.
This may also be a good time to review your client list to see if there are any potential problems that may happen as a result of the economic situation. Depending on your practice area, this may not be a concern, but it is still a good time to consider cutting some of your less profitable or more troublesome clients.

Ignorance is Not Bliss

It may seem as though this crisis does not affect the “little guy” (whoever he is), but it is critical to have a basic understanding of what is happening and how it will affect your practice, your current clients, your potential clients and your financial future.

There are many sites and resources available to sort out the details in understandable terms, but you need to find a resource that works best for you. It is probably best to go to a few sites that offer differing viewpoints on the topic because as with more aspects of life, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle of the various extremes. And there are many extremes when it comes to explaining the situation.

Painting with a Broad Brush

That leads me to the next lesson that I learned on my vacation. We really do have to stop generalizing when it comes to issues related to politics, culture, religion, food and every other aspect of life. In the book, The Big Sort, Bill Bishop talks about how the way and where we live is tearing us apart. Although this country is amazingly diverse, we tend to live near and with people who are exactly like us in almost all respects and, as a result, have come to think of those who are not like us almost as the enemy.

This came home to me in an incident that occurred when we stopped to view a sunset at one of the overlooks at Badlands National Park in Wall, South Dakota. It is an amazing place, unlike anything you will see in the eastern part of the country. The Badlands, like many places in the area, has signs warning about rattlesnakes. As we were heading back to our car, a young man taking photos said that he had seen a baby rattlesnake (as if that would make me feel better) near the trail. Another ordinary-looking middle-aged man that was passing us on the trail said, “Don’t worry, rattlesnakes only bite Godless Democrats.”

For some reason, I was completely taken aback by his comment. Not because I am a Democrat but because he said it with such conviction and vitriol that I was rendered temporarily speechless and dazed. I responded politely by saying that we were liberal Democrats from the east, but not godless, to which he replied that we should go back east.

I am happy to report that was the only negative experience we had in South Dakota. We found it to be a wonderful place and people to be gracious and friendly.

Although I like to think I am more enlightened than the man we met on the trail, I know that I am guilty of making generalizations about various groups, whether political, social, cultural or any other type. I was really forced to re-evaluate how I make decisions about others whose views or lifestyles may be different from mine. I am not certain that these generalizations really promote understanding of others.

I am not suggesting that we are going to like or even agree with everyone or every group. That is not possible. However, I do believe that we have to be more willing to at least be respectful and “agree to disagree” without being condescending and rude. I think that it is even more critical to visit places that are different from where we live and meet people whose views may also be different from ours. No group hugs – just willingness to listen.

If You Can’t Do It Right, Get Out of the Business

I have been dismayed at the deterioration of good service by many businesses. The start of our vacation was almost ruined by some of the worst service I have had from a business whose only function is to shuttle passengers to and from airports in blue vans.

We were scheduled to be picked up by the airport van between 5:20 a.m. and 5:35 a.m. At 5:40 a.m., when the van had neither arrived nor called, we made our first of three calls. We were told each time that the van was between five and ten minutes away and would be there soon.

On the fourth call, at 6:45 a.m., we were told that there was no van coming and that maybe we should take a cab and they would reimburse us when we got home.

Folks, if you can’t provide the service that you promised, tell the truth. This would have saved them a lot of money (we drove and parked at the hourly lot), and I would not now be telling all the readers of this article.

If you find that you are not providing your clients with the best service possible, you need to evaluate your practice and your procedures. If you want help in reviewing your client service and how you can improve it, there is a series of articles on the MSBA website (www.msba.org/departments/loma/articles/index.htm) under “Marketing/Client Development”.

If you would like to hear more about these and other issues affecting solo and small firm practitioners, please attend the 10th Annual Solo and Small Firm Conference at the BWI Marriott on Friday and/or Saturday, November 7 and 8, or call Pat Yevics at (800) 492-1964, ext 3039.

Hope to see you all at the Conference. (Oh, and next year we are going to Prague and Budapest. Imagine what I will learn there.)

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: October 2008

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