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What I Learned On My Summer Vacation During the Collaspe of the American Financial System, Almost Running Over Deer in the Road and Avoiding an Attack By a Rattlesnake

October 2008

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 me 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 where they fall in
their professional development. Many are new practitioners just starting practices and
families while still paying off student loans while others have been in practice for many
years and 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 in an article entitled, “Fiscal Aerobics: Tips to
Improve Your Financial Fitness.” In the article, which is available on line at
http://www.msba.org/departments/loma/articles/index.htm, I wrote about many steps
which should be taken but there were three items that are as 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 you 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 I think 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 most 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 to 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, SD. It is an amazing
place, unlike anything you will see in the Eastern part of the country. The Badlands and
many places in the area have 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 the fact that it was a baby 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 and 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 and 5:35 AM.
At 5:40 AM, when the van did not arrive and did not call, we made our first of three calls.
We were told each time that the van was 5-10 minutes away and would be there soon.
On the fourth call at 6:45 AM, 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 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 are a series of articles on the MSBA website 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 & 8 or call Pat Yevics at
800-492-1964, ext 3039.

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


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