Private practice can be a roller coaster. The turns may widen and the grades may diminish as time passes, but the financial uncertainty never goes away altogether. Your threshold for risk will diminish as your practice grows.
Traditionally, summer months are the hardest for me and Adrian, but this summer has been an exception. We’ve seen unexpected growth during a time when we usually hunker down and prepare for the worst. We’re lucky, but even if every month is a relatively good month compared to when you started out, you still never know what the next month holds. A lot of money can pour out of a business very quickly when times are slow.
Running a small firm isn’t for the faint of heart. Running it the way Adrian and I run our criminal defense practice seems make it even tougher. You won’t see Brown & Little billboards. Clients don’t go on TV telling the world what we did for them. We have no phone book ads, no radio spots, and I can’t remember the last time we put money on the books for our Google AdWords account. If anything, this blog seems to scare away prospective clients.
Marketing for us is almost entirely socializing with other lawyers, remaining active in things we’d be doing whether we were lawyers or not, and most importantly, doing the best we can in every case. There’s a big downside to that kind of marketing.
The things we don’t do create the illusion of stability. The ignorant count Twitter followers like they’re money in the bank and calls from the back page of the phone book like they’re paying clients, not people in need of free advice without any intention of hiring a private lawyer. Oh what I’d give for the bliss of not knowing better!
The other part of the downside is taxes. An ad in the classified section of a paper is a 100% deduction. Web hosting and SEO are the same way. Take a highly respected lawyer in your field out for lunch to pick his or her brain and develop a relationship, and the IRS will hold you to a 50% limit. The IRS wants you on the side of the bus peddling your services, not in a social setting learning from a master (or even teaching a younger lawyer, depending on where you are in your career). It’s a sad state of affairs.
A man of faith I am not, yet each month the phone seems to ring and provide me peace of mind. Some months are good, others not so good. You don’t which which one it’s going to be until it’s too late. Luckily, they’ve never been so bad that Brown & Little couldn’t cope. I feel blessed, but I never feel secure, no matter how much money’s in the bank. It’s a strange sensation knowing that the source of your income in the future is people you’ve probably never met coming from sources you probably don’t expect, and there’s no guarantee anyone will come in the door at all.
Learning to represent people is a process, and you can always get better, no matter how good or old you are. Learning to roll with the ups and downs of ethically and professionally running a small firm is no different. It’s especially tough when false stability and government incentives line the quick and easy route.