I saw a man at Starbucks yesterday. He was sitting a table away from me and I could hear his conversation pretty clearly, without even trying. He was meeting a client at a public café. I tried not to listen and give them their privacy as I was sipping my late, but they were not really keeping it down. “I’ve been doing DUI’s longer than anyone in Gainesville” was the one sentence that stuck in my mind. He was trying to get the person he was meeting to agree to whatever course of action he decided on. “But it’s your money” he concluded. He was a middle-aged man. Dressed up, looking professional and presentable, grey hair matched his grey suit. You could tell he was not new to this game. Yet, instead of his office he was meeting a client at Starbucks. It must have been before lunchtime and if I were to guess, I’d say the place was chosen to accommodate the person he was advising. That’s the tragedy of being a lawyer, especially if you have your own practice. It doesn’t matter if you’re 30, 40 or 50. You’re always on the look out for the next client and you’re eager to land one. Because we all have bills to pay. And it never stops. I was lucky enough to take a “Law practice management “ class back in school. It did exactly what it sounded like- showed us how to start our office. The gist of it was about keeping track of our own time, setting up and yes, billing people. My professor, an accomplished local attorney, encouraged us to always bill people, friends and family alike, even if we were to give them a 100% discount. Only then they will understand that this is your work, this is what you do and it takes a significant amount of time and effort to structure a case. It also requires a lot of commitment. People often don’t understand it, asking for legal advice on the fly. But if they will see it listed out on a bill, with every thing done itemized, they will see what we do has value. Only then will respect it. I have a lot of friends approaching me with their bigger or smaller issues, expecting more of a ‘quick fix’ than actual representation. And I try to help as much as I can but mostly I tell them to get an attorney. Because as much as I want to help people, if I would never charge anybody for my time I would never have any money. I do have bills to pay and these are actual bills and rent that I pay every month. And sometimes, after a slow month I still have to ask my family to help. I hear about those rich attorneys who really have made it. Good for them, they worked hard. But I know more struggling ones that are just trying to get by.
What is really tragic about practicing law is it seems that a lot of our work stems from heartbreaking personal drama and turmoil. And we profit from it. When I saw online pleas for attorneys help in some really painful situation, I used to think: Be human, just help them already. Make an exception, don’t you have a heart? But now I understand that attorneys big and small only have one thing of value: their skill and can only profit from the time they put in. If they all just made an exception for every person that genuinely moved them they would feel better about themselves, but they wouldn’t eat. It’s not that the moving stories of people looking for pro bono help don’t grab my heart. You wish you could do something to take away their pain, you really do. But I’m not established enough to afford it. It’s really not about being greedy. Books that teach new attorneys how to set up an office say that it takes a year if not more after setting up the practice. And it’s a continuous process, you have to attract new clients every day. Some will never go forward, many will change their mind in the middle of it all. This is what we spent tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars in education money. Many of us are still in debt. There is a website called Avvo, where people with legal questions try to get as much information as they can and attorneys do what they can do reveal as little as they can for free and have them call them. The goal- to land that client, to show him he needs to hire you.And that never changes. Thirty years from now I could be at that very Starbucks trying to convince a young student to get me to help him with his parking tickets.