How is it possible for a lawyer to be both busy and broke?
Busy? Sure. But we shouldn’t be broke if we’re busy, right?
Busy and broke is an easy cycle to get stuck in, actually. A lot of us are overloaded with work, yet our bank account balances are at zero – or worse.
And, unfortunately, busy and broke is shockingly common.
I meet lawyers all the time who are working like crazy, running around like chickens with their heads cut off, yet they have no money.
They are living hand-to-mouth. It takes every penny they make to get by. The only benefit of their busyness is that they don’t have time to think about being broke.
Busyness is just stress relief by distraction.
If we don’t have time to worry then we don’t worry, right? Except at 3 AM when the room is dark, the streets are silent, and we’re staring at the ceiling.
That’s when the panic comes flooding in.
In those moments we want to jump out of bed, get busy, and stop thinking about being broke.
The busy and broke phenomenon is not limited to new solo attorneys striking out on their own. It affects old solos, and lawyers of all experience levels practicing in every setting.
It’s a non-discriminatory state of being. We feel it without regard to our actual income. We’re all vulnerable to the busy-but-broke trap.
Busy and broke is its own kind of pressure. We feel locked in, surrounded by obstacles, and we’re always on the hunt for an escape route.
Escape Hatch #1 – Productivity Hacks
When we’re busy and broke, we search for ways to get more done in less time.
We seek to become efficient. We try hiring people, buying software, documenting systems, and mixing up our approach.
We try bullet journals, task managers, and virtual assistants. We buy document creation software, practice management systems, and we read every quick-fix article we can find.
It all helps a little bit, but as we become more efficient, we still find ourselves busy and broke.
There are limits to efficiency. We max out on it pretty quickly.
It’s tough, for instance, to make more time by cutting client calls. Our clients need to say what they need to say, and the harder we resist, the more they persist. They're going to get heard one way or another.
Everyone gets the same twenty-four hours each day. Even the most sophisticated hacks and tactics can only do so much.
Escape Hatch #2 – Raise Prices
Then, one night, probably at 3 AM, we realize that we should raise our prices.
If we charge more, we might lose some clients, but that’ll give us some free time that will be paid for by the higher rates of the clients who stick around.
More money for the same effort might not solve the busy problem, but it'll help fix the broke problem. That thought allows us to drift back to sleep.
Then the sun rises the next morning and we worry that our solution isn't really the answer.
What if higher prices don’t just run off some clients – it runs off MOST clients?
We get caught in our circular worries and start going back and forth through our client list.
Some might pay more. Some clearly won't.
What about all those people who call into our office and their first question is “How much is a ________?” Those folks don't even want to pay what we're charging now.
What if raising our prices puts us out of business?
At least we won't be busy anymore. Well, we'll have plenty of time for searching the dumpster behind the grocery store for food.
Then, like a gift from above, at 3 AM we have another realization. Maybe it comes as we flip from side to side, back and forth, drenched in sweat. (Is that just me?)
We realize that a price increase would be easy if we had better clients.
Yep, better clients would pay the increased price because they understand the value of the service we offer.
Plus, they're not anxious about every penny they spend on legal services. They appreciate that great legal work requires an investment in a quality lawyer.
Yep, it's better clients we need. Now, how do we get better clients?
Escape Hatch #3 – Better Marketing
We're already doing great legal work. Getting better clients requires getting the word out.
If people knew what they'd get from us, they'd line up around the block. That's actually true.
I spend an inordinate amount of time hunting for chocolate croissants. I'm kind of an expert. I think of it as a public service.
One thing I've learned, interestingly, is that the longest lines don't always appear in front of the shop selling the best croissant. At least, not initially.
Baking the croissant and putting it in the display case doesn't automatically result in sales.
The baker needs to get people talking about the hot, flaky, buttery, chocolate-filled, dissolve-in-your mouth deliciousness.
Once the word gets out, usually in the form of reviews on the right sites (modern day word of mouth) sparked by Instagram posts, the lines form. So long as the quality stays high, the lines get longer.
Long lines let the seller raise prices. Sure, a higher price might make the line might a little shorter, but that's okay. The croissants sell out before the demand can be satisfied anyway.
Getting the word out can make the same difference for you that it makes for a chocolate croissant.
You've got a good product. It's time to get the word out.
Telling stories works. Networking works (especially the way I do networking).
Building an educational, information-rich website works.
Speaking in front of groups, writing for publications, advertising, speaking, social media…
It all works if you do it consistently.
Nearly every lawyer I know, including those trapped in the busy and broke cycle, knows enough to market their practice.
Sure, they could do with some tweaking and adjusting to maximize results. But they know the basics of talking to people, hiring vendors, and spreading the word.
Lawyers in the busy and broke cycle are not stuck because they don't KNOW how to get better clients. They are stuck because they don't DO what's necessary to get those clients.
Change is Scary; Maybe I Won't
Instead of DOING it, we get busy with client work again and we stay broke.
We get stuck wishing for better clients.
We get stuck dreaming of better clients.
We get stuck in our 3 AM cycle of worry, anxiety, and fear.
Instead of taking action to break the cycle, we blame the busyness of our lives for trapping us in. We let our busy lives distract us from the agony of being trapped.
The cycle repeats, over and over, over and over. We stay busy, but we stay broke.
Is it time for a change?
You Don’t Have to Stay Busy and Broke
There is a way out.
You don't have to stay in this busy, broke, frustrated, trap. You can escape.
There's a world of lawyers who are busy, but not so busy that they're in survival mode.
In that world, the lawyers are doing great work for great clients, earning a good living and enjoying the people, the issues, and the challenges. You can be busy, successful, respected, and earn a decent living.
You see it happening around you so you know it can be done.
Change Can Be Agonizingly Uncomfortable
The way out involves acknowledging something uncomfortable.
It's so uncomfortable that it's hard to label, but I’ll do it.
My label is “fear” (Steven Pressfield, in the War of Art, calls it “the resistance”).
My calling it fear may feel like a slap in the face. It makes me uncomfortable to use that word because nobody likes the inference.
Nobody likes being called a coward.
Call it what you like, but it's the thing that keeps us from doing the thing we know needs to be done. It's the reason we avoid, rationalize, and fail to act.
We're all afraid of something. I'm not fond of snakes or alligators. I'm sure I'm afraid of lots of things which hold me back.
Most of us don't like to talk about the things that scare us. Most of us don't even know all the things that scare us. I certainly don’t claim to be that self-aware.
Some of us are afraid of embarrassment. Some of us don't like standing out. Some of us fear loss even though we don't have much.
Some of us fear a loss of status, or we fear the unknown, or damage to our reputation. Fear keeps us from changing.
We may never understand our fears. I'm not sure understanding the fear is necessary to overcome it.
What’s necessary is knowing that busy is a way to avoid doing things that prevent broke.
Being busy is our excuse for not taking steps to move forward.
Being busy is why we're stuck.
Here’s What You Need to Do
The first step out of the trap is accepting the idea that we're constrained by a feeling.
Busyness doesn’t cause the problem. We do.
It's not about efficiency, or price, or marketing. It's about us.
Here's the action plan for overcoming fear:
1. Understand Fear
First, let's be clear: fear isn't real. It's an emotional state.
Yes, bad things will happen. The list of painful life events is endless.
We spend a huge portion of our time helping others through painful events. Those things are real.
But fear isn't real.
When you're feeling fearful, you're suffering an imaginary pain. Some things will harm you, but fear is not one of those things. That feeling in your stomach is all in your head.
2. Invite the Fear Inside
Don't ignore it. Don't deny it (okay, we're in psychologist territory here).
Don't pretend you don't have the fear. Feel it, see it, and talk about it.
Fear is the partner that comes along for the journey. It's like underwear. It's always there, just below the surface.
Acknowledging the feeling is part of getting beyond it.
Instead of explaining why you don't need to have a marketing lunch or why advertising on Facebook won't work, just acknowledge the fear to yourself and others.
3. Create a Scary Plan
Decide what you need to do to break out of your current busy and broke space.
Figure out the marketing that needs to be done and contemplate the parts that cause your stomach to roil. Ryan Holiday suggests that often the obstacle is the way. That feeling in the pit of your stomach is often a directional signpost.
Write it all down. Take note of which items feel hard to add.
Highlight the parts that require a change of mental energy. Feel the fear about networking, or advertising, or public speaking.
Where does the plan turn you into an avoidance-rationalizing machine?
4. Determine the Worst-Case Scenario
What's the worst thing that can happen if your plan goes badly?
Do you waste time and money? Does someone laugh at you?
What are you worried about? What's the most horrible thing that can happen if your plan goes horribly wrong?
Anticipate the entire disaster in advance. The abstract mess we imagine is always worse than the real mess we're able to write down.
5. Get Motivated
Come up with a list of reasons to generate more business for your practice.
Are you saving for a vacation or retirement?
Are you paying for your child's college education?
Is it important to build your reputation in the community?
What matters to you? What motivates you?
Reattach yourself to the reasons you’re working and growing a business.
6. Action is Powerful
Sometimes you can pass fear by moving quickly.
Instead of gazing down into the twenty-story atrium, you rush past to the closest doorway. This helps you avoid your fear of heights.
Making the networking phone call quickly, before the dread takes over, helps get you over the hurdle.
Just do it fast.
7. Small Wins Lead to Big Wins
You need a victory.
Small wins keep you moving forward. Be sure to include little steps in the plan that lead to results.
Ask someone you already know to lunch – small win.
Ask someone you've met once or twice to lunch. Again, small win.
These small wins dramatically reduce your fear when you're doing something that previously caused dread.
You'll need to repeat the small wins strategy any time the fear builds back up after a period of inactivity.
8. Be Confident in You
So much lawyer fear is about needing the approval of other lawyers. We don't like rejection (who does?).
Is your self-esteem based on the opinions of others, or on your opinion of you?
You've got to stay on top of your opinion of you as you overcome the fear. You'll be shocked at the number of people who are actually interested in getting to know you, help you, and refer to you. The world is open to hearing your message. We're anticipating the negative response, but it's unlikely to come.
A powerful antidote to this fear is spending time with people who think you're worthy of their time.
Be sure to spend more time with friends and family who accept you, enjoy you and value you. Go out of your way to arrange time with the people who most enjoy being around you.
9. Have a Plan for Setbacks
When setbacks come – and they will – be prepared. Setbacks are normal, delays can be anticipated, and slipping back into old patterns is expected.
Have a backup plan that you can slide right into.
Be ready when it happens, then flip the switch to avoiding losing time.
Remember, the fear doesn't go away. It sticks around and finds new ways to derail your progress.
You’re Done with Busy and Broke
Fear is powerful. It's deeply rooted. It keeps many people from achieving their dreams.
But fear doesn't have to stop you. You can break free from busy and broke as soon as you see it.
It's not about time or productivity.
It's not about pricing or fees.
It's not about getting people talking about your practice.
It's deciding that you're going to act even when you feel resistance that's going to jolt you forward.
Now, you're thinking about you. You're thinking less about what to do and more about how to think.
Now, you're going to stop being busy doing the work that kept you broke and start getting busy with work that grows your business.