9 Things That Leave Me Shaking Like a Leaf

Lawyers aren’t supposed to be afraid.

We’re supposed to defend others. How can we defend our clients if we’re walking around filled with fear?

But we’re human. Being human, no matter how much we might resist the idea, means we feel the whole range of human emotions, and fear is one of the biggies. It’s always right there just under the surface.

We don’t feel it most of the time. It’s there, though–it sits quietly, waiting, ready … it steps up when we’d really rather it stayed seated.

Sometimes the easiest way to see the fear is to watch our dreams.

Like that dream about the exam in the class we forgot to attend

Can we agree that most fear is irrational?

If we could just instruct our brains to be rational most of the time, we’d be much happier people. But fear isn’t rational–it’s instinctive. That’s why now, years after selling my law firm, I still have some of the same fears racing through my head.

I have moments, sometimes in broad daylight and while wide awake, that are like THAT dream. You know the dream. The one where you’re in college. You walk into the classroom and the professor is handing out the final exams in a class you’ve never attended.

Those bad dreams of missing the exam? I still have the law firm variation, even after selling the law firm. It’s like what I imagine an LSD flashback would be like. When will it end? Law firm fears aren’t rational, so they don’t suddenly stop when you leave the law firm. It would be nice if fear decided to be reasonable.

Fear is, however, most definitely irrational.

Being a lawyer is sometimes one bad dream after another

Even today, I still have PTSD from the bar exam when I have to take any kind of test.

Eye exam? Is there a prep course?

Driver’s license renewal sign test? Heart races.

Colonoscopy? Let’s just say that I’ve perfected the prep phase of the process, so I consistently get an A+ from my doctor.

The list of things that frighten me is long. I don’t have the time, energy, or courage to list them all for you. In fact, I can’t see the value of detailing every last bit of fear, so I’ll skip the blood, alligators, and snakes. I can, however, see some benefit (for you, not me) from hearing a few of the things on the list. Specifically, I’ll mention some of the things that have affected me in my practice.

Let’s get scary:

1. I’m scared to death of not making payroll

This is the biggie that hangs over me long after I sold the firm. Payroll dreams tell me that the fear isn’t finished with me.

Of course, I still have a payroll to meet at Rosen Institute, but it involves fewer people, less money, and (one would naturally assume) less stress.

Yet, payroll thoughts linger in my brain and they aren’t happy thoughts.

Truth be told, payroll hangs over me like a guillotine. Why? Because fear isn’t rational.

I remember the ups and downs of the law firm cash flow. Sometimes we had lots of cash. Other times, we didn’t have enough and dipped heavily into a line of credit, which often reached the limit.

I never stressed much about delaying payment to a vendor: the company can cope, or it can cut us off. Whatever.

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Payroll, however, scares the crap out of me. As we approached the next payroll and the bank account balance was low, I’d feel the fear. What would happen if we couldn’t pay our people? I figured that some of them would walk out and keep walking. We met payroll more than 840 times in a row, yet it still creates stress, anxiety, and an internal response that’s way out of proportion.

We often make a habit of fear–to the point that we become pros. I stressed about payroll, even when it was completely unnecessary. The stress became such a habit that I still get those twinges of unprovoked terror, long after the danger has passed.

2. I’m afraid that the phone will stop ringing.

People hire us because they trust us. What if that were to change? What if the phone simply stopped ringing?

Of course you’ve had the same worry. That’s why you’ve dialed your own number just to be sure it’s working. I’ve been there, done that, felt the anxiety in my throat.

Of course your test phone call connects, which means it’s not a disconnected phone line that’s keeping the calls from coming.

How can it have been three days without a potential client call?

Yeah, scary. It’s scary enough to keep me searching for and implementing marketing that, hopefully, works.

I’m asked all the time about which of our marketing approaches works best. I always explain that none of them work, and I smile knowingly like an insane person. But, that’s pretty much true. We do lots of different things, and none of them is the key. They all work a bit, and it’s the overall effect that makes a difference.

I really don’t know which marketing approaches work best. Some things work for some and not others. Some things work right now and won’t work later. Some things seem not to work at all until much later when the clients stream in, because of the marketing we did years earlier. Marketing is tricky because trust is tricky.

There’s science in marketing, but it’s an emotional arena in which we play. My lack of specific understanding of which marketing will work and which won’t frightens me. It might all work, and it could all stop. Sometimes the phones ring like crazy, and other times they don’t. I truly don’t know what we did that makes things happen. It could all stop one day. I shudder at the thought.

3. Everyone could quit at once

Our team members are volunteers.

Yes, we pay them, but they aren’t required to stay and that’s true no matter how generously we compensate them.

Seriously–I have this nightmare where everyone who works in the firm decides to leave simultaneously. My brain didn’t just make this up: it happens in law firms occasionally, when some key players decide to leave and open a new firm and take the team.

In my nightmare, I’m left with all the clients and no one to do the work. I may not be able to sleep for a week after writing this paragraph.

4. Google penalizes me and I disappear

As a new lawyer, I didn’t worry about Google because Google didn’t yet exist.

It’s funny, though: back in the day before Google, the big scare was the day the Yellow Pages phone book was distributed.  We submitted our listings and bought ads six months in advance of the release, and things didn’t always turn out as planned.

One year our listings were in the wrong category. Another year our ad didn’t make it into the book.

A Yellow Pages mistake was worse than a Google penalty, because the only fix required waiting a year.

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Google, however, has much more impact than the Yellow Pages. The phone book was important, but not nearly as important as Google has become in our daily lives.

Do you really exist if Google stops ranking your website?

I found out the hard way once that you really can disappear from Google in an instant. Trust me, I learned my lesson from that experience. I used to push the envelope with my efforts to manipulate Google into putting our listings at the top of the rankings.

Now, I behave and operate strictly within their guidelines.

But it’s still possible that we could disappear, even with my good behavior. There are lots of ways it could happen. It would hurt badly. That one wakes me up in the middle of the night sometimes.

5. Someone could steal from our firm

Some cash was temporarily stored under a computer keyboard at our front desk. It disappeared. Thankfully it was only a few hundred dollars. Amazingly, it was covered by our insurance policy.

Maybe we should hide the cash in a better place?

We’ve also had some close calls with personnel. We haven’t always been diligent about background checks. We trusted people who might not have been worthy of our trust. I don’t want to live my life questioning others; I like trusting everyone and assuming the best.

Thankfully, the biggest theft we experienced involved some lunches bought on the firm credit card while an employee was out stocking up on sodas for the office.

I’m afraid, however, that one day something much worse could happen.

6. Someone could steal our entire law firm

What if you woke up one morning and discovered that your office lease had expired and one of your associates had leased the space for herself? What if you realized that she’d also found a way to wrestle control of the law firm phone number away from you? She’s got the address and the phone number and you have no claim to the identity of the firm.

This could never happen, right?

Except that I watched it happen. It was years ago, and the lawyers who lost their second law firm office watched it slip away from them in stunned silence. Observing from afar, I was shocked and a bit outraged on behalf of the lawyers who lost the office. But, on the other hand, it was a pretty slick move by the associate who wandered off with the goods.

It hadn’t even occurred to me to worry about having an office stolen, until I saw it happen.

7. Malpractice

Do you keep your carrier on a quick-dial button on your phone? I don’t. I just tell Siri to call for me.

Yes, we’ve made mistakes. Fortunately, they’ve been small and could be repaired or adjusted in some way.

But I’ve been consistently surprised by my ability to make mistakes in ways I didn’t anticipate.

I like to think of myself as innovative and creative. While that sometimes pays off in good ways, it also comes back to bite me in bad ways. On occasion, I’ve found new and creative ways to screw up.

I don’t know what I don’t know. Knowing that I don’t know makes me very nervous.

They say that you’re buying peace of mind when you buy insurance. Maybe I should buy more insurance? Or is peace of mind actually just a fantasy?

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8. Humiliation in the media

I don’t like being embarrassed. Does anyone? We’ve always handled some high-profile cases, and we’ve done our best to court the media for attention. It’s a good marketing move. We get quoted and featured by the media frequently.

I like being involved in situations that draw attention, but it’s high risk, high reward. When I’ve done an interview about something sensitive, I worry about how I’m going to be used. Did I say something that could be taken out of context? Did I go too far? Did I say something that will inspire someone to attack me in response? The days between the interview and the publication or broadcast make me very anxious.

9. The knock on the door

Well, it’s not usually a knock on the door … it’s a certified letter from the Internal Revenue Service or the State Bar. Those folks send some serious letters.

I once got a letter from the IRS informing me of a fine of $1,000 a day for about 1,000 days. We’d failed to file a tax return for our retirement plan three years earlier. We owed close to a million dollars in penalties.

Thankfully, after we filed our missing return, the government agreed to waive the penalty. But, wow–they definitely got our attention with that letter.

Unfortunately, some of the letters from the State Bar raised issues that weren’t so easy to resolve. Spending a year or more addressing a grievance always left me with a gnawing sense of dread. My fear buttons get pushed every time I’m back in Raleigh and drive by the State Bar’s office building.

The more we know, the longer our list

I could go on and on, adding to my list. I’d have a long list when I finished, but I’d be curled up in the fetal position under a bed, unable to come out.

Of course, I’m fearful that I might already have said too much. I’m hoping you can relate to some of my fears. I’m afraid that you’ll think less of me for being afraid.

Fear is part of being a lawyer. Oftentimes I think we’re paid to be afraid for others. Their fears become ours. We own their problems. Our dreams are filled with their nightmares, and sleep gets complicated. A little of our fear gets mixed with a little of their life and the bad dreams flare up. Yep, we’re often paid to be afraid for others, but we’re not always paid enough.

Be brave.

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