Show me the money! Attorney says lawyers have nothing to sell but their time

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Ann Arbor attorney Joseph Spiegel recently told a group of lawyers that if they want to succeed, they must remember that law is a business and should be treated as such.

"I define luck as when opportunity meets preparation," said Spiegel, a business and personal finance attorney. "If you're not prepared, you can have all the opportunities in the world. But you have to be prepared. It's tough."

Spiegel's talk--titled "Five Rules for Attorneys who Want to Make Money"--was sponsored by the Washtenaw County Bar Association's Solo & Small Firm Practice Section and held in a conference room at the Washtenaw County Courthouse.

"If you follow these five rules and you don't take drugs or do something stupid," he said, "you'll make money."

Spiegel's five rules:

1: Never take a case on a day when you have nothing better to do.

2: It's not the cases you take that make you money. It's the ones you turn down.

3: The client must have skin in the game.

4: The client must come to your office for the first meeting.

5: The better the case, the harder it is to collect.

"You take a case on a slow day when you have nothing better to do, it's going to come back and bite you," he said, explaining that time and money spent on a bad case is time and money not spent on a good one.

Once the determination is made that a case makes sense economically, it's essential that the client make an investment, he said.

"First of all, they're going to come in and they're going to lie to you," he said. "And they're going to lie to you because they want you to take the case. They're going to lie to you because they can't deal with how they screwed up, and if they hadn't screwed up, they wouldn't be in your office. So you have to filter all that illusion of, `I'm the best person in the world and I've been damaged beyond belief.' You have to have them have something to lose, whether it's money or time or effort. They have to have some skin in the game."

Spiegel says that making the first meeting with a client in your office establishes your presence as well as the power and control dynamics.

"You're in control of your life. You're in control of the situation," he said.

"When the client comes to your office, what are they going to see?" he asked. "They have to see a nice place ... You have to look the part."

He said he was wearing his $5,000 suit.

"It didn't cost me $5,000," he said. "But every client who comes to me--it costs them $5,000!"

Referring to Richard Gere's character in the movie, "Chicago," Spiegel joked that he once considered renaming his firm, "Spiegel, Spiegel, and Flynn" (the second Spiegel being his dog) because he admired the self-confidence of Richard Gere's character of Billy Flynn in the movie "Chicago."

"You may not have any money, but you can't let that person know," he said. "Because it's going to come back. It always does."

When he asked the group to answer a question--What's your inventory?--the answers ranged from clients to cases to charm.

"You're wrong!" he said. "Your inventory is time! That's your inventory. You've got nothing else to sell but your time. You're no different than General Motors, Ford, Chrysler. Instead of making cars, you provide service. That's your inventory. It's time. And there's only so much time in the day. If you don't look at your inventory carefully, and you waste your inventory, you're going to lose money."

He said cases are like cow pies.

"It's sitting there on your desk. If you let it sit there too long, it's going to get hard and you can't do anything with it. You want to take that cow pie and throw it out in the field so it can start fertilizing something. What I'm saying is: Get your stuff out. Anything that is on your desk, get out. Don't let it sit there."

When do you make your phone calls, especially the difficult ones?

"First thing in the morning," he said. "Get it off your chest. And you have to call a client back that day or the next. It's beyond me how a lawyer doesn't call back clients. No texts! No e-mails! You lift up the phone and call."

"I have a no-email policy," he continued. "Email is an unmitigated disaster. You say things you shouldn't say. You get involved in these back-and-forths. All of a sudden there's a record, and you have no idea where it's going."

He said there's a lot of controversy about whether attorney-client privilege applies once a conversation is in cyberspace.

"Who wants to be involved in that? ... My card doesn't have an email address."

He said he had a client who lost his stock options in his company when it was revealed via email that he planned to interview with another company.

As for using "snail mail"--he's all for it.

"I send the client everything," he said, explaining that as a result, they won't be calling with a bunch of questions. "So you send them everything. The good, the bad, and the ugly. All the time. Maybe once a month, or even if it's quarterly, but keep sending them stuff."

"Practicing law is a profession with business aspects," he said. "You have an inventory. You're selling your inventory. You have to sell it for more than you're paying for it. If you don't, you're screwed. It sounds pretty harsh, but you have to look at the money."

He said he asks potential clients to articulate exactly what they'd want if he could wave a magic wand.

"Then you start picking that apart, and bringing them down to some sense of reality so that you can make the determination as to whether it's a case you should take or turn down," he said.

The biggest mistake he's seen lawyers make is taking on a huge case, spending a lot of money on it, and not being able to get out of it. He also cautions against taking on a class action suit.

"The bigger the case, the greater the risk," he said. "You want to be sure you don't get in too deep. Cut your loss."

He's a big believer in joining community organizations, keeping in touch with colleagues, and staying involved.

"It means you can't sit home and watch the ball game," he said. "Every day, I make one phone call. I send out one letter. I do something to promote my business. It's a daily dose of reality. And I'm 68. In today's environment, it's incredibly competitive."

Spiegel said he's noticed over the past 20 years that graduates coming out of law school feel entitled.

"You're not entitled to diddly squat," Spiegel said. "Just because you're a lawyer doesn't mean you're entitled. It's a responsibility, a profession. And you're not entitled to make a lot of money without doing a lot of work."

Published: Mon, May 20, 2013

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