My Unexpected Phone Call with Jay Foonberg
This past Friday I had an unexpected and very wonderful hour long telephone conversation with Jay Foonberg. If you don't know who Jay Foonberg is (which would be surprising if you are a solo) he has been called the 'Dali Lama' of Solo Practice and the author of the most stolen book out of law libraries 'How To Start and Build A Solo Practice." among other books and thousands of articles on the subject. My students used his book every semester for the eight years I taught at Quinnipiac University School of Law and for good reason.
But more impressively, to date he has donated the proceeds of this solo practice bible to the ABA and that donation now stands at more than $2 million dollars, 50% directed towards the Young Lawyers Division.
While I won't get into the substance of our conversation I do want to share some of it which moved me to write this post, some things every lawyer should remember on those days when we have trouble remembering why we do what we do:
The law is a noble profession. Jay eloquently discussed the nobility of our profession. He reminded me of it's incredible power, the power we all possess once we have earned the privilege of calling ourselves a lawyer . Sometimes we get so caught up in running our practices, our lives, feel weighted down by student loans and obligations we forget why we became lawyers. We focus in on the payday versus the gratification of how we are one client at a time impacting the lives of others and the future course of one of the greatest legal systems on earth. Without laws people take matters into their own hands. Anarchy and chaos ensue.
In the face of trying to run a successful solo practice this takes heart, perseverance and love of what you are doing to get you through the inevitable tough times when doubt can overtake you. If one is strictly in this profession to earn a lot of money you will be one of the fifty percent who leave the profession or worse, stay in it and be miserable. Let's face it. Today, there are certainly easier ways to make more money.
The law is a profession, not a business. Jay, again, talked about why he will defend that being a lawyer is a profession and not a business. Anyone can call themselves a professional. A professional football player, an accountant. But the word is misused. These are occupations. However, their rank and status in our society is based upon the prestige we bestow upon them such as blue collar versus white collar occupations. Policeman versus hedge fund manager. And this status we bestow usually turns on income, perks and/or freedom. This, however, should not be confused with 'professional.'
He believes with certainty there are only three professions: Doctor, Lawyer and Clergy. What distinguishes them from other occupations? The oath. We take an oath (which is protected by law) and swear to put the interests of the client, patient or parishioner before our own. I personally believe as we get entrenched in our lives and feel the strain of trying to make a living, we forget the power we possess and the privileges we hold.
Many call law a business (myself included) but we are not really clear when we say 'law is a business'. I think most of us are unwittingly misspeaking. So, I will at least clarify what I mean.
Being a lawyer, servicing the needs of clients is a profession. I agree with Jay on this. However, in today's society in order to succeed in being able to provide your clients these professional services, you have to:
- know how to reach those whom you can serve best,
- utilize the technologies to do this effectively,
- efficiently follow the professional rules relating to handling of money,
- know how to collect on bills,
- learn the principles of good management of your resources and your support staff.
These skills are necessary to run a practice and we are learning they are skills best borrowed from the general business world. I do not believe when practicing law the terms 'professional' and 'business' are mutually exclusive but they are misinterpreted. And it is cause for fiery debate. I do believe, though, this is where the two worlds collide and the lines get blurred.
What some object to, and I think this is Jay's point, is when the professional purpose of what we do is overshadowed by 'the business machine.' Where legal services are viewed as interchangeable with selling twinkies in the business machine we have created. When the law is commoditized and profit becomes the goal rather than the reward. I agree.
The law is a profession. In order to run our practices we need different resources to support our efforts to render legal services efficiently and effectively. The principles, techniques and technologies to accomplish this are best borrowed from the business world.
And on a different note: Jay started our conversation by saying, "I'm a 73 year old man...." When a person starts their conversation or a sentence with this opening, perk your ears up and take notes because you are going to get the gift of one person's hard earned wisdom which you will not find in books.
Our society worships youth. And in my opinion, we have it all backwards. It is those who have come before us, witnessed much, experienced more whom we should cherish and revere and learn from. Very few will actually reinvent the wheel. I've witnessed listserv conversations where younger lawyers still very wet behind the ears on law and life take swipes at those who have paid their dues and given much without ever being asked. When you do that, you lose in ways you are too ignorant to understand.
I view our conversation as a gift. Thank you, Jay.