How much is enough?

The glory of the capitalist system is that the question of, “How much is enough?” is ultimately answered by the individual and moderated by market forces. Now that attorney hourly rates have hit the rarefied air of $1,000 and the not so rarefied air of $300, and the billable hours expectations have long passed what can be accomplished in the 40 hour work week, I can’t help but ask: “How much is enough?”

My grandfather was a tavern owner, in Brooklyn. He served in WWI and raised 7 children of his own and supported his extended family through some tough times like the Depression and Prohibition. He spent his whole life at the “Store”, as we called it. But the Store was such a part of his life that the two were one. Was it healthy? In many ways, it wasn’t. But it was the life he made, and in the end, he seemed contented. He was his own boss and aside from market forces, he answered the question “How much is enough?”

My father was a 9 to 5 kind of guy, worked his entire life for the same company. After high school and his service in the Korean War, he landed in an oil company. The prospects were stable and he believed in the “gold watch”. He was never his own boss and he never was called upon to shoulder that burden. His was to shoulder the burden of following the lead of a corporate hierarchy through tough times like hyper-inflation, Oil Crises of the 1970s and the demise of corporate loyalty. Things did not work out the way he had planned and the “gold watch” was more like “electro plate tin”, but in the end, he did his duty to his family of four. He had other opportunities, but he answered the question “How much is enough?”

I have blended the example of these men in my own life. At times, I have been a 9 to 5 (or 6 to 10 during the bubble years), but at other times, I did not hesitate to leave that safety net to follow my own ideas and path. Some choices, in hindsight, I regret, but for others, I thank the hand of Providence for moving me in the right direction. As my life is far from over, I can’t say if in the end I will be content or not. I don’t believe in the “gold watch” and I don’t believe that “capitalism” does justice to all who swim in her waters. But no matter, I do hold myself accountable to the balance of my life and answer the question, “How much is enough?”

As I engage attorneys in the discussion, I often hear that the motivation for “more” is external, putting the kids through college, paying for the house, the car, or the nursing home for Mom or Dad. I don’t often hear “I like to keep score with money” or “I want more money to feel powerful”. (I say not often because I have heard this, but only twice in my life.) When I ask, “Would you practice law if there was no money involved? That is to say if all your needs and your family’s needs were magically met, would you still have a passion for the law?" I often hear a strong “Yes”. When I hear a No, the conversation goes in the direction of an exit strategy.

Unlike those before us, all in all, we “have” been living in prosperous times. For many decades, the specters of war and economic ruin have been at bay. The economic constraints upon us are, for the most part, of our own making. Education costs are high, but not so high that they can’t be shouldered. The costs of practice are high, but again not so high that they can’t be shouldered. For now, it’s how we answer the question, “How much is enough?” that foretells what freedoms we enjoy. Our Ego’s need, when followed, often will shackle us more than when we follow our bliss.

I also notice, like my grandfather, that some attorney’s lives are so intertwined with their businesses that the two are one. Is this healthy? Probably not, but it is a choice that can only be judged in hindsight. Do you have to work 2000, 2500 or 3000+ billable hours? No.

Forty hours a week for fifty-two weeks a year is 2,080 hours. At an hourly rate of $150 it produces $312,000. Now divide that by three to account for practice costs and you have an income of $104,000. (I use an hourly rate model not because I think it’s a good model, but because it is universally accepted and makes for simplistic examples.) Is this “enough”? What would you give up to “make more”? And for those who are making more, “What would you want in return for making less?”

As I started out, the glory of the capitalist system is that the answer is yours to make. Raise your rate or increase your billable hours. The latter takes from your personal time and the former limits the number of people your services can help. Neither is inherently bad, it’s a matter of personal choice and market conditions. There are enough lawyers to level the market. Is 2500 hours enough? Is $300 an hour enough?

The point is, you should decide without hesitation or explanation. The decision should not be sacrificed to the law firm structure. Individual attorneys are the product, they are the factory and they are the raw material they sell. As it exists today, the law firm “pyramid” takes on a life of its own, forcing decisions that otherwise would not be made - but for the “political” and “economic” reality of a “pyramid” structure itself. “Law Firm" attorneys are not their “own bosses” and are not in line for a “gold watch” no matter what their title. Solo attorneys have no safety net, and society as a whole is not going to benefit when its most educated minds are trapped in a system that “eats its young”. Nor can society benefit when the only alternative is solo practice, where attorneys are left to struggle absent of the benefit of a “collaborative union”.

We should not expect solo practitioners, pro bono work, and non-profit legal organizations to take up the slack. There must be for-profit legal services supported by collaborative business structures. These organizations must create and support the attorneys, men and women, who are willing to make a choice in favor of personal time, in favor of social needs, and against the consumption of more at the expense of others. There are far more so wiling attorneys then the public impression of the legal profession. They deserve their respect and our support.

Lawfirm 2.0 organizations grapple with those elements in their structure that disconnect attorneys from their passion and the balance they choose for their lives. They need to question elements in their structure that preclude a safety net for the practice of law, preventing each attorney from the choice to structure their lives, 9 to 5 or 3000+ billable hours. They need to come to understand that words like “de-equitised” and “retirement” are symptoms of a faulty business structure, not faulty people. And Lawfirm 2.0 organizations need to lead by example by making sure the word “partner” retains its original meaning.