Stop Living Like a Pro Athlete: 5 Financial F’Ups of Small Lawyers, Part 1

This weekend I got a new car, and it got me thinking about a few things. Primarily, it got me thinking about how financially overextended a lot of young lawyers, and for that matter older lawyers, tend to be these days. Law school ain’t cheap, and at the end of the day a lot of us started practicing law with the idea it would lead to a better set of financial circumstances like…you know…being able to fucking eat real food on occasion and having a couple suits that aren’t from the local goddamn department store.

Of course, as I’ve posted many fucking times over by now, this was the first example of an attorney being stupider than their clients in so goddamn many ways, and making so many assumptions. I’m not exactly treading any new ground in talking about this one, either, as there are blogs out there like the Big Law Investor who talk specifically about finance and attorneys. That blog, by the way, is ran by a dude who hangs out in the LawyerSlack, and he’s a fairly successful, awesome guy that’s a lot of fun to fuck with. However, some of his advice, like “11 Financial Mistakes Lawyers Make” , is woefully written for the BigLaw associates with a six-figure pay day, signing bonuses, and annual bonuses that triple or quadruple their income over that of your standard solo-small firm guy.

So today and Wednesday, I’m gonna talk about us little guys, those of us who buy our suits at a discount from Boscov’s or from consignment shops, drive older cars, and glare at the mounting pile of bills each month. That’s right, motherfuckers, I’m going to talk about the Five Financial Fuck-Ups of Small Lawyers.

Now, I’m not talking about “keeping your practice overhead low” or shit like that. That’s another post all together. What I’m talking about today and Wednesday is your personal finances, and how I see a lot of guys fucking them up with some common mistakes.

Today we’ll talk about the two biggest fucking mistakes I see: Assuming your salary, and living the lawyer life.

1. Assuming you’ll get rich or die trying.

First let’s acknowledge, as the fun guys over at the TaxProf Blog stated, that lawyer salaries haven’t moved one fucking inch since 2015. Not a scootch, not an iota, not even a fuckin “Pardon me sir, when you sign my check this month would you mind brushing my balls so I feel that I gained something?” They’re as stagnant as they can be, with no movement to the lower or the higher end of the scale despite the lower production number of lawyers from law schools and the supposed end of legal employment drought. There just isn’t any growth in pay for the rank and file members of the legal profession.

Now, this is based off a study by the National Association of Law Placement, NALP, who, despite having a name that sounds like something you yell in a high-pitched voice while rushing into battle, got this information by sending surveys out to thirty cities and some select markets. By no means is this a real overview of the legal market’s pay, nor is it a good indicator of what a lawyer can expect to make in any region or market themselves, because, as NALP points out in the full report, lawyer pay is extremely region specific. Plus, the survey fails to account for what has quickly become the most common form of legal practice: the 3-4 lawyer firm or the solo practitioner. Those are lumped into the “fewer than 50” category.

Let me tell you assholes, there’s a lot of fucking difference between working at a 50-man firm and a 5-man firm. Guess, in general, which one pays more?

It’s not the one where the attorneys sometimes come in clad in camo during hunting season, that’s for fucking sure.

And I know there are folks out there, non-lawyer folks, reading the above-mentioned reports and saying “$90,000 a year isn’t a bad starting wage, stop bitching you elitest asshole!”  Maybe, but let’s go to our buddy over at the Big Law Investor who, back in 2015 took a look at the numbers NALP released and actually included the chart from NALP so we could get an idea of what it looked like. Spoiler alert: The chart says you either make $77,000 or less or about $160,000 starting out. There’s no real in between.

That $160,000? That’s for the big boy firms, the white-shoe moneymakers who sip fucking martinis and have things like “free meals provided” and shit like that. Us schmucks down in the dirty trenches of day-to-day legal warfare, pounding out motions in too-cramped offices with industrial carpeting and whose coffee is of the Maxwell House variety, who have clients that always smell vaguely of cabbage, aren’t fucking getting $160,000 starting out.  Hell, sometimes we aren’t even getting the $77,000. This shit is important, because it means you can’t fucking plan for that money. The best of the best get that $160,000, or at least the best of the best on paper who went to one of 15 schools, polled in the top 5% of their classes, and whose shit smells vaguely of roses and Supreme Court Clerkships. That ain’t us.

Solution? You need to plan to make less. Seriously motherfuckers, and I’m looking at all you salivating dogs of law students out there, you need to plan to make less. Realistically look at the salary and pay of small, 3-4 man firm, associates in your area and stop pulling shit from the larger firms to compare your salary. Start budgeting around those sorts of number, not the numbers that those powder-bottomed, country club membership, comped meal motherfuckers get. If your area says that most 3-4 man firm associates are making $50,000 per year, you plan to live your life for a few years in that goddamn range, not assume you’ll be the exception to the rule.

2. Buying for appearance.

I often tell people that the practice of law is a very image-specific profession, because it is a very fucking image-specific professions. As I repeatedly say, the asset that every  lawyer is trying to sell to the client is themselves, and that means we have to present a certain aura or face to each and every client that walks in the door because the mouth-breathing idiots that make up the customer base of the small-law practice is going to assume that a show of wealth=skill. Now, I know lawyers who make a lot of money and couldn’t draft their way out of a paper bag and who seemed to fall ass-backwards into a practice. I also know lawyers that are independently wealthy or inherited a booming practice and let other guys do all the heavy lifting around them. Hell, I even know guys who have gotten pretty damn rich running contingency-settlement shops. None of that means they’re good lawyers just because their car is a 2017 Cadillac or Mercedes with the full options package and their desk is made of only the finest endangered wood.

In fact, I know a damn good number of damn good lawyers who sit their asses down behind “assemble it yourself, dumbass” desks they bought on credit from Office Depot in a rented space that has maybe two or three rooms and who, because of financial circumstances, tend to buy all of their suits off the rack. But those guys, to the client that knows nothing, don’t stand a chance when the wide-eyed idiots walk into a firm office with impressive glass and a water feature.  Those fucking water features.

How does having a fucking fountain in your office make you a good attorney?

But I digress, this part is about how lawyers who aren’t making the Big Law salary like to try and live the Big Law life, especially right out of law school. I mean, I get why they do it, because the appearance is important in roping in the assholes that assume a lawyer who looks like he lives frugally doesn’t have the money to live the right kind of life, and therefore doesn’t have the skills that pay the voluntarily assumed bills. This motherfucker runs out and buys $500 suits then pays another $120 on tailoring, he leases the newest luxury vehicle every year, he joins every social organization, and he rents an apartment or house that’s way fucking out of his price range on the assumption and belief that’s the only way to project the image of a successful attorney. At the end of each month, this son of a bitch may have a full closet, but he has an empty fucking bank account.

Es no-fucking-bueno, Senor Shithead. Es no-fucking-bueno.

Solution? Live frugally. I mean, it seems sort of a no-shit thing, but live frugally.

Look, suits and shit are important, and making sure they look good is important, but you don’t need a $500-$600 suit for daily fucking use. You need, like, two of those suits, one for winter and one for summer, because frankly the only times you should be worrying about the suit appearance is going to be in the courtroom or when talking to opposing counsel. Same deal with shirts: get like three nice ones for those occasions. You don’t need every shirt embroidered with your initials like Sir Douche-ington the Magnificent fuckwit.

The rest of the suits? Do what I do and do what my Dad, a reasonably successful attorney, did: buy off the fucking rack and have them tailored by someone who knows what the fuck they’re doing (and is cheap), or buy a dead man’s suit. My father had, and I now have, a standing order with consignment shops in my area where they’re to call me the second a suit that’s in my size, or reasonably within a certain range that it can be tailored to fit, comes in the door. I then drive my ass out there, look at the suit, and 9 times out of 10 end up buying the whole shebang for less than $100.  Toss in another $20-$50 for tailoring, and I may have a suit that belonged to a guy who died horribly, but GODDAMN does it look nice!

Cars and shit are the same way. Don’t drive the hoopty-mobile with a missing door, you’re a goddamn lawyer, but you don’t need a Lexus. Buy a nice four-door sedan from within the last four to five years with reasonable mileage on it that has no visible exterior damage, and buy it in a color like black or grey that makes it look nicer than it is, and have at. Your clients don’t give a fuck what you drive so long as they don’t see you driving something that looks like it’s foot-powered.

Truth is, most of the clients who are concerned about the appearance of wealth and associate it with good lawyering can’t fucking differentiate between suit brands or car types anyhow. They’ll have no fucking idea that your daily suit is polyester-blend unless you tell them, or that your car is the base model unless they own the same car. All they know is that there’s a thin veneer of respectability covering up the bullshit below, and that’s what you need.  You can’t buy talent, but you sure as hell can buy the appearance of talent for much cheaper than you are right now.

We’ll pick up here Wednesday

So what are the other three ways to save some fucking cash as a small lawyer? Shit, we’ll talk about that shit on Wednesday, guys. This has already gone on way too long, and I got other shit to do today.

-BB

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