Too Good To Be True: Why You Shouldn’t Take That Big Case

Hey you little legal morons, all you solos and baby lawyers out there struggling to make ends meet.  Sure, the office may be cramped and filled with files, but you’re living the dream of a day-to-day small time lawyer.  Certainly you may be driving Uber to keep the lights on during the slow months, and your bank account may always be on the verge of being overdrawn, but that’s how this law thing is supposed to work, right? And at the end of the day you know that it’ll all be worth it if you can just land that one big case that’ll rake in the hours and the dough, bringing you from the edge of the red to firmly in the black and making it clear that you’re a real player in the legal game, right?

Wrong, dipshit.  Because as Captain Ahab learned, sometimes when you get that white whale you’ve been chasing it may turn right the fuck around and kill you.  Then some asshole writes a book about your horrible defeat at the hands of the big case and it opens with “Call me Justice Scalia” or some shit. I don’t know, I never read Moby Dick after I figured out it wasn’t fucking erotica or some shit.  But even without the strong analogy, the fact remains that one big case can sink your little law office faster than an Italian ferry loaded down with passengers.  The fucker’ll blow your finances up quicker than a Southwest jet engine. It’ll ruin your goddamn future.

So you probably shouldn’t take that big case.

Big Cases Can Be Good.

We all know that one case out there that’ll set us on the path to financial certainty and let our firm prosper, and there are a lot of them that you should take.  Like, for instance, the young, recently married neurosurgeon who gets hit by a city bus driven by a drunk driver with multiple write-ups and no other adverse employment action, who then becomes paralyzed from the neck down (because death doesn’t pay as much) right after getting a residency at some internationally known hospital.  That’s the sort of tragedy that makes all good personal injury lawyers cream in their off-the-rack slacks just a little bit, right? And it fucking should be, because that’s one that’s going to be a quick in and out for a settlement with only the numbers left to dicker about with some soulless bastard from the insurance company.  Those are the sorts of cases that make the practice of law profitable: tragic and easy ones.

But not many of the big cases that darken a small firm’s doorstep are like that, even if they have some huge earning potential.  Some cases are so fucking massive that they demand your attention and in return provide you with a huge fucking amount of billable hours that are an immediate cash flow injection to the dying, gasping, wheezing manifestation of your poor life choices that is your law practice.  And that’s fucking awesome, right? I mean, if you can bring in tens of thousands of dollars a month off of one well-heeled client, holy fuck man whose dick you have to suck to manage to make that happen, right?  And even if it isn’t exactly billables that you’ll be sending out every month but the expectation of some huge contingency fee at the end of some shit, like we’re talking a six figure fee, if you just persevere through all the bullshit of beating Allstate into submission, isn’t that worth the extra time in the office and the initial outlay?

No.

Big Cases Take Over Your Practice.

There’s a reason that Harold the Hardly Competent small practice lawyer isn’t running around signing up and working on class action matters.  It’s because old Hapless Harry’s practice consists of himself, his spouse who acts as the office manager so they can be on the firm insurance, and an elderly beagle that pisses all over the files.  Sure, Harry the Fuckwit handles cases in court and to trial, and he’s got a decent little thing going on with the neighborhood PI cases and a divorce here or there, but Harry doesn’t have Westlaw, or a high-capacity copier, or a legion of young lawyers that are willing to dig through a U-Haul full of corporate emails with dick pics during discovery to find the one barely relevant document that leads to the next barely relevant document.  Harry isn’t fucking equipped to handle the white whale of cases against the bigger firms, and the bigger firms fucking know it.

So Harry has only one option if he wants to go after the big case, and that’s recognizing he has some goddamn limits.  First and foremost, he’s gonna have to realize that he’s about to dedicate every free moment of his life to being in the office doing shit on these cases. Next, he’s gonna have to do the thing that no lawyer ever wants to do:

Harry’s gonna have to turn away business.

You Won’t Have Time For Other Shit.

Fact is when you’re a small office you only have one critical resource that you can’t stretch too fucking far, and it isn’t money.  It’s your time and attention.  As an attorney you know that every case is going to require your time and attention, and when the shit is hitting the fan, your action, to stay viable and be handled correctly.  There are deadlines to meet, briefs to draft, and shit to do on every case that sits on the corner of your desk mocking the hell out of you, and at some point you need to sit down and actually do the fucking work and do it competently.  Normally a lawyer can manage their time in a weird-ass balancing act where we switch back and forth between everything, but when you have that one huge fucking case paying all of the bills the simple fact is you aren’t going to be managing shit.  That client is covering the office overhead, so that client gets all the free attention you have and when they call and say jump, you promptly remove your lips from their ass to ask how high.

Those are the facts, and when you’re having to dedicate all the time you have to a case that fills your fucking office with bankers boxes of documents and there’s only so many hours in the day, you just don’t have the time to sit down and tell poor old Ms. McGillicudy that her Last Will and Testament could use some re-writing, because yanking that fucking template off the system and filling in her grandkid’s names is fifteen minutes of work you need to spent drafting deposition outlines for that huge fucking deposition coming up in Sir Bucks-a-lot’s case.

So you have to turn shit down, otherwise you’re going to commit malpractice and it sure as shit isn’t going to be on the big ass case, it’ll be on the dozens of smaller ones that you keep taking because you’ve always taken the cases that come through the door to keep the fucking lights on and the cheap whiskey in the liquor cabinet. Unless you plan on never leaving the office for the pendency of a case that could take years, there’s just no fucking way to devote that much time and attention to every matter.

Which is  bad, because…

At Some Point The Case Will End.

Eventually that big ass case that you’ve been chasing through the heavens is going to come to an end, and with it the billables.  Sure, you may have made a lot of money during the pendency of the action, but now you have no cases so there’s not a lot in reserve.  Likewise if it’s on contingency, you’ve spent years taking other cases only on a maintenance basis to keep up with the bills while your war chest and cash reserves steadily deplete themselves.  All of the sudden you find yourself with some payment and the bills paid, and richer for the time you had the case, but suddenly fucking bereft of clients in anything else.  All those little cases you had, all those ham and egg clients who referred to you as their lawyer, they’re no longer around.  Because it turns out that people don’t really appreciate being told “Look Bobby, I know I’ve represented you for ten years and five divorces, but I just don’t have time for you now.”  What they heard is “My lawyer doesn’t care about my business, so I’m going somewhere else.

That means you’ll be back at square one when it comes to running your fucking office, maybe with a little more cash but still without the stable of clients you had before.  When there’s nobody to whip for cash, there’s no cash, and you’ll have to scramble to rebuild your client base really fucking fast if you don’t want the law office that once was doing okay (if not great) to become another “For Lease” sign on the side of the road as your ass starts shopping around your resume.

Sometimes, though, They Pay Off.

Still fucknuts, remember that sometimes it’ll make sense to take a case that’s punching out of your weight class.  Sometimes the facts will line up so perfectly and incontestably in your favor that you can settle the case quick, take your money, and go the fuck home.  Sometimes the case won’t be amazingly time and labor intensive, and it won’t consume your whole practice.  Sometimes the risk is definitely worth the reward.

But that means you gotta make an honest fucking assessment of yourself and your practice to determine if you really can handle the case before you take it on.  I don’t mean the “oh, I can fucking do this because I’m super lawyer” assessment your ego makes, I mean an objective assessment of your resources and ability before sinking yourself into a search for the white whale.  If you can, great!  If you can’t, refer that shit out and take your referral fee, then move the fuck on with your life.

There’s a lot of shuttered law offices that ended up harpooning that goddamn whale before getting dragged down and drowned.

-BB

One thought on “Too Good To Be True: Why You Shouldn’t Take That Big Case”

  1. I’m no lawyer and am not going to play one here. That said… A maxim of small consultancies is to never get dependent on a single client – what the business schools call ‘capture.’ I had a stable and highly profitable one-man consultancy for many years, providing computer support services for high-end workstations. Leaving aside the grotty details, my rule of thumb was that no single client would get more than 15 hours per week, and whenever I was regularly billing over 40 hours/week, I’d raise my rates. If big jobs came in, I’d redirect them or take on a single partner for that task.

    The end result was exactly what you want – a stable base of clients big enough that if one of them went away, things were fine. I had a dependable minimum number of billing hours; and a rate high enough to live on those minimum hours. My clients were happy and recommended me to new ones. If a client got big enough that they started to approach capture, my last task for them was to help them hire a full-time person to do my job – sometimes accompanied by a 10-hours/month retainer for the first year. It wasn’t *quite* a license to print money, but at the end I was pulling in what would be $200,000 year in today’s dollars.

    So, hell yes, I second your advice: don’t allow yourself to be captured, either by the big project or the big client.

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