Your Phone Stopped Ringing—Now What?

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Running a solo practice is a juggling act that requires handling active cases along with simultaneously juggling potential client intake.

If you drop one ball to focus on the other, then you have no future in the circus. Even worse, you don’t understand how to run a business.

Sometimes, however, you find yourself having very little to juggle. Like when the phone stops ringing.

The bad news is that it happens to everyone. The good news is it you can get through it.

Freak out—and make sure everything is working

You should freak out (at least temporarily). Freaking out is good, because that means you care about your business. If you have been in business for more than a year or so, it could mean something is amiss (or it’s just random). Either way, freaking also means you will look into the issue and come up with a solution.

I have a tendency to turn my phone onto do not disturb, especially on the weekends. But I’m not really good about turning it back on. So many times, my phone isn’t ringing is because I told it not to ring (seriously—it happens every other Monday—including when I wrote this). Another time it was because Skype is a giant pile of _stuff_ and Skype didn’t tell me my subscription had run out.

Let’s assume your phone is working. Maybe you rely on Google AdWords or other advertising and you forgot to pay your bill. Maybe it’s a holiday week or maybe your practice area is seasonal—and it’s the down season.

The bottom line is that you want to start with the basics. Once you move past those and if everything checks out, it’s time to reassure yourself. For example . . .

Look at your current cases

It took maybe a year to get to this point, but my practice is backlogged by at least 3 months. If the phone stopped ringing, I would have enough work to last at least 3 months (actually longer if you are including currently active cases).

So that means I’m not really freaking out about the present, I’m freaking out about what could happen 3 months down the road. It’s good to have foresight, but it’s also rather idiotic to think that I will not get a single client between now and three months from now.

So when the intake is slow for a week, I remind myself that there is plenty of food in the cupboard. I also remember that on average, I only file two cases a month, which means I only really “need” to get two new clients a month. Some months I get six new cases. Some months I get zero. That’s just the way it goes.

It also helps to look at your active cases and try and project what you are and/or will make from those cases. You don’t want to spend that money before you earn it, but when you do contigency work (like me), sometimes it takes months or longer to actually get paid on a case. But usually that means it will be a nice payday.

Again, I don’t count my chickens before they hatch. But it’s nice to know that I have some chickens that will hatch at some point in the near future.

Get off your @$$ and do something

Most attorneys get used to the stress and adrenaline of cases. The stress can be exhausting, but it also makes days fly by. So when things “slow down,” it seems like things are dragging. That means there is lots of dead time and for people used to being busy, dead time can be a morale and productivity killer.

When things slow down, you have a couple of options. One, you can sit around and feel sorry for yourself. That will likely lead to increasingly lower morale. Two, you can take a few days off. Or even just an afternoon or morning off. Take your spouse out to lunch, or take your kids to the park. We all know there will plenty of other times where you can’t do that—so take advantage of the time. Option three: don’t let yourself slow down by keeping busy.

The best part about running a business is that there are always things to do. Clean your office. Close those files that have been sitting dormant for weeks. Market, market, market. Start setting up lunches with other attorneys that you know. Work on your website. Work more on your website.

Start crossing things off your to-do list, because you will be busy again. And when you are busy, you will wish that you didn’t have all those lame things on your to-do list that you never did.

Magically, once I get past freaking out and starting networking and ramping up my marketing, the phone starts to ring again. Usually within a few weeks everything is back to my “normal” (which is breakneck speed). Maybe it’s because I’m spend a bunch of time on marketing and networking, or maybe it’s just coincidence. Either way, I feel a lot better about things, because at least I’m trying to fix it, rather than just hoping for things to get better.

Next time it will only be half as bad

This is my third year of running my own firm and I’ve experienced 4-5 what I would consider prolonged droughts. The first time I didn’t know any better, so that time doesn’t count.

Since then, it’s gotten progressively better. At least now I can remind myself that I’ve been through it plenty of times and come out of it just fine. But it’s still very unsettling and it still freaks me out. On the plus side, realizing that fear never completely goes away is reassuring in it’s own way—it means you have to learn to accept it and get through the tough times.

Because once you do, the phone will start ringing again. Unless you turned it off again.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/smercury98/2480914798/)

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  • I experienced this last month for the first time. I have been solo for a little over one year. I do not count the first six months of practice as I was transitioning and getting up and running.

    It is a scary feeling and the stress and pressure of silent phones (and e-mail) can be overwhelming and debilitating.

    As May transitioned to June, my phone started ringing again. Nothing changed. I think it is just the ups and downs of solo practice. I would not trade it for anything as I love the flexibility and freedom I am afforded.

    • The most unsettling aspect of it can be that it’s completely out of your control (to an extent).

  • I’ve been open for about a year and a half now. Last summer, after several months of steady growth, I hit a big slump. I was worried that everything before it had been a fluke, and that reality was settling in. From talking to other lawyers in the local bar, it turns out people in my area just don’t tend to seek out the kind of work I do (family law & estate planning) in the middle of the summer.

    When the same thing started happening two weeks ago, instead of freaking out, I just started taking more days off with the refrain of “eh, it’s June”. If we get to mid-July and things still haven’t picked back up, I’ll start to worry, but for now I’m enjoying the summer.

    • I’d agree with that—I seem to experience a similar down period in early summer.

  • I’ve been doing this since the mid 1990s. I’ve noticed a pattern with my general practice. There are going to be two months out of the year where things dry up. One of those months is almost always February. The other moth is random (typically June). I has gotten so predictable, that I now schedule ski and beach vacation times during those months.

    My point is that if you can plan to always have two no income months per year, you can get through the months with no problem. In my case, I make sure to not drain my operating account to $0 every day (unlike many businesspeople I represent.) With some little restraint, you can sail through a slow month very easily.

  • Excellent advice. That’s exactly why I pay myself the same amount every month, so it balances out the good and bad months.