TRACK THE HORIZON OF DOOM
One of the greatest challenges for the small firm practitioner is keeping track of the Horizon of Doom. The Horizon of Doom is the theoretical day that the money in firms operating account at the bank is not enough to cover the firm's bills and payroll. Subtract the sum of the firm's financial obligations from the firm's bank balance and pro-rate the sum by the anticipated bills into the future, and you have projected your Horizon of Doom for years, months or weeks into the future.
If the balance is negative, then the firm has reached the Horizon of Doom and gone over the edge. In the practice documented by Jonathan Harr in A Civil Action, (1995) Jan Schlictman's comptroller fought valiantly to keep the firm away from the Horizon of Doom, and Schlitman realized that battle was lost the morning his car was repossessed.
Small firm practitioners know at all times how far away the Horizon of Doom is and when the next fee will be in that will push back the Horizon from threatening for a good long while. In the early years, the roar of that fateful edge pounds in your ears like the approach to Niagara as you lie awake in the small hours of the night, thinking about where the next fee will come from, will you make payroll next month. Eventually, the small firm practitioner finds a level of comfort as paying cases come at a steady and predictable rate from clients, acquaintances and colleagues. To achieve and maintain that predictable steady stream of revenue, the small firm practitioner and the solo practitioner must make a virtue of her size, creating a niche by taking on cases that bulky firms cannot or will not.
Large firms maintain the luxury of skimming the easiest and most profitable cases. Such firms are best suited to production work, grinding out the same kind of case, mindlessly, one after another, like so many McDonlald's hamburgers. Small firms cannot exploit the economies of production line case processing to create profit from many small cases, but the small firm can and must claim the benefit of other advantages.
One advantage of the small firm is relatively low overhead costs. With fewer mouths to feed, the small firm can make a whole meal on a fee that would be mere crumbs at the table of a large firm. A small firm can fun comfortably for a month or more on a $10,000 fee that would not even unlock the front door of a large firm, leaving the small firm practitioner more receptive to smaller cases than a big firm.
The small firm practitioner can feast her firm on a couple of six figure fees each year that a large firm would gulp down without even noticing. This economy of scale creates the next advantage that the small firm practitioner must seize upon. The lone practitioner actually has the opportunity to think about her cases and can win hard cases by applying creativity and insight to her work. Simply by picking though cases rejected by big firms because the answer was not obvious or easy, the small firm practitioner can put value on a case.
If you need lumbering muscle, hire the big firm, but if you need sinuous, lightening fast strength and fast thinking for the rapid ascent to the peak without oxygen, hire the solo practitioner. The smaller firms devote more time and energy to each case and the result is a higher and more personalized level of service to the client. This is a very marketable advantage.
A couple of examples are in order (no real names are used):
Susie Smith's developmental hip dysplasia was not diagnosed until she was four years old. The case against the pediatrician was turned down by several large firms because the little girl made a good recovery after surgery and such cases turn, with difficulty, on the mothers credibility versus the pediatricianís on the question of whether there was a limp after the infant started to walk. The pediatrician will predictable testify that no complaints were made and the defense argues that if the limp were there, the mother would have taken the infant for a second opinion. Susie's case was finally picked up by a solo practitioner who helped the parents locate videos taken by a relative at Susie's 3rd birthday showing a subtle by undeniable unevenness of gait that the pediatrician denied was present on examination. The case settled at trial, however, after Susie's attorney tracked down the diagnosing general practitioner from a rural town in Europe who was flown in to testify that the condition was readily diagnosable. The case settled at $825,000, putting good distance from the "Horizon of Doom" for this small firm. This is an excellent example of how the small firm practioner goes the extra mile (or thousands of miles in this case!) for their client, and is rewarded for their extra efforts.
In another matter, John Jones' wife explained that she had been to every big firm on Court Street, and each one turned down her husband's case. He was rendered paraplegic by malpractice, but the treatment that caused the paralysis was for an advanced cancer, drastically reducing the potential verdict or settlement. The big firms rejected the case as a matter of course. A small firm practitioner had the insight to look into the initial treatment, discovering that there was a failure to treat a benign polyp that eventually lead to the cancer. John Jones was the victim of serial malpractice. The small firm moved quickly with direct and energetic prosecution of the case, serving a generic Bill of Particulars when defense counsel called for an extension of time to answer. The case that had been dismissed out of hand by the big firms settled for 1.5 million dollars. Mr. Jones received 24-hour personal nursing care for the rest of his life, and the restoration of as much as possible of his dignity and some financial comfort for his family. On a personal level, his attorney was honored to be included in the funeral held at a storefront church in central Brooklyn. He was shocked and humbled to learn on arrival at the service that he was to deliver the eulogy. His effort, his willingness to take on a case that others had rejected, made a difference to Mr. Jonesí family, and the rewards were not just financial.
The last case was a direct outgrowth of free legal services provided to a friend of a friend. If you days are not filled with paid work, fill your days by providing competent legal services at whatever level of compensation you can get. Stay busy and that pro bono work will result in paying work, eventually. Even when you have become secure and established, you should stay open to opportunities that may not have an immediate payoff, since you never know where a contact may lead.
With careful planning the sound of the Horizon of Doom will not rush with the torrent of Niagara, but will gently rock you to sleep, with the distant comforting sound of a relaxation tape. There is a lot of space in between the bulky presence of the major firms, and that space can be profitable. The creative small firm practitioner can exploit those areas to stunning success and deep personal satisfaction.
If your monthly nut including payroll and payroll taxes is $5,000, then a bank balance of $13,000 puts your Horizon of Doom at 2 1/2 months.