In this week’s edition of the Young, Hungry and Committed series, newly self-employed Virtual office New York attorney, Vivian Sobers, pays the bills by leveraging per diem appearance work.
You would be surprised at the shudders I get when I tell other lawyers I am doing per diem court appearance work. Their body language changes. Their open stance closes in on itself and their facial expression changes to that look as if someone important to them has passed away.
It’s as if they are saying “I’m sorry” with cold eyes and a furrowed brow.
For those of you who didn’t take Latin in high school or college, per diem means per day.
To me, per diem really means one thing: opportunity.
Large and small law firms alike retain as many clients as they can. Sometimes there is more work to do for a client than attorneys to do the work. Sometimes the location of a hearing is inconvenient. Sometimes the law firm would prefer not to waste an attorney’s billable time on a status conference.
Regardless of the reason, law firms farm our appearance work. I am the harvester.
Per diem appearance work has a bad rap. Other lawyers view it as settling. But per diem work has afforded me financial stability in an uncertain legal economy. Because the work is always available, I know that I will always have money to pay the rent. Knowing where your next paycheck will come from can be the biggest fear to overcome when starting your own law practice.
The monetary stability that comes with consistently available per diem work allows me to be picky when it comes to new clients. I don’t have to represent every client who contacts the firm, when many young, self-employed lawyers feel as though they must.
In addition to steady income, per diem work has other benefits.
Yes, I get the chance to hone my skills in courtroom situations that I would not otherwise have had the chance. But I am also honing my marketing and networking skills, which in the long term will provide the volume of qualified clients that will allow me to send per diem work out to other younger attorneys.
Every per diem appearance is a networking opportunity.
When I am scheduled for an appearance, I make it a point to arrive early. There is always downtime while we are waiting to be called in front of the judge and New York County courtrooms are notorious for running late. There are always other attorneys to speak with. I just take a deep breath and sit next to the friendliest looking lawyer on the wooden benches and dive into a conversation. (Networking is one of my least favorite activities, but that is a topic for another day).
My “pick up” line is straight out of a networking nightmare come true: “So. How about the weather?”
I know – cheesy and predictable – but, easy and something everyone can opine about. What follows is the standard attorney conversation: “Oh, so what kind of law do you practice? Are you here on behalf of the plaintiff or defendant? What law firm are you with?”
I always steer the conversation toward the last question. The last question is my networking bread and butter. When I explain I am a solo, the conversation always gets going. It turns the attorney’s pitiful look of per diem judgment into a prolonged stare filled with respect.
The look of respect and follow-up questions about the reasoning behind starting my own law firm always surprise me. I think it is socially and occupationally acceptable to be a young solo practitioner these days. I think it because in a weird way, most lawyers want to be their own boss and practice what they love rather than just doing whatever pays the bills. In an abstract way, being the principle of my own law firm provides substantial credibility, despite my age.
This always leads to cards being exchanged.
But, the card exchange is not what gets me more business. It’s the fact that they’ve exchanged cards with an entrepreneurial young woman who was crazy enough to start her own law firm right out of law school. I will always be top of mind when work comes available because my story is unique and, therefore, memorable.
I cannot tell you how many opportunities I have received from being early to per diem appearances and making an effort to network. It seems the more per diem work I do, the more work I get.
This way my bills get paid and my firm’s pipeline remains as full as my ambition.
My name is Vivian Sobers. I’m young. I’m hungry, and despite the challenges that may lie ahead, I’m committed to making this law practice a success.
Vivian Sobers is a commercial litigator pursuing a solo law practice right out of law school. She is a client in Law Firm Suites’ Virtual Office Program. Vivian’s weekly blog series “Young, Hungry and Committed” documents the trials and tribulations of a young attorney navigating her way through the challenging world of self-employed legal practice.