7 Lessons Solo Lawyers Can Learn from Joan Rivers

By Stephen Furnari - September 8, 2014
7 Lessons Solo Lawyers Can Learn from Joan Rivers

Can we talk? Last week, we lost the hardest working woman in show business. Love her or hate her, here are 7 lessons solo lawyers can learn from comedienne Joan Rivers.

Though I do not generally have much interest in celebrity culture, last week I was saddened by the death of Joan Rivers.

I have been a fan since the late 1970’s. As a treat, my mother would let my sister and me stay up past our bedtime to watch Ms. Rivers when she would guest host The Tonight Show.

To us kids, Johnny was a dull old fart. But Joan was edgy, animated and very New York. We could relate to her, and something special always happened on those nights.

From Carson to her own late night show on FOX, Stern Show appearances to reality TV to Internet TV, I’ve been a fan for over 30 years.

Ms. Rivers managed to stay relevant for six decades — impressive in any industry, a feat of triumph in the ephemeral world of showbiz fame.

While reflecting on Ms. Rivers and her impressive career, it occurred to me that there are a few things we self-employed lawyers can learn from her:

1.  Hustle.

Ms. Rivers was one of the hardest working women in showbiz. Having lost it all after her late night talk show on FOX was cancelled, she tirelessly worked venues both large and small all across the country, dozens of them a year in addition to her books and TV shows. Ms. Rivers had an impressive work ethic by any standards, and it never waned throughout her career.

Running a solo practice also requires hustle. You are a one-person army battling the three headed monster of marketing, firm admin and servicing clients. Take the foot off the gas pedal and the pipeline dries up, work doesn’t get completed or your firm admin slips. All have dire consequences to the future of your practice. Keep hustling.

Running a solo practice means battling the 3 headed monster #hustle Click To Tweet

2.  Blaze a trail of innovation, even as you get more secure in your career.

Ms. Rivers was an excellent comedian. Over the course of her long career, that was the one constant. But Ms. Rivers was able to stay relevant for six decades not just for her comedy, but because she wasn’t afraid to try innovative ways to get her act in front of a wider audience.

From Network TV, to the E! Network; late night to reality TV, Indian casinos to In Bed with Joan, her most recent InternetTV project, Ms. Rivers was always trying new things and engaging new generations of fans. As a result, she never got stale.

The legal profession seems to struggle with change. As technology races past us, state bar regulators still argue about whether social media should be regulated like print ads.

The reality is, technology is changing our profession at a rapid pace, and to stay competitive (or employable for that matter), solos will need to keep abreast of these changes.

Take something as simple as web marketing, an area where the nimble solo law practice has a real market advantage over their multi-lawyer firm peers. Web design best practices have changed drastically, even over the past two years. Yet much of our profession is still doing web marketing like it’s 2003.

Like Ms. Rivers’ comedy, law will always be the constant in your career. However, the ways that you attract clients and deliver services is changing. Stay ahead of the curve and you too will stay relevant for decades.

3.  You’ll have hard times throughout a long career, never give up. Ever.

On a recent Howard Stern Show appearance, Ms. Rivers shared how she nearly took her own life. It was around the time that her FOX show was canceled, her husband Edgar had just committed suicide, Melissa (her daughter) wasn’t speaking to her and she was virtually blacklisted from showbiz after her famous fallout with Carson.

Ms. Rivers got emotional explaining to Stern how she sat in her apartment with a gun on her lap intending to use it on herself, but how one of her dogs provided her with a moment of comfort.

Through hard work and sheer persistence, she turned her life around and completely resurrected her career. As a result, Ms. Rivers is loved by a whole new generation of fans who weren’t even alive to see an episode of Carson.

If you make a career out of the practice of law, it will be more like a marathon than a sprint. Over the years you will lose jobs, clients, employees, partners, trials and deals. You will make mistakes that will keep you awake at night or may even get you sued. You’ll have good years, and some really bad ones. Stuff will go down in your personal life.

As tough as things may get, never ever give up. There’s always a way out if you seek it, and a valuable lesson to be learned on the other side.

Maybe consider getting a dog.

4.  Take pride in your personal appearance.

Ms. Rivers’ plastic surgery may have been a frequent joke among her peers, but in a business dominated by schlubby comedians, Ms. Rivers was a stand out for her well groomed personal appearance. Even when making radio appearances she would dress like she was appearing on TV. Ms. Rivers had great respect for her fans and the business, and her well-groomed appearance was a reflection of that respect.

As attorneys we are trusted with the most sensitive personal information of our clients. It’s a position of great responsibility, and we would be well served to honor that by maintaining a prideful personal appearance that is befit of this privilege. Adversaries, judges and peers will judge you based on the way you look, and sloppiness may jeopardize your clients’ cases.

This principal extends to your office as well.

If your budget (or work preference) allows for an office space, then keep it tidy or at least have a clean and comfortable conference room to meet with clients.

For those of us who chose to work from a home office, using it for your business address and meeting clients there is not professional. Spend the $100 a month on a virtual office plan in a nice office suite where you can receive your correspondence and meet with clients. For the premium fees clients pay for your legal services, they deserve at least that.

5.  You may earn a living from places you never expected. Don’t worry about what your peers have to say about it.

In the early 90’s while she was rebuilding her career, Ms. Rivers got a chance to sell jewelry and clothing on the QVC network. Never one to turn down an opportunity, she regularly appeared on the shopping television network to sell her fashion line.

Over the years, Ms. Rivers’ showbiz peers mocked her for it.

Maybe selling fashion accessories on TV was beneath them, but Ms. Rivers laughed all the way to the bank. According to Fortune magazine, in 24 years her fashion line has sold over $1 billion in merchandise.

As a solo attorney, your career may take many twists and turns. Opportunities will present themselves that never seem to come when you are employed by a firm. Often, these opportunities may be outside of a traditional legal career path and your peers may snicker at you behind closed doors. As many of you know, sometimes even the decision to practice law as a solo is mocked by other practitioners.

Who cares. If you follow your gut, and follow your passion, the cash will follow you to the bank.

As a solo attorney, your career may take many twists and turns; take advantage of them Click To Tweet

6.  Fight for what’s right.

Whether it was walking off the Jerry Lewis Telethon because the host was being insensitive to a terminally ill child, handcuffing herself to a shopping cart in Costco in protest because the store refused to carry her book, or mocking celebrities who take themselves too seriously (a la Kristen Stewart), Ms. Rivers had a strong sense of right and wrong, and she used her public persona as a platform to expose morons and hypocrites.

Few of us have the celebrity power, but as attorneys, we have a platform to stick up for what’s right. Some of us have the opportunity to do it everyday in our chosen practice area, but others may not have that chance. Consider lending your talents to a pro bono project fighting to do the right thing. It will make you more passionate about the law, and you’ll be doing something great for your community.

7.  Really appreciate your fans, you owe them everything.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, editorial writer Peggy Noonan, who was a personal friend of Ms. Rivers, discussed a lunch she had recently with the comedienne. Said Ms. Noonan:

The restaurant was full of tourists. Everyone at the tables recognized her and called out. She felt she owed her fans everything and never ignored or patronized an admirer. She smiled through every picture with every stranger. She was nice—she asked about their families, where they were from, how they liked it here. They absolutely knew she would treat them well and she absolutely did.

We may not have fans, but we have clients, and as solos we owe them everything. They fork over their hard-earned money for our advice and counsel, and that affords us a nice life. Be appreciative. Be kind. You owe them everything.

Joan Alexandra Molinsky (June 8, 1933 – September 4, 2014). Rest in peace.

About Stephen Furnari

Stephen Furnari is a self-employed corporate attorney and the founder of Law Firm Suites, the operator of coworking spaces for law firms. Through Law Firm Suites, Furnari has helped hundreds of attorneys launch and grow successful law practices. He is the author of several eBooks, including “7 Deadly Mistakes that Prevent Law Practice Success” and “An Insider’s Guide to Renting the Perfect Law Office”. Stephen has been featured in the ABA Journal, Entrepreneur, New York Daily News and Crain’s New York. Connect with Stephen on Twitter (@stephenfurnari).

2 thoughts on “7 Lessons Solo Lawyers Can Learn from Joan Rivers

  1. Joan Rivers was one of a kind. Your article points out why. These are simple truths that lawyers often overlook. As a Personal Development coach I confront some of these issues with my lawyer clients. Being different is so hard for them. They are so worried about what their peers will think of them. Who cares? Their peers aren’t paying the bills. I wrote a small handbook for new lawyers titled “No Clients? No Job? No Problem!” and cover some of these same things. Love your clients. They are your greatest asset. Innovate. The legal profession needs that. The book was my way of giving back to the profession since I sell it for .99. There is a chapter on marketing; rudimentary stuff. I will miss Joan Rivers. She serves as an inspiration to everyone who has faced tough times.

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