Amidst appeals for “disruptive innovation” and dire predictions for the future of the profession, some lawyers are quietly changing the way they practice. They’re not doing this as part of a movement – they’re just doing what is best for themselves. There are more of them than you might think.
I recently chatted with a former client who exemplifies this situation perfectly. The interview illustrates how and why one litigator modified his practice – and realigned his definitions of personal and professional success in the process.
When lawyer Ronald J. Smith, QC quit practicing law to focus exclusively on mediation, he was in for a surprise – a very pleasant surprise.
Prior to launching Just Family Solutions in 2013, Smith was a litigator for 38 years. He worked in one of the larger firms in the Kelowna, B.C. and then in partnership with another lawyer, Glenda Peacock. While he enjoyed a thriving family law practice, he knew that he wanted to find more satisfaction in his work.
Q. What prompted the change from a litigation practice to one focused exclusively on mediation?
There were a variety of factors in my personal and professional life. My wife retired in 2013. I could have afforded to retire too, but I knew I would miss the social aspects of my work – the meetings, mentorship and connecting with old friends at conferences.
Q. How long had you been considering the change?
Two to three years. It was a question of finding the right office space, winding up the partnership with Glenda Peacock (we’re still friends!) and preparing properly for the transition.
Q. What’s different about your approach to work now?
Litigation can be a hard life. You’re driven by the client’s last crisis, or the opposing client, or the opposing client’s counsel, or the needs of the court….your time is not your own. You’ll walk into the office on a Monday with no idea of what you could be faced with. And you have no choice but to attend to these issues because it’s your obligation as a regulated professional.
My workdays are much easier now. If there’s a crisis, it’s the client’s crisis and not mine.
Also, just being in the litigation environment makes many lawyers (including me) go into “fight or flight” mode – we prepare ourselves physically and mentally for the battle. And often we’re battling over minutiae. It takes a toll.
I always thought I was good at separating work and life, but the truth is that I’m much more relaxed now. On the rare occasions when I step into a litigator’s office, I’ll automatically change my posture to “battle-ready” – it’s a conditioned response after so many years of practice, but I never noticed it until I was away from it for a while.
Q. What about the way you’ve structured your office? Any adjustments?
I don’t have an assistant anymore. It takes a lot of time to set things up and learn new systems – I arrange my own appointments, input time, find all my own documents, create and send invoices, etc. It was a steep learning curve, but I’m getting better. For example, the first time I set up a mediation on my own it took an entire afternoon. It now takes 30 minutes and I suspect it will only get faster.
On the upside, I can call my former assistant for help and, thanks to email, I haven’t had to buy stamps yet! Packaged offices make things easy because there’s only one invoice to deal with. I go into the office for specific amounts of focused time, but I also have the option of working from home if I need to.
If I’m on vacation, I just leave a detailed message saying when I’ll be back and the best way to reach me then. I don’t worry about what’s happening at the office while I’m away.
Q. How’s business?
Pretty good! I’ve decided that an average of two mediations per week is the right amount for me and I’m happy with that.
Q. Any advice for other senior counsel considering a similar change?
It takes a lot of public relations and business planning to ensure a steady flow of mediation work. I spent a lot of time “raking the ground” before I made the move; I wanted to have a good base of referrals and clients to start off with.
Some litigators might think that things can be handled with a sign and an announcement, but it requires more than that – especially if you’re in a smaller city. Take incremental steps so the transition won’t be overwhelming.
I’d advise anyone considering a similar move to review the mediation billings from their last year of practice and determine if it would be enough to support his or her needs. A good financial safety net will also help.
Q. What’s next?
I’ve been fielding requests to mediate workplace disputes – there seems to be a need for this. I wanted to develop my practice in stages so the change would be manageable; I’ll probably be ready to expand to the workplace mediation this year.
Smith’s story is one of many I’ve encountered lately. I’d like to write a series of blog posts about “Real Lawyers Making Real Changes”. If you would like to suggest another interviewee, please get in touch.
*Full disclosure: I’ve known Ron Smith since 1999. He chaired the board of directors at the Continuing Legal Education Society of B.C. when I worked there, and he was a client of mine many years ago when I first began consulting. I’ve always admired his commitment to the profession, whether he’s mentoring young professionals through Mediate B.C. or taking time to share his expertise with colleagues.