On an ordinary day in an ordinary town in eastern North Carolina, an ordinary lawyer received a Most Extraordinary Fee.
What made it wondrous was not its size – a mere $40 – nor how it was acquired. In fact, the attorney felt she’d done little or nothing to earn it.
No, the miracle of this Most Extraordinary Fee was that it answered – with an emphatic Yes! – a pair of existential questions the recipient had been asking herself for months: do I have what it takes to be a lawyer, and do I even want to continue trying?
Not long before, she’d attended a pricey marketing workshop in Miami. There she learned about Value Propositions and Pay-Per-Clicks and Conversion Rates. What she didn’t learn was why she sometimes went home feeling hollow inside, and why she returned in the morning with a mixture of anxiety and dread.
And most important: why did it all seem to be getting harder, not easier? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? After all, she’d been plugging away at this for years.
So she returned to her solo practice with the knot of tension even tighter in her belly. Now on top of all her other worries was the added burden of implementing a 42-Point Marketing Success Plan.
And then the phone rang.
Giving Out to Get Back
“I’ve got a simple question,” said the nervous, soft-spoken man on the other end. “Could I run it by you?”
The attorney sighed. She’d done this long enough to spot someone looking for free advice. Typically she’d respond to the “simple question” by scheduling an in-office interview. Maybe with a consultation fee. That usually separated the sheep from the goats.
But on this March morning – because the caller was polite, and because he’d been referred by a former client, and because she needed a break from slogging through the Digital Content Module of the 42-Point Success Plan – she kept going.
“Sure,” she said. “Fire away.”
It turned out the caller was a Wal-Mart greeter and father of four who had a minor property damage claim with his insurance company. He’d gotten a settlement offer he was inclined to accept, but he wanted to make sure he was being treated fairly.
“I know it’s not much money,” he said. “I just don’t want to be dumb.”
And though he was right about the dollar value, she suspected every penny mattered to him and his family.
So she spent the next half hour talking with him. She explained the claims process, walked through the damage estimates, discussed his options, and said although the offer seemed fair he could always make a counter-offer. She even suggested specific language for doing so.
“I feel so much better,” he said, and she could hear the relief in his voice. “What do I owe you?”
And it surprised herself how quickly she replied, “Nothing. Glad I could help.”
She put all of that in a nonengagement letter and went on with her day.
When she followed up a few days later, she learned he’d settled his claim and was happy. He showered her with gratitude.
Live Long and Prosper
“The miracle is that the more we share, the more we get back.”
Those words – which should be written in gold on every law license – are from Leonard Nimoy, a/k/a Spock.
This is not to say we shouldn’t be paid for our time. Nor is it wise to give legal advice willy-nilly to random callers. But the law is about helping people. And pro bono service is its own reward.
That Friday, this particular lawyer arrived at her office to find an envelope had been slipped under the door. In it was a cashier’s check for $40 and a hand-written note from the Wal-Mart greeter.
“Thank you for your help. It meant a lot that you were there for me. You are an excellent lawyer. I will tell everyone I know about you.”
The Most Extraordinary Fee
For a long time, she just stood there holding the note and check. She hadn’t expected this. She hadn’t asked for anything. And here was the craziest part: she hadn’t improved his position at all. The insurance company never budged from its initial offer, which he ended up accepting.
Yet, for doing “nothing,” what riches she reaped! A lovely letter she could pull out when her spirits sagged, and the Most Extraordinary Fee a lawyer could ever ask for.
And though she continued working the 42-Point Success Plan, she did so with a wry smile. For now she had learned a simple truth, and a wonderful Law Life beckoned.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.