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On Gardens and Law Firms

by Erik Mazzone |

My college roommate, Jeff, married into an old New England family that has a beautiful cabin on a lake up in Maine. When I used to live in Boston, and occasionally still if I am just the right amount of shameless, I was able to wrangle myself an invitation to stay there for a night or two. 

It’s a gorgeous place up on Belgrade Lakes region – if you think On Golden Pond, you’re not too far off. If you’re younger than 50, replace On Golden Pond with, I don’t know… I am over 50. Just picture a cabin on a lake, preferably not from a horror movie.

Anyway, when I first visited their cabin when I was in law school, it made a huge impression on me and my then classmate, now wife. Not only was the cabin itself lovely and the lakes region just spectacular in the fall, but the family’s gardens were unbelievably picturesque. It looked like something from an arboretum or a botanical garden: everything was labeled with the name of the plant, and every planting was perfectly adapted to the soil and light, so it was all just… perfect.

My wife and I – neither of whom have ever been accused of having a green thumb – and were just amazed at the beautiful gardens. We thought, if we ever own a house with a yard, we’d like the yard to look just like that. 

Well, flash forward through 25+ years of marriage and we’ve owned several houses with yards - in the far more favorable growing climate of North Carolina, no less – and not one of them has ever looked anything like that cabin in Maine.

We tried hard. I was a landscaper in college during the summers and I grew up as unpaid child labor on my parents’ unforgivingly large lot in the Hudson Valley – I kid you not, I went through my parents old photos after my mom died, and roughly 70% of the ones I was in, I was either pushing a lawn mower or shoveling snow, from the time the shovel was bigger than me – so I had some modicum of skills in tending a lawn (though the owner of the landscaping company who I swear, in 4 years never actually learned my name but referred to me only as “big guy”, might take some issue with my characterization of my landscaping skill level).

Yet, our lawn always looked… not bad exactly. More like, meh. Mid. We tried hiring professional landscapers, and nope. Same deal. Meh. Always just a far cry from that cabin in Maine.

It wasn’t until I was much older, and my wife and I had long committed ourselves to a life of living in downtown condos and apartments that I eventually came to realize the truth of that beautiful garden in Maine and why my several yards never came remotely close to looking that good: that Maine garden was a labor of love by Jeff’s mother-in-law. She worked at it and tended it and cared for it and loved it beyond all bounds of reason. 

And that’s why it looked so amazing. And I am sure still looks amazing, though I note with some chagrin I haven’t been invited to see it in person in some time. Maybe I will post this article to Twitter where Jeff can happen upon it…

Anyway, after that long digression, to the point of what that Maine garden has to do with running a law firm. 

I work with many clients whose approach to running a law firm is very much like my approach to managing a lawn: they want it to run like a top and be an amazing business. But they want to put in a reasonable amount of time to getting it there. They want their time spent running their business – hiring employees, upgrading technology, planning business development, mentoring the next generation of partners, etc. – to fit into the hours around the edges of practicing law and living a life.

More sympathetic, I could not be (to borrow from Elaine in Seinfeld). I empathize strongly with that notion.

Here’s the problem, though.

The law firms that run like amazing businesses, like that garden in Maine, are not the product of reasonable amounts of time and effort. They are not even the products of spending gobs of money on consultants, law firm administrators, and legal technologists. 

The truly amazing businesses (and gardens, and novels, and paintings, and athletes…) are the product of totally unreasonable amounts of time, energy, focus, and effort. They are not amazing by accident. They are amazing because they have absorbed an outsized amount of focus and work.

So, what does that mean for running a law firm? A few things.

First, if you are one of the many lawyers who does not want to devote unreasonable amounts of time and energy to their business, that’s cool! That’s one of the great things about owning a business… you get to choose what the business will be. I’m not here to convince you that turning your law firm into an amazing business is important. You choose your values. I do want you to understand, though, that it’s a choice. Your choice.

Second, if you have decided that you don’t care about your firm being an amazing business, stop comparing yourself to firms that have made that decision. “Comparison is the thief of joy”, or so my therapist tried to get me to understand over many years. If you have decided that your family is the most important thing in your life (and nearly everyone in the universe would applaud that prioritization), then fantastic – and let yourself off the hook of comparing your firm to firms led by folks who haven’t made that decision.

Third, if you are at a stage in life where you do want to invest unreasonable amounts of time to make your law firm an amazing business, you need to accept that it will only get there on the back of your effort. You can find lots of resources and help (myself included), and you can buy tons of stuff to improve your firm, but none of it is going to matter more than you deciding to put in the effort and make it happen. You can’t buy it, you can’t hire for it, you can’t consult it into being, you can’t technologize it – you have to make it happen.

Fourth and last, if you really want to make your firm into an amazing business, and you’ve come this far, you have to embrace the diet and exercise aspect of it. Since I myself am relatively unfamiliar with diet and exercise, I will share that what I mean here is that you need to lean into that it will be a daily slog, a war of attrition, of doing the little things to transform your firm. It will be about the power of compounding. And compounding doesn’t work wonders over short periods of time. It only truly works its magic over the long haul. You plug away and one day you look up and you are amazed at what you have built.

This power of compounding is the same thing that makes amazing gardens and families and lawyers – you can’t pick everything to work on. So, pick the things that matter most to you. Let yourself off the hook on the things you didn’t pick. And set about making your garden – whatever form that takes – amazing.

Don’t forget that as we come into the new year, I am always available for practice management consultations, which are complementary for Lawyers Mutual insureds – you can schedule them here.

Best of luck and happy holidays.

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