The Work That Got Away

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The Work That Got Away

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A young lawyer friend of mine with his own firm sent me a cryptic message along with his pre-Hari Raya wishes. He did not respond to my message or calls. Usually, he was forthcoming and would tell me what troubled him. I surmised he was quite upset about something.

I caught up with him after the Hari Raya break and learned what happened. A few days before Hari Raya, a client changed his mind about appointing him several days after a four hour discussion, which concluded with a signed warrant to act and a promise to pay his initial fee. My friend was pleased to wrap up an appointment before Hari Raya and secure a tidy fee.

He was immensely disappointed and upset about the brief slipping away. What made it even more upsetting was it came on the back of five previous similar declines. Some had signed, some hadn’t. The point was all those opportunities didn’t work out his way. It was his sixth consecutive instance of missing out on work or having it slip away.

That kind of streak put a big dent in his confidence and outlook. Losing and losing out streaks are painful. For the majority of us – junior or senior, getting work is a difficult and challenging process.

It even happens to those we consider legal legends. Once, many years ago, not long after retiring from the bench, I received an invitation I still cannot fathom. The late Gopal Sri Ram invited me and two friends to form a legal team. He formed it to pitch for a terribly interesting and potentially lucrative piece of work. Despite his efforts and persuasion, the potential client eventually did not choose us and went with another team.

I counseled him that missing out or losing the work before it gets off the ground is a common in legal practice. So young, middling, advanced, or legendary, we will miss out on work. It is inevitable if we are young, starting out and having to prove ourselves; it is unavoidable even if we are a senior who has been in the business for many years or a legal legend.

When I first started my present firm, I got excited whenever I was invited to provide a quote for our legal services. I was excited because any work was better than no work, and the prospect of itself excited me. I sent out legal quotes together with a brief analysis of the case and intended course of action in the hope of providing ‘added value’ with big hopes of securing an appointment. Most of them didn’t turn out the way I hoped. Someone always had the lower quote, better payment terms, or whatever.

There were those situations my friend experienced: cancelling our appointment despite earlier confirming our appointment and agreeing on the fee. And the variety of other ways we lose out on work: the client deciding not to proceed after the initial letter of demand, or switching lawyers mid-way through case preparation, or the client refusing to pay fees. Whatever the case, they all hurt. Especially when we have done nothing to warrant such a reaction. But it is what it is.

Now, I only consider an appointment confirmed once the initial fee has been paid. A client can sign documents, exchange emails or give us verbal confirmation, but those are weak indicators of interest or commitment. A strong one is the payment of our initial fee or an iron-clad written commitment to pay. So, until a payment is made or secured, I consider our appointment unconfirmed or subject to confirmation.

Clients appoint who they appoint for a variety of reasons. Not all decide on appointments based on abilities, competency or appropriateness. Clients often appoint lawyers based on what they want to pay instead of what they should pay. Or because they like what the lawyer promises them about their matter, no matter how unreasonable. Or because they promised they had some cables (influence) to resolve their matter. Or a diversity of reasons, often nothing to do with competency or abilities.

I console myself on losing out on cases by reminding myself it is not because of us, especially for those cases where the client never had the chance to experience our work and service. This reminder is important because it is natural to think we were not appointed because we were not good enough or lousy at our work. But it is equally important to appreciate that sometimes others are appointed for reasons other than competency or ability. Because we get down and miserable when we persist with the latter thought – that we are unworthy or not good enough.

We can also look at missing out on work in positive light. We have room to take in other potential work. We can redouble our efforts on the cases presently in our care. We can use that free time to gain competency or experience by study, taking up courses or meeting people to create opportunities for serendipity. The broader a perspective we have about our predicament, the more creative we can be about our unused time.

I appreciate these consolations do not compensate for losing out on the potential fee and client. But these are inevitable – just like losing. We have to learn how to live with it.

I feel it is better for us to learn to put such misses in perspective, cultivate a positive outlook from them and use those instances as an impetus to try better next time than wallow in misery, generate negativity and blaming ourselves for something that is not within our control. It is better for our heart, head and future business.

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