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ALPS In Brief - Episode 82: How to Build and Maintain a Strong Legal Practice

14 min read

ALPS In Brief - Episode 82: How to Build and Maintain a Strong Legal Practice


Hello. I'm Mark Bassingthwaighte. I'm the risk manager here at ALPS, and welcome to another episode of ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. 

For those of you that aren't familiar with me, I've been practicing at ALPS, serving in the role of risk manager for over 26 years, and, recently, it's been about two and a half, maybe ... Coming up on. Well, two and a half. Two and a half. I got to think through this. 

I have been blessed to be able to have my wife and I move to Florida, so I'm coming to you from our remote location here in St. Cloud, Florida on a beautiful day. 

I want to continue with some conversations that I've had over the years, and this fits in the category of listening to your life, focusing on some growth issues, and really the purpose of this particular podcast is to talk about how to build, and, perhaps, even more importantly, how to maintain a successful law practice. 

There's a lot written out there on the importance of marketing, networking. I've lectured, and written on a lot of this, myself, and I really don't want to dismiss that. That's very important, in terms of building a practice, as is understanding the marketplace, having all the correct tools. There's lots of things, if you will, on the business side that need to be addressed, and they are very important. 

But the older I get, I continue to discover, and appreciate the value of something else, and it really is what I would describe as the foundation, and foundations in relationships, as an example, and in many aspects of our lives, I've come to learn, are so important, whether that's a foundation ... To become a foundation for your children, as they grow, to have a foundation built on commitment in personal relationships, particularly, in the context of a marriage. It's just something that I have found to be very, very relevant. 

So, I'm going to talk about the foundation necessary to build and maintain a successful law practice, and really what I'm talking about is wellness. I have written and talked for years about how impairment issues are significant, in terms of their role in practice claims, in grievances, and all that, but I'm coming at it from a different angle, and I really do believe that a foundation in the practice of law, a personal foundation, based on wellness is absolutely essential, and fundamental to the long-term success of a successful law practice. 

And I'm going to be, as we talk today, sharing a little bit about myself, and I'm not here to suggest, in any way, shape, or form that I've got it all figured out. I absolutely don't, but I do want to say I'm on a journey, and it is a wellness journey. I have yet to find the end point, if you will, and I mean I remain a work-in-process. 

That's going to be true for me for the rest of my life, because life is a journey, and I guess, at some point, the journey will come to an end, and perhaps, in some way, that's an end point, depending on what you believe, but while we're here, in a physical body, in this wonderful place we call Earth, for all of us, it's a journey, and so I encourage you to consider that, and let's talk about what is important, in terms of wellness, as we go through this journey. 

In my mind, wellness ... This is far more than just about health. Okay? I'm going to talk a little bit about health, but it really is about all aspects of one's life. We need to have wellness in our personal lives, in our professional lives, in our spiritual lives, it just goes on and on. 

And, again, to the degree that we struggle individually with any aspect of wellness, in any aspect of our life, that can create some problems. How do you think impairments arise? If we're not taking care of ourselves, we can get overwhelmed, we can get burned out, we can get depressed, we can turn to alcohol, et cetera, et cetera. I don't want to rehash all that. 

All I'll say is to really stay strong, to stay focused, wellness matters. Let me ask some questions just to set this up. Are you happy in your life? In terms of generally happy. I have days where I'm not happy. Things can be kind of crazy. I've had a rough week, to be honest with you. A colleague recently passed very unexpectedly, and that's been difficult. It's been very difficult. I've gone through some health issues, nothing overly concerning, but some surgery that was necessary, and, let's just say, it was a little rougher than anticipated, so there are normal stressors in life. Things happen, but I would say, generally, I have an overall sense of happiness, an overall sense of fulfillment, an overall sense of purpose. 

Is life stress-free? No, but even the times ... Even good things happening in life can be stressful, so it's about wellness. How do we handle the stress? How are we working through the issues? 

Okay. That's the broad stuff, but let's dig in a little bit, and talk about really what wellness means, if you will, in the practice of law, and talk about why it's important. 

Let me knock it out there, in terms of the first topic, because it's so significant. We do need to set some boundaries. We're not going to really talk about how can we find, and maintain wellness here. We do need to set boundaries, and you hear these discussions all the time, and, honestly, speaking personally, "Well, it's about maintaining balance," and I just ... It drives me crazy. I fail to understand how if we find some balance between two aspects of our lives, that that solves anything, because by even framing it that way, the assumption is that some aspect of your life is unhealthy, and if we bring some other aspect of your life that is healthy into balance with this, somehow that fixes everything, and, no. No. All aspects of your life have to be happy, and healthy. 

And, typically, when we're talking about balance between professional life, and work life, there's this assumption that we're devoting too much time, and things are out of balance, and it's not healthy for us in terms of our professional life, so let's talk about setting boundaries, and we could talk for a long time about all the different ways to do this, but what I really want to say to you, whether you're brand-new in practice, or have been practicing for 50 years, and still struggle with this, sometimes it's important to hear from a fellow lawyer, a fellow ... Someone that gets it with you. 

Life can be crazy, both externally, in terms of your personal life, and professionally. It's okay to take care of yourself. Self-care, self-prioritization is not selfish. It's not saying to your client that, "You don't matter to me." You need to work, to have a life. That's really what we're doing here, so set some boundaries. 

If you work great in the morning, or some people are morning people, some people are afternoon people, whatever time of day is really good for you to knock some work out, protect that. Don't have the phone ringing all the time, and people scheduling appointments. Have some quiet time, and really prioritize that. Stick to it, and give staff the ability, or the permission, if you will, to enforce the time that you set aside. Turn off notifications, don't check your email, et cetera, et cetera. I would schedule some breaks throughout each day, in terms of the work day, primarily, even if it's just 10 minutes now and again to get outside, and get a little sun, to get outside and just clear your mind. 

I have found that to be very effective. Sometimes I just need a mental break, and so I'll go out, and just stroll a little bit, and that can provide clarity. I can problem solve at times doing this, because I give myself permission not to worry about it, and I give myself permission to just go, and be calm. 

So, set some boundaries. On personal time, you don't need to be available 24/7. So, unplug, turn this thing off, get off of the Matrix. That's okay. It's not selfish. It's something you deserve, and it's how you stay professionally sharp. If you're never recharging your batteries, just to even have some time to de-stress and get the work done that needs to be done, or have time to clear your head, it's all good. You have to have that, or the ax is going to get dull. 

So, another thing that I strongly encourage you to do is just invest in your physical health, because, again, boy, I could tell you some stories over the years with all the consulting I've done, and I have worked with more attorneys than I ever thought, who had all kinds of health issues, that were tremendously impacting their ability to competently, in a few situations, serve their clients. 

I literally had to go into one solo practice, at one point, and tell them, "You're done practicing today," and it was not a conversation I was looking forward to, but, at the end of the day, I got to tell you, you know what the response was? Just one of relief. Finally, somebody gave him permission to say, "It's okay. You're done. You can't ..." He was able to acknowledge, and finally just say to himself, "Okay ... It didn't need to be that way. Get some exercise." It improves cognitive function. I mean it really does. Eat reasonably well. All this fast food crap that's out there, we all know that just shoving junk into your body morning, noon, and night, day after day is going to not serve you well. 

You want to try to get a good night's sleep, and just rest. Again, that needs to be prioritized at times. Yes, there will be times, perhaps a hearing coming up, or something, and where some of these things have to go by the wayside a little bit, and that's okay, but you got to get back into the routine. 

As you go through this journey of living, and being an attorney, and serving your clients, you still have to care for yourself. One of the things that I do, and if you've listened to some of my other podcasts, I enjoy tremendously going out, and cycling. I do a lot of cycling, and that is just a place, again, where I can be calm, and where I can just enjoy the moment, and, for whatever reason, it works for me. I love it. Even if it's indoors, at times, you're ... Depending on the hour, and time of day, and weather, I do a lot of riding indoors, and that's where I get some of my best writing in, believe it or not. I put in anywhere between 1500, 2000 miles a year, and it is a great workout indoors, and I just love it. 

Playing tennis is another thing I've taken up, I got back into, after a number of years, but doing it here in Florida, we're very blessed to be near the USTA, the USA's Tennis Association, national campus, and I'll be honest and say, there are many times where I either have a tennis lesson over there, or here at the local courts, meeting with some friends, and playing, I'll tell you honestly, there's a lot of times where I just don't want to go. It's been busy, been a crazy day, and I just, "Ugh." I've never missed, though. I always just force myself to do it, and here's the crazy thing, never once have I regretted going, and I've always had a blast every time. 

So, invest in your physical health. It pays back in spades, in terms of energy, staying mentally competent, still enjoying what you do. If you're out of shape, overworked, poor diet, poor rest, it's no wonder so many lawyers struggle in our profession with just not being happy, and it's not working, and they're just going burnt, because, again, they're not taking care of the physical health. Extremely, extremely important. That's the foundation. It honestly is. 

Prioritize mental and emotional wellbeing. I'm not a mindfulness guy, but I really, really need you to hear the mindfulness movement has really helped so, so many people. Try it out. If it works for you, great. If it doesn't, okay. Meditation. You just need to find ways to manage stress, and those are two excellent ways. I have to be honest, and say I've tried them some. I will admit, I've not really gone gung-ho on this, but I'll go back to cycling. For me, that's where I can find calmness. To me, I guess I'd say that's the way I meditate, and it's a very I guess non-traditional way, perhaps, I don't know. I'm not a guru in meditation, but it works for me, so find ways. 

I do need to say, if you feel that you are struggling in some ways with burnout, depression, anxiety is another thing that I have seen recently, in a very dear and good friend, that I'm concerned about, and I do try to listen, and say, "We got to address this. What can I do to help?" 

But if you feel that there's some challenges there, I strongly support, and encourage you trying to find some help, whatever that might be. Visiting with a colleague perhaps, a pastor, a social worker, a psychiatrist, depending on the issue, the answer or solution to this is going to differ, but, please don't ignore that. It's just not worth it. 

On a parallel, or tangent here, please don't minimize the importance too of building, maintaining, and, by that, I mean nurturing, your support systems. They're so important over the years, and, boy, have I come to learn that too, whether it's colleagues, friends, family members, extended family members, your significant other. These are the people that are here for you, and can do wonderful things to help care for you, to be supportive of you, to be a cheerleader for you. 

Of course, the gift is a two-way street. You need to invest in them as well. But isn't that what the journey is all about? What's the point of going through a journey of life without anybody to validate the journey? To go with you? To share the experience? And to, also, have you experience someone else's journey? Again, this is a two-way street. There's more than just one relationship there. 

Let's talk a little bit about the office too. It's important to create a positive work environment, whether that's a home office, which is where I'm sitting right now, or an office, a brick and mortar law firm, but you do need to make it a positive kind of thing. 

I have created a calming space, and you really can't see the whole thing here. If some of you can't listen, over the years, I have ... I'm a Disney person. My wife and I have been members of the Disney Vacation Club for years, and years, and years, and, literally, have traveled a number of places around the world with Disney. Kids were raised Disney. We have a lot of fun. I am in a Disney space. Again, that's calming to me, and it's full of pictures and all kinds of things that are memories. You can see some in the back ... Well, see this side of the background here. There's a Disney cruise ship. There's a photo of myself when I was quite a bit younger with my daughter, when she was a lot younger, on my back, hiking in Glacier National Park. 

There are things that are very special, and memorable. That's a calming positive workspace for me. Let's create a culture of respect, and support among staff, and colleagues, at your firm, assuming you're not just a true solo. Let's encourage open, honest communication, respectful, but we need to talk about if somebody's having a problem, or you're having a problem with somebody, "I can't trust this individual to do things," and you don't want to delegate, or something, we need to work through that. 

On healthy relationships, again, just left alone and unaddressed, really begin to impact the health and wellness of the workplace setting, so let's address that. I would encourage you to engage in continuous learning, and here's an interesting ... Yes. I'm talking about CLE, and maintaining our competency, whether that's through webinars, but maybe networking, and mentor kinds of stuff. It's very, very important to ... You can read up on journals, and publications, and there's all kinds of things that you can do professionally, and I do that, I go to conferences, I present webinars, and there's a lot of learning that goes into being able to present a webinar, or put together a CLE, and I, obviously, attend a lot of CLEs, and that helps keep me sharp. 

But I'd encourage you to go further. The mind needs to stay active, and the mind needs to be stimulated. I'll be honest, and say, at times, the ethics world, which is a lot of my world, and cybersecurity, those are very, very stimulating topics for me, and I love working through hypos, and reading things, and having a lot of fun, and just like, "Oh, how do you solve this?" But, also, I love physics, I love to cook, and so there are this aspect of continual learning, even learning to play tennis, and trying to study the game, how do you position yourself, and what are the tactics on a double score? As an example. 

I got to cook ... I cook a variety of cuisines, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, the list just goes on, and that, again, helps keep me sharp. So, I think continuous learning is so, so important, so find the things that interest you, that, again, that keep the desire to learn, and to grow alive. That is going to bring out so much more in terms of even just who you are, and how successful you can be in building, and maintaining your law practice. 

Finally, I would say give back. Give back. There's all kinds of ways you can do this, pro bono is a great way. You can volunteer for legal aid organizations. You can mentor. There's a lot that you can do professionally, and just get involved with state bar, local bar, and present some [inaudible 00:24:22] now and again. 

But you can also just give back in so many other ways, whether that's getting involved with any local charity organizations, Boys and Girls of America, being ... Working in a museum, working at a children's hospital. Just the list just goes on and on and on. I've done some of these things over the years with a volunteer thing, National Cancer Institute, and I have worked at a children's orthopedic hospital years ago, as a volunteer. Boy, was that crazy? I learned more from kids that were dying, I am not kidding you, than I have ever learned in any other setting. The professional and personal growth with that experience, I will never, ever forget. 

So, there's just a variety of things, but being able to give back, it feeds and nurtures the soul, if you will. That's my personal experience, and, again, it helps me be the best person that I can be, and I'm always open to growing and learning, because, again, that's the point of the journey. That's the point. 

I guess I have one other thought too. I would encourage you to focus on spiritual as well. I'm not sitting here saying, "You got to go out, and go to church," so many times a month. That's not what I'm getting to, but I do believe there is value in perhaps appreciating just that the gift that you've been given, the gift of having the opportunity to have a life's journey, and the older I get, I can appreciate ... They always talk about this attitude of gratitude, but just acknowledging life's good, and I'm very thankful, and I do feel blessed, and this isn't about placing some God a way ... It's just about this ... I just acknowledge that the journey I'm on, and the life that I've been given is of value, and I try to figure out what my role is with it, what my purpose is, and for a lot of years, I've had to have a purpose. 

I have a purpose. I do. How you answer that, what is your purpose, it may change over time, and it's not always easy, but it's also not that hard. I have been so proud of just the dad that I have been over the years. Did I do it perfectly? Oh, heck no. I assure you, but I've been a really good dad. I really have. 

That's one purpose. I've raised five wonderful, beautiful children. I am very proud of who I am as a husband. I am proud of who I am, as a friend to a number of people, and very proud that they chose to be my friend. I could go on with all this, and it's not important, I'm just trying to give you some examples, but find a purpose, and this whole spiritual side, I think, again, can be so fundamental in terms of grounding ourselves, as we build this personal and professional foundation. 

We need to be strong in character. We need to be strong in knowing who we are, what we have to offer, what we want to offer. I'm trying to say, again, this is how you bring out the best in who you can be, and that will serve you, your support systems, your clients, everybody that you work with, and for, better than anything else I can think of. Marketing, very important, but if this foundation isn't there, the marketing efforts aren't going to work out for the long-term anyway. You're going to have your challenges, and struggles. 

So, I guess I'm going to leave it at that. I hope you have found something of interest, something of value with this soliloquy, and I really would love if any of you have thoughts, and want to share stories, or talk about any of this. Please don't hesitate to reach out. I am a risk manager for ALPS, but that doesn't mean I'm their risk manager. ALPS hires me to be your risk manager, and I'm a support system, and someone that's here just to enter into relationship, so if you ever care to chat, just give me a call, or send an email, we set something up. It's MBass, M-B-A-S-S, at ALPS Insurance, one word, A-L-P-S, insurance dot com. 

That's it, folks. Have a blessed day, and stay strong in the practice. Bye-bye. 

Since 1998, Mark Bassingthwaighte, Esq. has been a Risk Manager with ALPS, an attorney’s professional liability insurance carrier. In his tenure with the company, Mr. Bassingthwaighte has conducted over 1200 law firm risk management assessment visits, presented over 600 continuing legal education seminars throughout the United States, and written extensively on risk management, ethics, and technology. Mr. Bassingthwaighte is a member of the State Bar of Montana as well as the American Bar Association where he currently sits on the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility’s Conference Planning Committee. He received his J.D. from Drake University Law School.

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