“We must cultivate our garden.” —Voltaire, Candide
I wasn’t much of a Voltaire fan when I was assigned Candide in a European History course in college, which seems like 100 years ago. Truth be told, I find it about as impenetrable today as I did back then. As an avid vegetable gardener, however, I find value in his words above. I also think that applying some basic rules of gardening to the legal profession can yield a more bountiful and satisfying law practice.
Plan Your Entire Landscape
Create a vision for your law practice. If you plan your garden landscape properly you will spend more time enjoying it and less time going back to the drawing board in efforts to improve it. Expecting to get it right over time is a recipe for failure. Even if you intend to build your practice over time due to youth, financial, or other reasons, having a vision for how you want your practice to look will encourage you to develop your practice with a purpose. The better idea you have of the kind of practice you want, the more effectively you will be able to build that practice.
Prepare Your Soil for Planting
Planting in unprepped soil is one of the biggest mistakes one can make in gardening. Plants need soil that is loose enough to absorb nutrients, stable enough to hold water, pliable enough to allow roots to grow, but compact enough to drain adequately without erosion. Just as garden soil needs tilling and fertilizer to support healthy plants, a law practice must be flexible enough to meet clients’ needs and stable enough to handle the heavy storms that the legal profession and the life of the lawyer bring without eroding the lawyer’s confidence and the clients’ faith in the health of the practice.
Group Plants with Similar Needs
As a garden expands, an efficient gardener will group plants together based upon specific needs such as drainage, sunlight, pest resistance and compatibility. I once made the mistake of planting basil beside jalapenos and what resulted was a particularly spicy pesto sauce, which was interesting but not exactly what I was aiming for at planting time. If you fail to group plants based on needs, you will find yourself with much more work do to and a less satisfying yield at harvest time. Similarly, if you chose to handle every kind of case that walks in the door without regard for the specific needs of each client and your ability to adequately meet those needs, you will find yourself doing much more work than you would like with much less satisfactory results. This can easily turn a burgeoning practice into a pile of manure. No good gardener or lawyer wants to see the fruits of his or her efforts dumped onto the compost pile.
Keep a Maintenance Schedule
Neglecting your garden and not doing proper maintenance will not only affect your seasonal harvest, but it can also do lasting harm to the soil and your landscape. Weeding and pruning is no fun, but doing it on a regular schedule lessens the burdens and yields healthier plants. There is not much more frustrating in gardening than realizing that you could have had twice as many San Marzanos if you had paid more attention to the suckers and weeds choking your plants. If you are familiar with your plants’ needs, you will do a much better job of cultivating them. The same holds true for clients. The more attention you pay to clients and the more you know about their needs, the more capable you are of providing them the best legal representation you can and the better your practice will be as a result.
Visit your Crops Frequently
They say that the only thing plants love more than rain and sunshine is the shadow of their gardener. When you visit your garden regularly you are better able to spot potential problems such as pests and disease while they are still controllable. As with plants, the more frequently you have contact with clients, the better able you will be to spot problematic issues and address them before they get out of hand.
Don’t Put New Mulch Over Old Mulch
Mulch can develop fungi and other materials that are harmful to plants. Layers of mulch can also create a nearly impenetrable barrier over time that can suffocate plants, prevent proper irrigation, and ruin a garden. A good gardener removes old mulch before putting down new mulch. Lawyers often use forms because they save time and create consistency; and doing things the same way makes sense when there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. The law, however, is constantly evolving. What worked for years may no longer comport with changes in the law or the needs of clients. Lawyers should review forms and standard operating procedure from time to time to make sure they are current with the law and can meet the ever-growing needs of clients in a rapidly changing world.
“We must cultivate our garden.” So too must lawyers cultivate their practice in order to avoid getting bogged down in the weeds.
David C. Fratarcangelo is a claims attorney for ALPS. He received his undergraduate degree from James Madison University, his master’s degree from the University of Alabama, and his law degree from West Virginia University. Dave began handling claims for ALPS in 2015 and works in the company’s Richmond, Virginia office. Prior to joining ALPS, Dave spent several years in private practice focusing on criminal defense and domestic relations work. Dave also spent two years as a local government attorney. In his spare time you can find Dave playing music in the Richmond area with a number of local groups.