From Bill's Desk



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Lose Your Control Addiction

If you're like me (and if you're an American professional, you probably are) this is your primary obsession: Control. Everything. All the time.

This mantra does not lead to a rewarding life. Here's my advice.

Take three weeks off from work. Go alone, to a very foreign place (no, not Europe) — a place where you don’t know the language at all. Be sensible about it; study a phrase book for a few hours on the plane. Then really get lost. Get off the beaten path, away from any international airport, consulate or tourist haven, out into the desert or mountains where English is not known. Live with people who share no common language or experiences with you, and live for a few days the way they live. Show absolute appreciation for their hospitality, even if they have no utilities and can offer only a mattress on the floor with the occasional centipede, and a cold shower in an outhouse without a door. Watch how they open their homes and lives to you. After all, you are a harmless curiosity, and break the tedium. Communicate through gestures, pointing, and expressions, and start learning each other’s languages. Accept with a laugh that you have to shake your heads and shrug, unable to understand one another. Savor not knowing what’s going to happen, where you’re going tomorrow or what you should bring. 

Encourage your new family to lead you to the most amazing places they know, perhaps climbing all day without encountering anyone, up to elevations where you think each step will be your last, just to see snow-capped peaks, ancient ruins, or a lone condor soaring across mile-high cliffs. Let them bring you to eat plates of food that you cannot identify, cooked in front of you at food stalls in chaotic markets without sanitation where mangy dogs sit hopefully at your feet. 

Squeeze into the jam-packed clapped-out local transport full of farmers, workers and animals. Let the driver take that backpack with your most precious possessions — a roll of toilet paper and water bottle — and throw it on top of the bus that’s about to jolt and careen along winding dirt tracks on the edges of cliffs, honking and playing chicken at high speed with oncoming trucks, lurching around boulders from recent landslides. 

If you gain their trust, even let your new friends initiate you into rituals and ceremonies that open your consciousness to new levels of awareness.

But most importantly, open your mind and senses to it all, without access to the internet. No map app. No looking up words, places, foods, or potentially mind-altering substances on your phone, taking away the mystery and surprise of it all. There will be time to piece together what happened and where, with Wi-Fi on your flight home. For now, just experience it, don’t overthink it, don’t look for excuses, and don’t say no. The likelihoods that you will die, or be maimed, or contract a horrible disease are all lower than in your padded seat on that international flight home. 

Does this sound like hell? It is, until you realize the reason why, and reject it. The reason is that you are an American, and a professional. You have been trained all your life to be in control; to not trust; to fear most those things that are least likely to happen; to live a formulaic life and make the most practical decisions; to plan and know what will happen today, tomorrow, and next year; to know your precise net worth at five-minute intervals based on the latest Bloomberg reports; to have an elevator speech and a five-year plan. 

Control. Everything. All the time.

It’s a disease. Because truly, all aspects of life are uncontrollable in the extreme. And those hundred or so moments in every day that afford us a glimpse of that unsettling fact, lead us to anxiety and depression, and to therapists and medications and sleeplessness. Our obsession with control guarantees dissatisfaction with our jobs, unhappy relationships, and an inability to truly love — because what is love if not giving yourself over to helplessness? 

Our need to control is killing us, individually and as a society. It is turning us into the land of the willingly imprisoned, and home of the insanely fearful. And as the world gets more complex by the day, our control expectation gap yawns ever wider. 

So go. Check your fears with your luggage, and abandon it all on the baggage-claim carousel. All you need is a well-stocked backpack, after all. You’ll be wearing those same clothes for a while. 

When you return, you won’t be refreshed from a week at the beach. You’ll be exhausted. But you’ll be exhilarated, knowing that you experienced and survived a myriad of things your peers likely could not. While they continue to buck and strain ever fiercely for the illusion of control they will never attain, you will see more clearly that even in the ethereal, artificial construct of your professional world, there is calm and comfort in accepting the unrelenting chaos. 

If the adventure is as positive as mine was, maybe you’ll even take more rewarding risks in your profession and your personal life, not knowing where they might lead. If so, you can be certain of one thing: that along the way you will capture experiences and memories more breathtaking than any mere tourist in life could hope to instagram from the tinted windows of an air-conditioned luxury tour bus. 



The First Year

Last week, as I filed my first annual return with Schedule C, I realized a year had gone by. I looked at my website today, and found that my first, last and only blog entry was just over one year old. Determined not to be a one-entry-ever blogger, I sat down immediately to put down a summary of how my life has changed since leaving the "big law" world -- since cutting my billing rate in half and committing myself to helping entrepreneurs like me make it in the world of "big business."

First, I have met more interesting people than ever before, and befriended the best of them. What I used to think of only as "professional relationships" have taken on added dimension, grown deeper. I go to clients' businesses and homes, we meet over a late-night beer. They make me feel like family, not just needed, but trusted and sometimes - liked. For a lawyer, that's a powerful feeling. And it's a feeling a lawyer will get only when he is not soaking his clients for every red cent -- when the client knows that he cuts down his hours when it seems right to do so, doesn't charge for every stray photocopy made, and when the lawyer's clock isn't ticking for those everyday short calls and brief emails. The feeling goes both ways, though, and I feel more acutely the pain and stress of my clients. I have never felt so badly in my professional life when a judge recently gave short-shrift to a complex, but rightful, claim that meant the world to my Swiss client, a promising innovative company of two bright entrepreneurs. Now, I am exploring U.S. contacts for their marketing and distribution.

Second, my balance of life and work feels right for the first time in my life. This one is hard to explain, because I'm working more and harder than I ever have. Here's the best way I have of expressing this: my life is my work, and my work is my life. But not in the bad way, in that work has eclipsed my life. There is simply no longer any distinction; they are seamless, as it was for our early ancestors on Earth, those we call the "hunters and gatherers." I work in a community of good people: my wife works in our office, my clients, other attorneys, judges whom I know and increasingly know me are my "village." I work with these people because I love to, and because it is natural for me as my way of gathering what I need to sustain myself and my wife.

Third, my life is my own to live. All three of these make me more efficient and effective through morale, the heights of which I have never experienced before in my professional life. But this third one, given what I have recently experienced in the loss of my mother, is the most important of all. This is the only life I get, and the only chance I get to be with the ones I love. Now, I can be entirely honest with my clients about the outside demands of my life, and not feel shamed by the expectation that a "big law" $500-per-hour attorney should be a robot, always on, and on top of his game.

My experience of the last three months sums up all three of these major shifts in my life's past year. My mother was diagnosed in January with inoperable pancreatic cancer at the young age of 68. Although she lived in my beloved New Hampshire, and she was determined to die at home with only pain medication, I was able to take on the honor of being her primary caregiver to the moment of her death on the morning of March 31. For those three months, I lived in New Hampshire more than in Chicago. I worked much less, and billed much less than I worked, because of my inefficiency. I could have done none of this if my life was not my own to live -- if I remained beholden to a corporate law firm atmosphere that measures men and women -- and even clients -- by their latest numbers and statistics.

I worked when I could in intervals while Mom slept and between waking her for pain mediations -- first every 4 hours, then 3, then 2 -- around the clock, day after day. Mom and I would discuss my cases (to the appropriate extent), and she loved hearing about the different personalities involved in a particular problem. I got to embellish a bit, but she was Irish and would have expected that. But look, my life and work were seamless, and it felt right, no matter how exhausting.

What felt best, though, was that I did not have to hide a thing. My clients knew just what I was going through, and we could talk about it. I gained a lot of knowledge from their experiences, in how to care for my dying mother; and wisdom in how to deal with it. The fact that I was not at the top of my game at all times, or even available at all times, did not weaken relationships with my clients. It brought us closer, added depth and dimension to those relationships. And the closer I feel to those good people I represent, the better I feel every day.

One year ago, I knew that the instincts my mother taught me -- trust, loyalty, empathy -- had waned after years in this profession. Today, they are stronger than ever, and I am a better lawyer for it. Even if I only blog once a year, and each time find that the year gone by has brought me closer to my goals as a human being, I will only die having failed as a blogger. I can live with that prospect.


Entrepreneurs helping entrepreneurs

A legal entrepreneur helping other entrepreneurs with legal needs. That's my goal.

In our current economic climate those that are "too big to fail" are failing. The future belongs to the entrepreneur - those of us on main street who know what our neighbors need, and can adapt quickly to those needs. 

Despite the writing on the wall, big law firms cannot respond to the low-cost legal needs of small business and entrepreneurs. Big firms' prime real estate at the top of gleaming glass-and-steel towers, their bloated staff and high overhead can only result in over-priced legal services that only the biggest players can afford.

Yet small businesses often need the same sophisticated legal services as IBM, AIG, and GM.

That's where my training in "biglaw" comes in. After more than a decade of practice at the highest levels of urban commerical litigation, when I left my 44th-floor office with sweeping views of the Chicago skyline, I decided that my billing rate would drop by 50%. Now, I can offer the same big-firm litigation experience, for only a fraction of the big-firm rates. And I can feel connected to the world before the 20th floor - those of us who will be getting America's work done in the next hundred years, you and I, the entrepreneurs.