Revisiting the Seven-to-Nine Rule

On my SPU Small Business Law blog a while back, I discussed the Seven-to-Nine-Rule, which goes like this: during normal, day-to-day living, we can successfully juggle seven to nine things. Those “things” include the following:

  • career,
  • health & hygiene,
  • marriage,
  • family,
  • social life,
  • hobbies,
  • volunteer work, etc.

But, according to the Rule, when one of those “things” you are juggling is a “biggie” – birth of a child, illness, illness or death of a loved one, getting married or divorced, career change, moving – the number of things you can successfully juggle drops to three.

The Rule should be modified to state that “biggies” include running a small business – including running a solo practice. It should also be modified to state that when two of the “things” you are juggling are “biggies,” you pretty much grind to a halt.

That has been me over the last few weeks. My mom’s condition – metastatic lung cancer – progressed from bad to worse to Oh-My-God! in a matter of two weeks. I dropped everything, including running my law practice, and went up to Alabama for a week to help her put things in order, knowing she had maybe a couple of months to live. Little did I know she only had another week. I found myself driving up from Florida again, this time for Mom’s funeral.

That was two weeks ago. Funeral arrangements pretty much consumed me and my siblings for a week. I stayed up there an extra week to help my brother and sisters sort through Mom’s papers and all the stuff she had accumulated over the 36 years she lived in her house. From a business perspective, I spent three of the last four weeks away from the office – time off that I didn’t really have.

I had done something similar several years ago when my husband’s mother passed away. We flew to Michigan to be by her side when she died, and we stayed to help his family get their lives back in order. At the time I worked at Big Law, so while I had to do some work while I was gone, any new projects were handed to another associate, and the Big Law machine kept chugging without me.

It doesn’t work like that when you are a solo practitioner. There is no one to pick up the slack and keep the machine moving. Yes, we all have an attorney who can be on call in case of client emergencies, but that’s different from having a partner or associates who can keep the ball rolling when you aren’t there to roll it yourself.

I came back to work today to find a stack of mail (mostly bills and sympathy cards), a filled e-mail inbox, and a pile of work that no one had touched. My assistant kept things moving as far as responding to client calls and rearranging my schedule, but there was no one to pick up the slack. My inventory/back-up attorney was on call, but none of my clients felt that there was a big enough emergency that they couldn’t wait till I got back. I did enough work while I was gone to avert most crises, but not enough to earn a paycheck. It’s only been a few weeks, but it feels like a lifetime. It’s as if my life as a lawyer got encased in amber and preserved, waiting for me to get back to it.

But everything I do makes me think of my Mom. She was my role model, my cheerleader, and my best friend. She had gone back to college to earn her bachelors and her masters when her four kids were school aged, and she helped convince me to follow my dream of going to law school in my mid-thirties. “I did it and so can you,” was her motto. She also goaded, prodded, encouraged and cheered me on to making good grades and passing the bar exam. Then she became the biggest advocate for me to start my own law firm, even giving me and my husband money during a couple of lean months early on. If I had ever doubted she loved me, her support during those years would have convinced me. As it was, I never doubted her.

So here I sit, my brain fogged with grief, wondering where to begin to pick my business off the floor, dust it off and start it up again. I started with client communications, emailing and calling back the clients who tried to reach me when I was out of commission. Their patience has been amazing, but it does have its limits. Next up is getting some billable work done so that I can pay those bills that have piled up. Then I have to crank up the marketing machine and get some new business in the door. It’s all easier said than done, but I don’t really have a choice. I have to put one foot in front of the other because standing still just isn’t an option.

There’s a verse in Bob Dylan’s song, “Buckets of Rain“:

Life is sad
Life is a bust
All you can do is do what you must
You do what you must do and you do it well
I’ll do it for you honey baby
Can’t you tell?

So it is. I will do what I must do – keep my business alive even when I am juggling a “biggie” in my grief for my mother – and I will do it well. That’s what Mom would have wanted.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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7 comments on “Revisiting the Seven-to-Nine Rule

  • Hi Suzanne. Thanks for sharing your recent experiences. My sincere condolences on the passing of your mother. If it helps in anyway, I went through something very similar. I, too, run a solo practice. One day last year my mother suddenly passed away within hours of us last speaking on the phone. That was hard enough but her passing also meant I became the sole caregiver of my sister who has disabilities and who resided with my parents her entire life (my father predeceased my mother). Taking on that responsibility in addition to caring for my young children meant there was very little time for anything else — like running my business. I did what I could to keep my business afloat for the seven months I took care of my sister until I was able to find her alternative living and caring arrangements. They were the longest, most gruelling, most despairing seven months of my life. The stress of the situation impacted my health and my relationships. I thought I would lose my business completely. Fortunately, I have great clients who were understanding and a husband who was able to carry most of the bills while my income plummeted. And, like you, I knew through it all that all I could do was just keep clawing my way forward in any way I could. And so I did. The good news is that while it took time to bounce back, my business is healthy once again and those feelings of despair are long gone. So, there is light at the end of the tunnel. I wish you well in the journey ahead of you.

    • Hi Donna,

      I’m so sorry that you had to go through all of that. Thank you for reminding me that there is a sunny day waiting for me after the rain stops.

  • Suzanne,

    I am so sorry for your loss. I can’t imagine how rough that must be. I lost my dad when I was just a tween but I remember feeling angry that life had the nerve to go on.

    I have several friends, colleagues and clients who have chugged along in businesses despite going through divorces, losing loved ones, encountering health problems, etc. Its rough out there but I have to say entrepreneurs are the strongest, most admirable people I know.

    Wishing you strength and comfort.

  • I’m so sorry for your loss, Suzanne. I recently went through a different yet challenging experience myself. I was the one who was ill and then experienced a loss. It really slowed me down and then came to a screeching halt for awhile. I am very fortunate to have fabulous virtual team members who kept things on track as much as possible and rescheduled the rest until I was able to return to my solo practice and get back on track. Most of my clients were very understanding and patient with me. And my lawyer-husband was ready to jump in to help with my practice if need be (though he was busy enough caring for me and our three little children!). I had a plan in place for this sort of thing (occupational hazard of being an estate planning attorney!) but my recent experience served as a wake-up call and made me revisit that firm disability plan. Now I’m working hard to make it even better in case anything ever happens to me again and for whenever the time will come for us to assist our parents in that way. Good luck getting the piles under control. My thoughts will be with you. Sincerely, Danielle

    • Thank you Danielle. I would love to see a copy of your firm disability plan when you’re through with it. I have my own disaster plan, but I basically made it up myself. I would love to see someone else’s plan.

  • I’m due in court in 23 minutes. But, I have to take the time to say, you stirred my spirit. I hope my Mom meets yours, and they hang out together keeping an eye on us.

    It’s hard and it is definitely easier said than done. But, it’s doable. Your Mom was a phenomenal woman and you’re her daughter. You have what it takes – even if it doesn’t feel like it – you’re HER daughter.

    She’s still cheering you on, just like mine is.

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