Evolutions of a Solo Practice – Part 6

(Read Evolutions of a Solo Practice – Parts 1- 5 if you’re new to this author)

And then it happened…

On Monday morning, March 20, 2000, on the second floor of Queens Supreme Court, I had a heart attack.

So, March 20th is my 13 year heart attack anniversary.  I suppose there are people who get to keep track of their “day I won the lottery” anniversary. All things considered, when the day comes around I’m happy to celebrate it.

Basic facts first. On the subway going to Court, I was sluggish and out of breath. When I got to Court I walked from the first to the second floor, felt dizzy, staggered over to a bench and collapsed. My heart was pounding and I was sweating. Naturally I wanted to get up and go, but a court officer said to me “Listen Buddy, looks like you’re having a heart attack, stay right here, we called 911″. Until he said that, it had not occurred to me.  Of course, I was also telling my associate to make sure he made the calendar call for an Order to Show Cause we were covering.

They took me to the closest hospital, Mary Immaculate, two blocks from the courthouse. There I received the heart attack protocol from 15 years prior, a clot busting drug called TPA. After two hours, a cardiologist told me the TPA wasn’t working and this was “not a good situation” so they were transferring me to Long Island Jewish, where I would have a “procedure” as soon as I got there. I then went in a fancy ambulance to LIJ, where I had an angioplasty (they thread a thing through your wrist, right into your heart and unblock the blockage) and a stent. I was awake the whole time and watched my artery get unblocked on a screen.

A heart attack is a blockage in one or more arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. During the three hours I was having a heart attack, a part of my left ventricle (pumping chamber) was damaged. After the procedure I was in the coronary intensive care unit for five days. For three days I had an external pump helping my heart, attached to the heart via a wire through the groin. (Removing this was the most unpleasant part of the ordeal…think “pulling a garden hose”). That first night I also went into heart failure, which is when your heart doesn’t beat strongly enough to pump all the blood and fluid, so it backs up into the lungs. Another bad situation, and despite all the technology available, the immediate treatment was for a nurse to help me cough out the fluid by beating me on the back as I coughed. The nurse also encouraged me to breathe deeply through extreme pain, to increase my blood oxygen. All I ever knew about the nurse was he was Nurse John. I never saw him again.  All he did was save my life in the course of his night’s shift. Eventually I left the CCU and then spent another two days in the regular hospital, and then back home.

My heart attack was what doctors unscientifically call a “no risk factor” heart attack.  I had no family history, was not overweight, not diabetic, and had normal cholesterol and blood pressure.  Of course, STRESS is a factor, and I knew this was probably the culprit.

Stress and pressure are funny things, and I’ve come to learn a lot about both of them.  I did individual and group therapy to address stress.  This mostly involves thinking and talking, and listening to others (and hearing myself give them advice that I had not followed myself).  I never knew how much I didn’t know, but I sure learned a lot.

Here’s where I was when I had my blessed event.  I was running around the courthouse like a lunatic, being the greatest multi-tasker ever, and soaring on the success of my big marketing campaign and publicity from the Law Journal article.  I wanted to bask in the glory of that, but I couldn’t, because I had 150 negligence cases weighing on me.  I was never comfortable doing them anyway, but as the per diem business grew, I came to resent and even hate them.  The whole situation made me very angry.  This was especially true as negligence practice just kept getting harder.  At that time it seemed like every insurance company was defending every case to the hilt, in an effort to break the backs of the volumes of lower level claims.  Cases that used to settle were being hit with motions to dismiss.  I started to fall behind on some of them, and even with that, new potential clients were calling.  I was collapsing under the stress of it, but I didn’t see it.

Around that time I had also made a bad hire, a calendar clerk/secretary who I did not screen well enough (she was a girlfriend of an attorney acquaintance of mine).  I did not put in the time on the screening, and I did not go with my gut.  She was pretty incompetent, and I made excuses for her because I felt sorry for her and didn’t want to address the problem.  It added to my anger and sense of drowning.  I knew I was going to have to fire her, and it was eating at me.

Years later when people said that I had a heart attack from the stress of doing the per diem business (and I could see how it might appear that way), I knew that was not the case.  In many ways the per diem business, as hectic as it was, was EASY and fun.  The real stressor was the negligence cases, an area of practice that I did not enjoy, and knowing that I was not doing it well.

So, I was totally not able to work for six months, and only able to work part-time for six months after that.  I had some disability insurance, which helped a little.  I was able to keep the per diem business going by having my wife administer it from the office, and by increasing the appearances being made by my number one attorney case coverer, Diana Gianturco.  I had been sub-contracting about a quarter of my appearances to her before the heart attack.  She was willing to pick up the slack and do all of them.  I never hesitated to have her do this, as she was excellent at the work and was/is completely trustworthy.  She jumped in and ran the whole friggin’ thing.  Yes, she made money doing it, but it kept my cash flow going, and it kept the per diem clients loyal to me.

A strange thing happened with my negligence cases too.  I was kind of relieved not to have to work on them, and was certainly not going to take any new ones.  Generally, not much happens when you don’t push these cases.  When some defendants did push, I would ask for time due to my situation, and generally got it on consent.  If I didn’t get consent I got time from the Court (I’d send Diana or another per diem to explain my circumstances).  When I finally went back to the office I spent my time calling and settling the cases I could, referring some cases to colleagues, and giving back or withdrawing from the real losers.  It felt pretty good to be winding down my negligence practice.

One day when I first returned to the office, I was feeling kind of weak, and I have to admit, kind of scared.  Then a thought came to me, “If I were just a brain in a chair, with no physical being, would I be able to run a practice and make a living?”  The more I thought about this, the more I saw it could be done.  It would just take some clear-headed thinking, some honesty and self-improvement, and some time.  I was thankful to have my brain and my experiences and good support, so I set out to make changes and improvements.  I was pretty disabled physically, but thought that would improve.  I liked the idea that in a practice controlled strictly by my brain, if I ever could participate physically, that would be a bonus.

After about a year, I made an arrangement with Diana to become partners on the per diem practice.  My role would be to handle the office, the business development, and everything other than the actual court appearances.  She would handle most of the appearances, unburdened by private cases and management concerns.  We were Seidel & Gianturco (the King and Queen of Queens) for a few years.  It worked nicely.  For various reasons we didn’t keep things that way, but we both still have substantial per diem practices in Queens, we are still friends, and we still work together on some appearances.

I probably could have started making appearances at some point, but decided to only do it in select situations, and not handle volume.  I kept the per diem practice though, using a model where I have employees and subcontractors, and it works.

I did want to keep a private practice too.  When I looked at the different areas of practice I had done as a generalist, one really appealed to me.  Probate and estate administration.  Not “estate planning”, but cases in the Surrogates Court after someone has died.  I gave it a lot of thought, and knew this was going to be my next phase.

Next…transitioning into probate and estate administration, which is what I have been doing for the last 10 years, and what I mostly do now.

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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5 comments on “Evolutions of a Solo Practice – Part 6

  • I’m finding your practice of law journey fascinating, Barry. I love to see how moments and events in your life change your course, propel you forward, change your direction, etc. It has happened to me when I lost a job (or 2) and had my daughter. Most recently, I had an aha moment after lunch with a friend that is about to propel me on to a new path.

    It’s sad that it took a heart attack for you to acknowledge your true feelings toward your practice, but I’m glad to hear you survived and made meaningful changes. No one should be angry in their work life. Life is too short to do work you hate.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Barry your post spoke to my heart.

    Often things need to come to a head before we realize a big change needs to take place. Like Kelli, I’ve had a few recent a-ha moments. After resisting the signals, I am switching gears into a new/offshoot practice area and dropping the practice areas and clients who are not in alignment with my goals.

    I hope you are focusing on your health first. With the gift of good health, anything is possible! As Dr. Joel Fuhrman says “My health is my wealth.”

  • Barry,
    I really like the way you open up and explained what happened. Great viewpoint. As a solo practicing in New York and being in the Queens courthouse regularly, I can relate to what you describe.

    Looking forward to your next installment.

    Gerry

  • Thank you for the comments. I am looking forward to writing the next installment too, because I will be talking about what I have done in the 13 years since the blessed event. I developed some expertise in probate and estate administration, and I really enjoy it. I still have the per diem business, but I manage it and don’t “run around”. Thankfully, I got the bonus of being more than a brain in a chair. I am able to exercise and play basketball, and I COULD run around the Courthouse. I just choose not to.

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