Why You Can’t Live On Sweat Equity

I use the term ‘sweat equity’ often when I suggest that in order to build a solo practice you will invest more of your ‘time’ than dollars in the beginning in marketing, networking, and rainmaking because you will have more time to invest than dollars.

But when you hear a venture capitalist use the term “sweat equity” they usually mean while a business owner is building his business he shouldn’t even think of drawing a salary but reinvest monies coming in right back into the business to grow it to the next level.

That’s just a fancy way of saying you’re going to be eating Ramen noodles until you are discovered by those who want to invest in the next Facebook.

So let’s look at what the VCs are suggesting and why you can’t think this way when you are opening and growing your solo practice. (And this, incidentally, not only doesn’t contradict what I have to say but drives my point home.) The reality as a solo is if your law firm closes its doors it will not be because you paid yourself a living wage. If you can’t pay yourself a living wage then the harsh truth is your practice has much greater business problems than you taking a salary. As lawyers who are running your own business you must pay yourself the full value of your services first. If you can’t, this should be a HUGE red flag there are other issues in your practice which need to be addressed.   What could the issues be? Lack of clients due to poor marketing and networking? Excessive overhead because you thought you had to have the fancy office first? Poor use of technology? Bad time management?  Or a series of bad choices (usually made from lack of knowledge or bad advice)?

Not  being able to draw a salary and have a living wage impacts your ability to continue practicing law and serving your clients.  It is why I sometimes have an issue when new lawyers are told to do pro bono.  You haven’t even established your practice yet, haven’t started paying yourself a living wage, and you are expected to put in this type of ‘sweat equity’ because the profession says you should?

You’d be amazed at how many lawyers who hang a shingle will argue this point. Most solos will underpay themselves. There’s an idea among solo practitioners that there will come a day when they will be able to draw a proper salary and one which they deserve but for now they need to put monies earned back into the practice.  These new lawyers are decent human beings who believe that if they put in the labor and treat clients well and exercise patience they will reap the rewards down the road.  If they rent that office space, buy the research subscription, get the virtual assistant, meet all these financial responsibilities first, the trappings of a law firm they believe are required right from the beginning, eventually they will be able to pay themselves.  The reality is everything that doesn’t earn money is overhead.  When you are starting out you should be rewarding the money earner first – you.  Slaving away to pay for overhead rather than to pay yourself is a recipe for failure.

The desire to create a practice which provides a living wage and a comfortable existence isn’t a crime. It’s the whole point of entrepreneurship  in general and practicing as a solo specifically. It’s what motivates us as well as the professional satisfaction of knowing you’ve served your clients well.  You can do well by doing good. Remember this.

Instead of delaying your financial gratification because you’ve been told you should,  make taking care of yourself a priority. By paying yourself a reasonable income from the get go, it will also lay the foundation for your business to grow properly. Pay your most important employee a competitive salary first.  That’s you.

Keep in mind the following as well: 

  • Without exception, work to provide yourself a good salary.  Then pay your expenses.  You. Then the bills.  That’s the order.
  • Provide yourself a reasonable reward. If you can’t pay yourself at least 50% of each dollar as a solo, shut your doors (Overhead should never be more than 30% of each dollar!)
  • Pretend you need to take a sabbatical from the practice. If you had to pay another attorney to run your practice in your absence what would you pay them? This is the amount, at the very least, you should be paying yourself.
  • Never forget ‘why’. Keep your eye on the ball.  Remember why you went solo in the first place - to control the quality of your life.
  • Do periodic checks:  If you can’t continue to pay yourself a proper salary, what are you doing incorrectly and how can you fix it?
  • Remember: If you can’t pay yourself, you eventually will not be able to help clients either because you will be shuttering your doors.

I can’t empahsize this enough.  You must take care of your financial needs first in order to stay motivated, gratified, and become the kind of practitioner you want to become as well as take your practice to the next level.  You have a responsibility to your clients, your practice,  and your family.  But most importantly, you have a responsiblity to yourself.  You are the one who holds all the risk with your license on the line. You are the one investing your time.  This is your future.  Therefore, you should reap the rewards from day one.

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7 comments on “Why You Can’t Live On Sweat Equity

  • Thank you for clarifying something that has been looming in the back of my mind for years. As much as I try to pay myself a salary, I’ve taken to paying my expenses (car, phone, etc) to make sure that I can service my clients. Now I understand that I need to take care of me so that I can then take care of my clients.

  • I absolutely love this post. There is so much truth here. I really do think that if you start your practice by not paying yourself, you never will. When you start off with a mind set that you don’t have to pay yourself, the pay day just never comes.

  • Wrong, wrong, wrong! Abso-bleeping-lutely wrong!

    First, qualifications for commenting: 28 years practice. 2-3 person firm; then went solo. joined 10-lawyer firm. Left and went solo again. Area of practice: BUSIINESS law.

    First, pay your taxes, especially any withholding taxes. The expression “800-lb. gorilla” doesn’t even begin to describe the IRS claiming you owe them money. You’re in a dinghy; it’s an aircraft carrier. It can swamp you and sink you just from its wake when it passes by. Pay your taxes, early and often.

    Second, pay your landlord. If not, you’ll be paying the landlord’s attorney to throw you out. In Virginia, if you don’t pay within 5 days of the formal notice of default, you can be evicted. Don’t be late with your rent.

    Third, if you have staff, pay him/her/them. Nothing causes a resume to be polished up than a late paycheck. No staff? Fine. But if you have someone you depend on, you must pay that person before your pay yourself. Otherwise, say good-bye and get ready to waste more time interviewing the next candidates…

    Now that you’ve paid the the critical “people” (I”m being kind to the IRS) that can literally shut you down, you might have some flexibility. I still say pay your vendors next. If your tech support company puts you at the bottom of their call-back list, you might be left hanging. Need office supplies? Maybe that Quill bill is next. Health insurance? Don’t lose that! Maybe Wexis can wait. Most of your vendors can’t — especially your court reporters!!

    Now, pay yourself. And maybe regular readers know that Susan has preached about these other points I raise. And I agree — oh how I agree — that overhead should be minimal. But I think that paying yourself first ignores how much you rely on the kindness / forbearance / cooperation / referrals from others around you, and ignores those who have power over you.

    Being dead last isn’t fun. And maybe it’s not popular either. But it’s the reality. Solos – especially newbies — don’t need sunshine blown up their skirts.

    And now you know how I earned my nickname :-)
    “Freddie Krueger”

    • The overarching premise here is ultimately don’t grow your overhead before you are able to pay yourself a living wage. If you spend money without steady income because you believe you should ‘look’ like a lawyer before you are actually performing as a lawyer, then you are earning to feed debt, not earning to live. Your assumptions are one has an office, taxes, staff. That’s not the norm when a solo first starts. Clearly, if they’ve grown to this level the obligations are commensurate with growth and the lawyer will be better off because s/he won’t acquire this level of overhead until s/he can afford it.

      • I think you’re both right and perhaps the missing link between the two philosophies lies in the need for a business plan with a three year (projected) cash flow analysis. In doing this, the goal should never be to have a month without a fair owner’s draw. While that month may come, for any one of a variety of reasons, it should not be the intended outcome but only an exception.

  • Great post, Susan. Very insightful guidance. My new firm is adopting a 70/30 split. This way we live within our means and know when it is time to grow.

  • Absolutely agree, Susan! Cannot tell you how many solo practitioners I meet who absolutely work themselves to death in terms of long hours, stress, and financial ruin, telling themselves that if they keep “punishing” themselves long enough (“punishing” is my word, “working hard” is their word) things will be different or better. Problem is, it just isn’t true. I’ve been a solo practitioner the better part of 18 years and I know. Here’s the words of wisdom that keep returning me to perspective – if you are going to make the same amount of money relaxing on the beach as working night and day in your law practice, pick the beach!!!

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