When attorney Phil Karasik opened his law firm in 2004, he discovered little that could have prepared him for running a small business. Karasik's background as a former tennis pro may have helped him develop discipline and a love of competition, but it didn't equip him for the long hours and unpredictable cash flow that typically come with owning your own firm.
Karasik, along with Dini McCullough, his wife and a fellow attorney, soon learned that as a business owner your energy, ambition and adaptability are what separate you from your competitors.
After the couple opened Karasik & McCullough LLC, a general practice law firm in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington D.C., they soon found that work-life balance can be a struggle at an independent firm. And without a steady flow of reliable clients, money can be tight.
In the early stages, McCullough took on a heavy caseload and Karasik, who has a graduate degree in financial management, handled the business and accounting.
However, in 2004 McCullough gave birth to their first child and took time off to care for him. Karasik then had to tackle back-office tasks and take on the primary client-facing role. Eager to grow the business and help care for their newborn, Karasik made a common mistake among young attorneys: He took on unreliable clients.
“We were pretty green and gullible, and many clients didn't pay their bills and left us to cover their costs with only the deposit we had asked them to put down,” Karasik says. “The temptation is to take the work that's right there in front of you because you never know when more work will walk through the door. But some cases are more trouble than they're worth.”
Karasik quickly realized that unreliable clients meant unpredictable cash flow.
“There were some months when we came limping across the finish line,” Karasik says. “Other months, the numbers looked OK, but in the back of my mind, I was always thinking, ‘What if no one pays? What if the phone stops ringing?’”
Things seemed to get even tougher when the couple found out they were expecting a second baby and that the landlord sold the office space they were leasing. Money was still tight, but Karasik’s luck changed when he refocused his energy on networking.
Catching a break
After Karasik moved his firm closer to the courthouse in Rockville, Maryland, attracting more lucrative clients and meeting other legal professionals became easier. One day, Karasik ran into a judge he had met years before and explained his work and family situation. Soon after that conversation, the judge sent Karasik his first court-appointed case.
Though many attorneys shy away from court-appointed cases because their timetable is unpredictable, Karasik found these cases provided him with reliable revenue and more flexibility. Despite some thankless tasks associated with these cases—such as disposing of property divorcing couples leave behind and managing finances for incapacitated individuals—he spent less time in court than with private cases, which improved his work-life balance. Also, he was guaranteed payment for every case and often received commissions from cases that required him to sell property.
In 2016, Karasik’s firm takes on a 50/50 mix of private and court-appointed cases and revenue is growing steadily. Karasik and McCullough manage up to 50 cases at any given time. His practice is now located in Kensington, Maryland.