The Six Worries of A Spare Room Tycoon

Nine years after leaving her job as a lawyer for the US Postal Service and setting up her law practice as a sole practitioner, Mariann Schick has come to know her anxieties very well. There are six principal ones, she says, and they torment her regularly. Unlike the Muses of mythology who inspire, these unwelcome visitors get in the way, though she has learned to work despite them.

The first of them, she says, is the cash flow anxiety. When she set up her practice, Mariann thought she would be able to build the amount she bills in a linear fashion from month to month and year to year, but she has found, instead, that while expenses must be paid regularly, income follows cycles.

Some of these are predictable. “Nobody gets a divorce in the summer,” she says, and as a consequence, that part of her income goes down. “Nobody does any business over Christmas,” she adds, and then her income virtually disappears.

The unpredictable cycles are even more terrifying. “Two years in a row,” she explains, “business slowed down in May and didn’t pick up until November. Clients may come in all at once, and there are whole periods of time when no one calls.”

The second anxiety is meeting payroll. “I hate to owe money,” she says. And because both her father and mother were deeply committed to the labor movement, she feels strongly that she must treat people who work for her fairly. Besides, good secretaries need to be paid well, or they will go elsewhere. “When I have hired bad secretaries, I feel like I’m working for them,” she says. Sometimes, cashflow isn’t strong enough for her to afford office help, and she lets them go. But she will never allow herself to be late paying them.

The third anxiety is being a one-person firm. Mariann must return her clients’ calls herself. Often, she can’t delay talking to a client until she is ready. “Clients want to be able to reach you,” she says. “They’ll remember if they can’t.” Besides, many clients might prefer to work with a firm that offers many services and specialties. She worries whether there is any future for a sole practitioner lawyer.

The fourth anxiety is being a single woman. “I’m not a lonely person, but I am a single professional woman,” she says. “There is no one to take care of me but me.” She sometimes fantasizes about living in a time when women could stay at home with the family and depend on men to support the household financially. “This idea that women should take care of themselves has been much overblown,” she says, laughing to signal that she really doesn’t mean it. But the worry is real.

The fifth anxiety is billing. Many of her clients are employees of the federal government or Postal Service, people who may have been discriminated against or wrongfully terminated. They don’t have a lot of money, and to them Mariann’s hourly rate of $275 seems extremely high. Other firms charge more, she says, but “$275 is a lot of money.”

During the first few years of her practice, she tried charging lower rates for clients whom she felt would have difficulty paying. But she found that she was not making enough money to sustain her practice. “I feel cold-blooded,” she says when she tells them she cannot represent them because they can’t afford her rates. “It is just a reality of life. I still have to pay my Visa bill.”

The sixth anxiety is about making the business grow. She would like to be able to practice law full time, rather than spending much of her energy running the business, serving as a therapist for clients, promoting her services, lecturing and doing all the things that large firms hire support staffs to do. She thinks about trying to expand, but the first five anxieties have tended to hold her back.

“The anxieties of working for myself get to me,” she says. “I don’t want to do this for another 15 years.”

But she can imagine one thing that would be worse. “I hope I’m never in the position where I have to go back and work for somebody else,” she says. “I’d rather have these anxieties than the depression and angst of working for somebody else.”


James Chan, Ph.D., is president of Asia Marketing and Management (AMM), a Philadelphia-based consultancy specialized in advising U.S. firms on exporting American-made products and services to China and forging business relationships there. Since he founded his practice in 1983, James Chan has advised more than 100 U.S. companies in expanding their businesses in Asia. To view his background online, go to

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