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Cocktail hour.

Occupational Hazards: Networking

I write this post because a twenty-five dollar cheese plate pissed me off.

I went into the city the other day for a lawyer networking event. "Networking," according to conventional wisdom, is something that You Are Supposed To Do.

The familiar and unfamiliar faces were all pleasant company. I've enjoyed many networking events, and one in particular was one of the best days of my life, but I'll save that story for another time.

This post is about watching your wallet when you're in the networking circuit. 

In law school, while we are racking up five- and six-figure non-bankruptable debt, vendors who stand to make fistfuls of money off of us the moment we pass the bar exam placate us with free food and booze. We mingle with practicing lawyers who literally smell like money. They're doing ok, so we'll do ok, we tell ourselves. It's all part of the indoctrination into the big-earning, big-spending lawyer lifestyle. 

In the early years of practice, many of us are flat broke, but we're still expected to dress for success, have a car that doesn't embarrass (especially if you're a dude), carry the right handbag (you don't want to be the only chick in court with the vinyl one from Macy's, do you?), and be well-groomed (gel manicure, fresh haircut). Other than mileage, NONE of this is tax-deductible. It's just the cost of doing business, and we're expected to buy in. 

That's just the first hour of your day before you show up. Come noon, you want to hit the streets with your favorite colleagues and escape the office for some fresh air and human connection. Where does this usually occur? At a downtown deli or lunch spot. A cheaper venue sets you back $12 or $15 if you also get your mid-day caffeine. You're making a decent income, so you don't sweat it.

Back at work, you squeeze in some more billable time before 5-ish, but the traffic sucks, so you're going to stick around downtown and hit a networking happy hour because you need to meet people. The free ones attract the folks who are still hoping that the Job Fairy will wave her magic wand and make it all better, but the paid ones are popular too. You know, such-and-such is meeting at blah-blah, the latest self-consciously casual hipster joint with the dramatic lighting. You can be there too for the simple investment of a $14 glass of wine and a $25 cheese plate. If you're still hungry for dinner there's a cool dinner place down the street. Your restaurant bill is about $60 plus tip.

Congratulations. You've just hemorrhaged about a hundred bucks just to de-stress from work and feed yourself. More accurately, this is $125 to $133 in after-tax dollars. Do this a dozen more times this month, and it's starting to look like a mortgage payment.

Cars. Clothes. Grooming. Restaurants. And, your student loan payment. Oh, and the housing bubble, unless you want to buy in some suburb that adds an hour to your commute and when you tell people you live there, they make a face similar to the one your cat makes when it smells some other cat's piss. The price to play is tremendously high, and many lawyers, even a decade or more into their careers, are just a few dollars ahead of the obvious (and hidden) costs of the profession. The things we do to de-stress just add to our stress.

It's the Protestant Work Ethic on Crack.

I have no single formula or magic way to hack this, because the solutions are somewhat individualized, yet always hiding in plain sight. My own evolution to a low-overhead solo practice and financial mindfulness did not happen overnight, and keeping it how I like it requires periodic examination of what is an extravagance and what is an appropriate expenditure.

What I do know is that when you are a lawyer, autopilot is counterproductive. You have an incredible opportunity to make a great living if you are willing to question everything and strive for mindful spending. You can find your own way to hack the expenses, pick your splurges strategically, and not only survive, but thrive.  

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