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To Hire or Not to Hire (that is often the question)

I am a solo construction attorney. I help clients with a wide range of legal issues from general risk management to some fairly substantial litigation. I am also the only staff of my law firm

Over the course of the 4 and a half years of my solo practice, I, like many solo practitioners (and other owners of firms I'm sure) have considered the addition of staff to help with some of the administrative, marketing (whether through face to face meetings and conferences or online through blogging and twitter), research and others of the myriad major and minor tasks that must be done to properly represent a client. This of course doesn't even mention the actual client representation and giving the attention necessary to each client to make them feel as if theirs is your only case.

It would seem that a solo practitioner like me would want to hire at least some sort of administrative assistant to at least help with the paperwork. Many pages and megabytes of documents pass through my office on a regular basis. A "no-brainer" right? Well, not so fast. At least for me, every time I'm in the office at 8 or 9 at night and going through exhibits for trial and thinking, "Geez I wish I had some help," I have to stop and take the following into consideration (of course after the adrenaline of the trial wears off and I get a good night's sleep):

1. Is the perceived "need" for staff or additional attorneys on the payroll one that will be a sustained need or one that you perceive because you're "swamped?"

2. Will the addition of staff or another attorney add to the bottom line in a way that grows your practice and increases your job satisfaction? In other words, will adding more people to the payroll create more stress or more business?

3. If the answer is positive to the above two questions, then ask yourself if the other attorney will be self sustaining. As a solo, unlike some large firms, any partnership or employee hire needs to expand the bottom line. In other words, will any new attorney addition be able to bring in enough, even in an "eat what you kill" type scenario, to justify the fixed cost of that employee?

These are all questions that need to be asked or you may very well hire someone and quickly determine that the fixed cost of an employee (salary, taxes, etc.) is too much to bear and you will end up firing that person. This wouldn't be fair to you or to that person you hired.

As I said above, I am still the only employee of my law firm. That's not to say that I don't get help. I outsource my accounting and payroll (such as it is). I use cloud based tools to keep my practice as paperless and efficient as possible. I have an office at a shared office space where the company providing my office has receptionists, internet and phone service. I also have a non disclosure agreement with my office provider (in this case Regus, but there are others) that will allow them to help out with large copy jobs, etc. to ease some of the administrative burden. In short, I use "pay as I go" type outsourced services that allow me to stay low overhead. So far this has been more than enough to allow me to serve my clients well and keep me from being tethered to a desk in my office while keeping the fixed overhead costs down.

Of course, your practice may very well be a volume one that needs a lot of paralegal support to be profitable or you may be so overloaded that you need more staff or you risk dropping a few balls. Just think well ahead before hiring, I know I do.

Related Posts:

Flying Solo: How it Helps My Construction Clients

Thoughts on Solo Construction Law in the Cloud 


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Christopher Hill is a construction lawyer at The Law Office of Christopher G. Hill, PC in Richmond, Virginia and a member of the Virginia's Legal Elite in Construction Law. You can follow his blog at: constructionlawva.com.

Comments for To Hire or Not to Hire (that is often the question)


Name: Dustin Cole
Time: Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Mr. Hill I completely understand your dilemma. It is classic among sole practitioners. May I offer some benchmark questions to help you decide if and how to hire help which I have developed over nearly a quarter-century of advising attorneys on how to grow their practices.

The first question to ask is "how much time my spending on non-billable work versus billable?" I provide my clients with a handy vehicle that helps them decide how much of their day is spent doing various levels of work, from the high-level client development and strategy to the bottom level of emptying wastebaskets and filling copiers.
A telling phrase in your post is "every time I'm in the office at 8 or 9 at night and going through exhibits for trial. . ."
The real question is why are you at the office at eight or nine at night? How much time have you spent during your day and week doing nonbillable administrative, financial, clerical, secretarial work which, if you did not have to do, would've allowed you to work on your exhibits during normal business hours.
Among my fellow practice advisors, we have long realized that many solo-solo practitioners spend up to half of their time "doing their own laundry," so to speak. Doing all of those nonbillable things that could have been done by a paralegal, secretary, clerk or even receptionist.
The underlying issue that you are dealing with is that of "capacity." It is clear that you are at or near your capacity for hours worked. This trap is why the profession has some of the highest rates of you and him divorce, alcoholism, drug abuse, heart attack and even suicide – because most attorneys have no personal boundaries and are willing to work till eight or nine or 10 any day including Saturdays and Sundays.
So start by identifying how much of your time you are spending on nonlegal or very low level legal work which is limiting your capacity to do higher level work. For instance, it is likely that your "going through exhibits for trial" entails preparing many or all of those exhibits which is clearly not a legal task. And if you didn't prepare all of those exhibits, you certainly made all of the detailed arrangements to have them done by an outside source.
Start by identifying how many hours you have billed last week and subtract them from the total number of hours you worked (whether in the office or at home). Keep a time log for a week or two which tracks billable time, and time that you would consider paralegal, secretarial, or clerical time. For good measure, also track the time you spend at work doing personal things. This exercise is invariably revealing, and often disturbing, because most attorneys are notoriously poor at organizing their work and self-management. E-mail, office phones, cell phones, texting, all have contributed to an environment filled with constant interruption and short attention spans which create self interruptions.
So the underlying issue is how much time on my spending doing work that I would pay someone else $15-$30 an hour to do that is limiting my ability to do the work I can bill at $300 an hour? Or, time spent doing personal things which I might better organize to be more efficient.
You also raise the issue of whether you should hire another attorney which is an entirely separate issue with its own considerations. A word of caution here, however. Remember that, if you identify that you are spending 30% of your time doing work that could be delegated to a (qualified) legal assistant or a clerk, that means you could immediately increase your capacity to do legal work and Bill by that same 30%. In other words, by adding an assistant at, say, $15 per hour, you could increase your capacity for high level work – and consequently your revenues – by nearly a third.
So bottom line here, is that you should not necessarily be asking the question "should I hire an assistant" but the larger question of what leverage do I need that would allow me to spend a significantly higher percentage of my time doing billable legal work?
How to identify what position to hire into? How to write a detailed job description for the position? How to find the right person? How to train them in, manage them, quality control their work? Once you make the decision to hire, you suddenly added a new job description to yours? That of people manager – again, a skill which is usually very lacking for attorneys.
The reason attorneys tend to live such miserable lives is that they forget that one of the primary purposes of any business is to provide its owner with freedom. Not just money, but a great life. Frankly, most attorneys are trapped by their practices, whether those practices are small or large. In fact, usually the larger the practice, the more trapped the attorney.
The attorney says "how much work do I have to do" while the entrepreneur says "how does this business need to work to provide me with both great income and a great life?
The bigger question for you is do you want to break through your current revenue ceiling, and/or do you want to have a better quality of life? It doesn't have to be an "either/or" – it can be both. But first, the perspective – and the objective need to change.
You can find a lot more of my thoughts at my blog, http://resipsalawyer.com/ and I'd be happy to discuss this personally with you or anyone else. Just e-mail me at the address below will have my assistant send us a time to talk.
Dustin Cole
President and Master Practice Advisor

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