Most solos are all-to-familiar with the “feast or famine” roller coaster. Either you have too much work to comfortably handle on your own, or you are wondering how you are going to pay the bills. Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about a number of ways to successfully deal with the “feast” option.
First of all, don’t panic. Too much work is a good problem to have. Put your situation into perspective. “Feast” is a much better problem for a solo to have than “famine.” You just need a plan.
One way to handle the problem of too much work is to turn some of it down. You now have the luxury of becoming more selective about the work that you do or the clients that you work with. There’s a reason why successful lawyers tend to be happier lawyers. They not only make more money, but they can also be pickier about the matters and the clients that they accept.
What if you are lucky and all of your work is work that you want to do for clients you enjoy? Don’t automatically decide to hire your first employee – an administrative assistant, a paralegal or another lawyer. Do some research first. Do you have a clear picture of the work that you will be delegating to someone else? Do you really know if there is enough work to keep that person busy full time?
Take a step back and determine the exact tasks that could be delegated to someone else. Keep track of everything that you do over the course of a few days. I suspect you’ll be surprised to discover how you actually spend your time. The best use of your time is generally going to be practicing law, especially if you bill by the hour.
After taking this inventory, assign the tasks to one of two categories: tasks related to office administration and tasks related to your actual caseload.
When it comes to administrative tasks, there are lots of options. You can hire college students, law students, virtual assistants or a colleague’s administrative assistant who wants to work some extra hours. These people will usually work for a relatively low hourly rate, keeping your overhead low.
When business is good, solos often make the mistake of pursuing one of two romanticized visions. The first is hiring a young associate who can be groomed into a future partner. The second is merging with another solo and adding an ampersand to the firm’s name. Both visions often lead to trouble.
On its face, the “young associate” option is very appealing. You can leverage the associate’s time and make more money. According to law firm economics, the easiest way to increase profits is by leverage. You bill out an associate’s time at a level where the total revenue exceeds the associate’s salary and overhead. Those extra dollars all go to the firm’s bottom line. In reality, it usually takes much more time and effort to train and mentor the associate than you anticipated.
But perhaps the biggest risk in this strategy is that the romantic dream of bequeathing the practice to your protégé can turn into a nightmare. How? When your so-called protégé decides that he or she wants to be the boss and opens his or her own law firm. To add insult to injury, you can bet that the protégé will attempt to steal some of your clients in the process.
While merging with another solo can minimize the training/mentoring problems, you can’t leverage this person as much because they’ll require a higher salary. And, do you really want to hire an experienced lawyer who has enough extra time to assist you with your caseload? I’d rather join forces with someone who has a robust book of business of their own. But that won’t solve your “busyness” problem.
The solo attorney with too much work should consider hiring a part-time contract lawyer. With this alternative, you are not over-committed. If you don’t like the performance of one contract lawyer, you can easily try another.
Good paralegals or legal assistants can be worth their weight in gold. A well-trained and bright paralegal can do many of the tasks that a lawyer does. The beauty of this solution is two-fold. First, a paralegal’s time can be leveraged just as (or even more) profitably than another lawyer of any experience level. Second, a paralegal or legal assistant is less likely to jump ship and compete against you. A paralegal can go work for a competitor, but it’s unlikely that your clients would follow.
When faced with a “feast” of too much work, don’t panic or rush into making a full-time hire. Take some time. Determine what you need, how often you need it, and which option of meeting that need will be most profitable.
Originally appeared on Lawyerist.com’s law firm hiring & staffing portal