Life as a One-Man-Band – The Solo Practitioner

From Big Law To Solo

Life As A One-Man-Band – The Solo Practitioner

Suzanne Meehle, Esq.

Lately I have been bombarded with resumes from paralegals and assistants looking for a job. I have had to turn them down, albeit with the suggestion that they start their own virtual paralegal/assistant service and offer their services on a part-time, as-needed basis to solo and small firm attorneys.

The reason for this is simple: Most of us start out as a one-person operation. We are our own paralegals, assistants and receptionists. Rarely do I call a newly-minted solo and someone other than the attorney answers the phone.

“Thank you for calling The Meehle Law Firm. This is Suzanne. How may I help you?”

You ever see a one-man-band? What they do is AMAZING to watch, but it’s seldom pretty. The best ones have their system of playing the various instruments down to an art.

OK – so I no longer answer the phones. I recently hired a virtual receptionist and I am considering bringing on a part-time virtual assistant. I even have a college kid who comes by my house once every few weeks to do filing. That I have been able to use outside help is a testament to how well I have done in putting systems in place that someone else can follow. When you are a one-man-band, systems are the name of the game.

I have a system for assembling files in the order that I like them. I had College Kid write down the process after we worked out the kinks. I have a system for managing my time so that client production and management tasks get done. I have a system for handling email and correspondence. A system for managing law firm accounting and cash flow. A system for document management, client contact and case management (FYI: I love Clio). I have a system for keeping my office clean, a system for recycling, a system for shredding confidential information, and for just about everything else that needs to get done around here. I even have a system for documenting my systems!

The only system I was ever taught at the Big Law Firm was the system for handing-off  tasks to the support staff so that I could focus on client production. I knew how the files were put together only because there were piles of client files on my desk. I had no idea how the rest of it happened because I was fairly insulated from it.

That is, until I started thinking about going out on my own. I called the Florida Bar ethics hotline regarding a potential ethical problem at the Big Law Firm, and the conversation went something like this:

Me: “I don’t know if this is or will become a problem, but I’m concerned and want to know what to do about it.”

Ethics Hotline: “If you are concerned, you should leave the firm.”

Me: “But I need the job!”

EH: “You’re a lawyer!”

Me: “I’m a lawyer who needs a job!”

EH: “Listen to me: You are a LAWYER. You HAVE a job, whether or not you stay at this firm.”

Me: “Oh.”

In all fairness, it’s not like it never occurred to me that I could hang a shingle. I just doubted my ability to practice law while running a firm. But I started paying attention to the systems they had in place at the Big Law Firm. Those systems are what allowed the Big Law Firm to be a big law firm. I made notes regarding what I liked and didn’t like, and thought about what I would do differently if I was running the show.

I started a small firm with another attorney and, while that situation did not work out, I learned a lot more about the importance of having systems in place and using your systems. My partner and I butted heads quite often about systems issues. For example, I liked blocking off time on my schedule for production and management tasks, she liked to work with a less-structured schedule; I did not track my time, while she insisted that time had to be tracked, even on flat-fee work. You get the idea. We didn’t always agree on systems.

Being a solo gives me the opportunity to put systems into play my way. I no longer track my time, but I keep to a pretty strict schedule. I found that I got more done with fewer headaches this way. It also allowed me to hire the virtual receptionist service because I could tell them not only how to answer my phones, but when to interrupt me and when to send the call to voicemail. And my increased productivity will drive the need for a virtual assistant while producing the systems that the assistant will need to follow.

I can’t tell you how to set up your systems, but I can tell you how to figure out what they should be. Ask yourself, “How do I …?” for every task you do. Start by compiling a list of the major tasks you perform each day. Then break each task down into sub-tasks. That’s your system for that thing!

For example: Every day I have “planning” on my schedule, first thing in the morning. I started following Bill Jawitz‘s program of reviewing and maintaining my To Do lists each morning and scheduling time to tackle  just a few of the tasks on my list each day. That is my system for managing my time. I know what I am doing each day and I stick to my schedule so that I get things done.

Get your systems in place, and document your systems. It may not help you to grow your firm into a Big Law firm, but it might just make the difference between being a successful one-man-band and just being a guy carrying a lot of instruments around on his back.

What systems do you currently have in place?  What systems management do you struggle with the most? How are you handling these issues?

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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6 comments on “Life as a One-Man-Band – The Solo Practitioner

  • Excellent article! I use a virtual assistant for secretarial things, I just recently hired a virtual accounting person to handle Clio invoicing, etc. for me, and I just hired a virtual receptionist service.

    The “systems” you talk about still elude me, though. I need help. Can you suggest any books or websites that give practical guides on setting up good systems for this type of law practice? Thank you.

    Ryan Corrigan

    • Think of it as writing an employee handbook, Ryan. Here is a very complete list of what to put in (and leave out of) an employee handbook: http://www.seltzerlawfirm.com/employeehandbook.html.

      Operationally, I suggest that you make a list of the tasks that need to get done in your office everyday. My list lookis something like this:
      º Client Intake
      · Initial Conference
      · Engagement Letter
      · Follow-up
      º Opening/Closing Files
      º Client Production
      · Administrative Law
      · Trademark Law
      · Copyright Law
      · Corporate Documents
      · Contract Drafting
      º Communications with Clients/Others
      · Returning Calls
      · Reading/Responding to Email
      · Written Correspondence
      º Marketing
      · Thank You Notes
      · Facebook/Twitter Updates
      · Blog Content
      · SPU Articles
      · Networking
      º Law Firm Management
      · Accounting
      · Billing
      · Collections
      · Answering the Phone/Screening Calls
      · Cleaning the Office
      · Filing
      · Data Entry

      Once you have your list, ask yourself how you do each of those tasks – breaking each down to its sub-tasks – and then ask yourself whether you are happy with the way that thing is done. If the answer is no, then how would you like to see it done better?

      When you have virtual workers, it is absolutely imperative that they know exactly how you want things done for your firm. Otherwise, you are stuck with their systems, whatever they are. FYI: I spent my morning with my newly-minted virtual assistant, in my office, showing him how I want things done (a luxury of finding a virtual worker who lives in my area). In that regard, it isn’t any different than hiring an in-house employee. If he were remote, I would need to rely solely on my written processes, though, without in-person training. But a good virtual worker will respect your need to have things done your way. Don’t hesitate to ask for changes in their procedures.

  • Wow! Thanks for this timely article. After being a staff attorney with our local district court for almost 6 years, I’m going solo in two months. I didn’t even know where to start on business systems; it was so overwhelming. This is a great starting point for me. Thank you.

  • Suzanne, this is a very helpful post. One of my favorite books is the E Myth Revisited, by Michael Gerber. The premise of the book is that most small businesses fail within 5 years, while most franchises last and last. Why? Because they have systems. Most lawyers don’t look at their practices as a small business, but that is a mistake. What you have suggested here, devising and perfecting and then memorializing systems, even in a solo law office, is right in line with Gerber’s advice. You have inspired me to spend some time this week to document some of the practices that I have put in place. Thanks.

    • You have a good eye, Steven! I read The E Myth Attorney after taking Bill Jawitz’s SPU course on time management, and the systemization of my business fell out of my reading that book. I do not agree with the law firm model that Gerber espouses (hire associates to do the work for you, etc.), but the systemization process makes a lot of sense. Plus, my practice is getting closer to running like clockwork.

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