Solo Growing Pains

“Help! My firm is successful!”

That’s what I feel like shouting right now. My firm is doing well and it is experiencing growing pains.

I have been adamant that I belong right where I am – just me, working away happily in my home office, with virtual help a phone call away. And yet, I really need a little more space. I now have a staff, and three people working in my tiny home office. My filing cabinet is about two sizes too small. And I admit that I have grown weary of keeping the entire house clean because a client might stop by and see the dog hair my lab-mix sheds by the pound each day.

I have always been a fish that tried to swim upstream. I’m not talking about salmon reproduction here, just analogizing my strong-willed sense of non-conformist independence.

In high school, when the cool kids were throwing beer bashes when their parents went out of town, I hosted my very first dinner party at age 15. I cooked dinner for ten of my friends (lasagna as I recall), made everyone dress up and used my mom’s china and crystal for the event. I have no idea what possessed her to let me do that, but she did.

In college, while all my friends were majoring in practical stuff like computer programming, I majored in English literature with a minor in philosophy.

And when I was at BigLaw, I was a non-conforming associate. In a world where simply wearing a suit that isn’t navy, black or gray seemed controversial, I wore red and purple, dyed my hair with burgundy streaks and generally let my freak flag fly as far as it would be tolerated. I was never at the top of the chart showing which associates billed the most each month, mostly because I didn’t see the point in tracking every single second of my time and ascribing it to a client (“That is the job!” my boss once generously pointed out). I’m not lazy, and I’m not making excuses for my lack of production at BigLaw. It simply was not and is not for me. I’m a square peg and BigLaw only has very round holes.

I decided when I started my firm that small is my destination. I left BigLaw, after all, so why would I want to make my own big firm? So I can hate that too?

I read Michael Gerber’s book The E Myth Revisited as part of Bill Jawitz‘s course on time management. Mr. Gerber’s premise is that by applying the principles of franchising – systemization of business processes, documentation of the systems, and hiring competent people to implement those systems – you can build a successful business where others have failed.

For the most part I agree with Mr. Gerber. His method certainly works to build a business that has a life apart from its owners. By systemizing your business and documenting the procedures to follow to implement and integrate those systems in your business, you build a machine that functions well and gets things done. It makes sense. It works.

Where he loses me is his insistence that you have to grow out of your business and hand over the operations to others in order to succeed. Thus, an attorney becomes successful by first systemizing and documenting the law firm’s procedures and practices (which I agree with) and then hiring a cadre of associates and paralegals to actually do the work (which is just messed up). That rules out the possibility of growing a thriving and successful solo practice.

I like running a business. I like practicing law. I want to do both, and I have no intention of hiring someone else to take the practice of law off my hands so I can focus on growing a business.

Somewhere in between BigLaw excess and MicroLaw minimalism is where I want to live. I’m still bootstrapping my business, and I don’t plan to spend money on marble and mahogany to impress anyone. But I’m ready to budge on self-imposed austerity.

I recently hired a summer law clerk, Amber Drummond, a student at Florida A&M Law school, to help with research and drafting projects.  I also hired a part-time paralegal, Randi Meehle, my husband’ssister-in-law, who lives in Michigan and will work remotely, to assist with document preparation. I’ve already figured out payroll and withholding, and I’m looking into worker’s comp insurance.

Looking for office space,  I had a very clear idea of what I don’t want. I have already ruled out the executive suites thing – I don’t like their impersonal vibe. Subletting space from another firm – too confusing for clients. I don’t want to be in a big office building – too expensive. And I don’t want to be Downtown – no parking, a lousy commute and, frankly, too many lawyers.

I found my ideal office space in a historic Victorian house that was converted into an office building, The Savannah House.  I get the entire third floor (about 700 sq. ft.) plus a private space on the second floor that shares the same entrance that I can sublet to another solo to offset my expenses.  We will occupy the entire third floor, which consists of two large offices with plenty of space for Amber and our file clerk in one office and me in the other. The space is beautiful, with hardwood floors and wonderful natural light.

Thanks to Freecycle, Craig’s List and Ikea, I have furnished the space for under $500. That includes two desks, two desk chairs, a bookcase, a conference table and chairs, three file cabinets, an area rug and chairs for the client reception area, and miscellaneous office stuff, like trash cans and pencil holders. Not too shabby!

My budget looks pretty good right now, but my costs are about to more than double to accommodate the growth of my firm. No more free Internet access. I’ll actually have to pay my rent & utilities. I’ll have to add a second extension to my phone system. And payroll and office supplies and more.

I revamped my business and marketing plans to account for the coming changes. I know what productivity needs to look like going forward. Provided my clients continue to pay, I should be alright.

Right?

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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