So, you’re a solo and your practice is growing. But, not so much that you can afford to hire a full fledged associate to help with the work overload. You don’t want to turn down work, because you need the revenue, but you don’t want to take on more work than you can handle by yourself – this is an ethical violation in most cases, and opens you up to liability you don’t want. What do you do…? I was faced with this question in the third and fourth years of my practice.
I have a colleague that has set his active case limit at 60 per year. He has decided what annual income he wants/needs and what he must bill to achieve that. He only takes on a new case when one is closed. I can’t imagine how much work he must turn down and the opportunities missed through this process. I opted to simply turn down work. Needless to say, this has an impact on the financial growth of your firm and will keep you stagnant.
Upon starting my practice I enlisted the help of a couple of mentors. I carefully selected them based on my practice needs and areas of interest, personality and experience. I needed help understanding the nuts and bolts of running a law firm as a business, as well as practicing law in my jurisdiction. As a freshly minted attorney, I didn’t know the judges in my area, how to navigate the court system- especially daunting in Cook County, Chicago, which houses one of the largest unified court system in the country- or how to draft an acceptable order. I joined the bar associations and talked to friends and clients about who they had worked with and who they knew. Then, I started taking people to lunch. My first month in practice, I was having lunch 8-10 times a week! In the process, I found I liked and worked well with several experienced attorneys who have since become good friends. We have worked on cases together, I have sought their advice, and sometimes they have sought mine.
One day, just over a year ago, one of my mentor/colleagues disclosed to me that he was planning to retire soon and wanted to start transferring his cases to my office. After 30 years of practice, the day to day of operating a firm and practicing law was more than he wanted to do at this late stage in his life. He just wanted to practice law. He did not like the new billing systems and necessary use of email and the technology most lawyers of today use as an afterthought. During this conversation, I expressed that I had two concerns about his request. First, I was already feeling the pressure of my workload and thinking about ways to get another attorney on board, but could not afford it. Second, I felt I would be lost if he left practice and was not there to assist with cases and counsel if and when he retired. He agreed to keep me posted on his plans, but asked me to give it some serious thought. And, I did.
It took only a few days to realize that my mentor had effectively solved my problem and eliminated his own, without even knowing it. I recalled that when I had worked as a summer associate at a big law firm, there was an office down the hall from mine that held a gentleman who’s title on the door said ‘of counsel.’ When I had asked him what that meant, he indicated to me that he used to be an associate at the firm, but had excelled past associate status, and had no desire to become a partner. He was sort of in-between. He handled cases and met with the firm’s clients. He was able to bring in his own clients, who benefited from the use of the firms resources. I got online and researched more about this mysterious position. I asked around to my big law friends to find out if their offices had such a person and if so, what did they do.
I called my mentor to discuss this idea with him. I suggested that instead of going into full retirement, he could continue to practice law as ‘of counsel’ to my firm. He could transfer his clients over, continue to handle only the cases that he wanted to, would be available to assist on my bigger matters. He would be able to go virtual and give up the expense of his traditional office. On my end, the firm would increase its client base, and of course revenues. His clients would still have him on board while transitioning and getting used to me as their primary attorney; my office would move his clients (and him) over to a technologically advanced practice system, and we would handle his billing, marketing and mundane office management functions for him. He could just practice the law, and in a way that was convenient for him. I was also getting someone in the office who handled areas of law that I was not experienced in, but could now learn hands on, and there was some assistance with the overflow of work that came in during those busy times. It was genius.
I recalled recent conversations with another attorney that I had worked with who was already ‘of counsel’ to another firm. That firm was downsizing, leaving my friend with the choice of opening his own firm, or going to work for someone else. I learned of this when he called to tell me of this situation and ask if I had any clients in his practice area I could refer. I did. In fact, I really didn’t like his practice area, but I was competent in it and always seemed to be picking up such cases. I immediately asked him if he would be interested in being ‘of counsel’ to my firm and he agreed. He too, hated the idea of having to deal with bringing in clients, handling billing and scheduling and ‘all that other stuff.’ We set up an arrangement that met those needs. Clients that come to my office seeking an attorney for his areas of expertise are immediately routed to him. We handle his scheduling and billing and he completely handles the case from beginning to end.
As both were already practicing attorneys, they had their own insurance, skill set and network. Now, we were sharing those things. In addition, as sort of a tech junkie, the day to day operations was a cinch for me. My practice management software is so fully integrated into everything else (document management, calendaring, billing, client communications) that it takes only minutes per week to handle the business end of things. The only tasks I was adding was going over billing for two more persons and the increase in calendaring. Moving old-schoolers over to a completely digitized office does take some time and maneuvering, but it’s well worth the resulting benefits.
I have added four new practice areas to my firm, an increased client base, and experienced attorneys that earn their own keep. We are able to divvy up client matters into the areas of practice that we are not only proficient at, but those we actually like. The days of working a case you can’t stand or that bores us to death just to pay the bills are mostly gone. I am able to focus the firm’s resources and energies on those things that will make us most profitable and productive.
The practice of law is ever-evolving and the days of being ‘stuck’ in any one system or set of processes is long gone. Don’t be afraid to try new things and figure out which one works best for you and your practice.
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®.