This guest post was written by Nicole Bradick. You can read her bio at the end of the post. Nicole previously joined us for a guest lecture in 2013.
Heck yes. You’ve gone out on your own, built a healthy client base, and your practice is thriving. The work is steady, your revenue is increasing, but all of a sudden you’re panicked about something you didn’t think you would worry about: How to handle all of the work. You never want to turn work away because maybe the work will all of a sudden stop coming, right? What to do….
The instinct is strong at that point to start thinking about hiring an associate. How fantastic to have someone to do the background work on your cases and handle some of your matters. But. What if there is just a little bit of work and your associate is not sufficiently productive? What about the overhead costs and time to manage and train? Didn’t you choose to be a solo practitioner in order to be…. solo? Managing growth is tough.
If you’re running your firm with the hopes of making a healthy profit, hiring decisions should be based on profitability. Will hiring an associate make your firm money? That is the essential inquiry. If the answer is “I don’t know,” then it’s time to take a few steps back and start with the leanest possible staffing model and work up from there.
The simplest, leanest, most cost-effective manner of staffing your firm is adopting a contingent staffing model. You hire only when you need the help, so you don’t have to carry any overhead or have any uncertainty about whether an associate would be sufficiently productive. Due to a confluence of market and societal factors, there is a ready availability of experienced attorneys who want to do work for other attorneys either as their preferred way of practicing law or as a supplement to other professional endeavors. These attorneys typically handle substantive work on a project basis for other attorneys – research and writing, transactional work, drafting briefs, motions, and other pleadings, managing discovery, covering hearings or depositions, etc. They are the answer to your prayers.
These fine folks, known as freelance attorneys or contract attorneys, are paid only when they do work for you. Bonus: you can add a surcharge to the freelancer’s rate – as long as the overall rate to the client is reasonable — thus creating a profit center. (Check with your local bar rules and ethics opinions on your jurisdiction’s particulars on this matter). They ease your load and can make you money to boot. Wee!
Here are a few tips to consider when thinking about using freelance attorneys in your practice:
- Consider your client’s needs. Some clients will come to you for matters well within your capacity. To be sure, your clients will frequently be best served by having you handle their legal needs. But this is not always the case, nor is it always best for the health of your firm. Clients are often looking for one stop shopping, but not a one-size-fits-all solution. Your job is to ensure that your client’s needs are served. That does not mean that you need to single-handedly serve every one of those needs (nor is your firm functioning in the most efficient way if you do). Indeed, there are plenty of circumstances where your clients may even be better served by using contract attorneys.
- Think about client consent. Again, check your jurisdiction’s bar rules and opinions, which may not require consent as long as you supervise the work, but it is always a good idea to get written consent. This is certainly mandatory if you are communicating confidential client information to the freelancer. Clients are looking for ways to reduce their legal spend all the time and will likely embrace the use of contract lawyers as a means to reduce their bills.
- Hire experienced, competent freelancers. When hiring a freelance attorney, you remain ultimately responsible for providing competent legal services to your client. You also have a duty to appropriately supervise the work of the freelancer. This means that if you hire a law student for a research project, you need to closely scrutinize their work. If, however, you hire an attorney with 15 years of quality experience as a litigator, your duty to supervise will be less burdensome for you.
- Disaggregate your matters. If you have a piece of litigation, for example, break it down into its basic parts: Case assessment, research, discovery, pleadings, motion practice, trial advocacy, briefing. Then, think about what your client needs you to do. That probably includes case assessment and trial advocacy. Next, think about where your client can still be well-served by plugging in a contract attorney to assist, with your supervision. That can include every remaining part of that matter, instead of or in conjunction with you.
When you find the right people to help you with substantive legal work on an as-needed basis, it can be a beautiful thing. You may find that this model will work for you for the long haul, allowing you to easily scale up or down during the natural ebbs and flows. Or, you may in the end decide that the work is steady enough to hire someone. But trying the leanest, most agile option first has the benefit of making that decision less risky and can even be the best method of testing out compatibility with potential hires.
You might also benefit from listening to this guest lecture by Ryan McKeen of the McKeen Law Firm who found three ways to bring on help as he transitioned through ‘no man’s land’.
Nicole Bradick was the founder and CEO of Custom Counsel, a nationwide network of freelance attorneys, which was acquired by CuroLegal in 2015. Bradick is now the Chief Strategy Officer at CuroLegal, a company that provides law firm operations and consulting services. After a number of years as a litigator, Nicole now focuses on creating efficiencies for the modern law firm and a better experience for law firm clients. Nicole regularly writes and speaks about the changing legal marketplace, the evolution of the law firm business model, and the technology that allows attorneys to do their work better, faster, and cheaper. For her work in this area, she was named a 2012 ABA Journal “Legal Rebel” and was named to the Fastcase 50 list of global legal innovators in 2014.
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®.