Volume 19, Number 1
How to Run a Successful Practice Without Employees
By Joel P. Bennett
October 2001 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of my solo practice. When I began in 1976, I had few clients and little capital, so I could not afford employees. I marked a milestone when I contracted out some typing and then hired my first secretary in 1979. Dedicated word processors and letter-quality printer packages (Vydec, Wang, Lexitron, NBI, and CPT were the leading brands) cost $20,000, so I bought an IBM self-correcting electric II for $1,100 when I hired the secretary.
From 1981 to 1984, I was in a partnership with a few other lawyers, and we had the usual support staff, plus two NBI dedicated word processors that cost $5,000 each. In 1984, I went back to being a solo because I missed being able to do things my way. I bought my first real PC, an IBM PC XT with letter-quality printer, for about $5,000.
I thought typing was beneath me and had never taken touch typing as a student. I dictated into tapes and to my own secretary from 1979 until a few years ago. However, without my secretary, I could not produce any documents, so about 1993 I decided to buy my first notebook computer and learn to type. The Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing software program and Windows 3.1 allowed me to become less dependent upon secretaries and even proficient in producing my own documents.
After this, I found that my full-time secretary was no longer necessary, and part-time help was not sensible because my needs were so unpredictable. After several unsatisfactory experiences, I decided to go "cold turkey" in 1997 and do it all myself.
My office is in a small condominium development in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C., a townhouse with four rooms on two levels. My overheard has shrunk from 50 percent to 25 percent and my net income has increased steadily since 1997. I do spend a small amount of time each day on non-billable tasks like light photocopying, postage, filing, time and billing entries, and other items. Although my annual client billable hours do not exceed 1,000, I still make a comfortable living due to lower overhead-and I do not miss the stress of dealing with employee problems.
I do not use temps. When I am out of the office during the day, I post signs in my window directing deliveries to another office. When I am out of town on vacation (usually one week three times a year), I hire someone from another office to forward my first-class mail and faxes to me by overnight delivery. I notify my clients about this policy before I go on vacation. I check my voice mail at least once a day while out of town but I usually ignore my e-mail, again notifying clients and opposing counsel to that effect before I leave. I have had no complaints or problems from these procedures.
I maintain a complete home office for working evenings or weekends, but I do not see clients there. I leave work by 6 p.m. on weekdays and do not go into the office on weekends. My employment law and civil litigation practice fortunately does not require house calls.
I bought my own office space in 1992 when I had a secretary because I was tired of paying rent after 16 years of doing so. If I had it to do over again, I would rent space in a shared office arrangement with a secretary and conference room, and my overhead would be even lower.
Practicing without employees requires not only good computer skills but also good hardware and software. I have four computers and printers at the office and three computers and printers at home. I use WordPerfect 8 Legal Edition on my older computers and WordPerfect Law Office 2000 on my newer ones. I have fax machines at home and work. I use Timeslips 8 for my time and billing.
Any lawyer who can touch type and knows how to use a computer can practice successfully without employees or temps, as long as he or she does not mind spending some time each day on clerical tasks that are not billable to clients. Billable hours are lower, but so is overhead. For me, that results in less stress and higher net income.
Joel P. Bennett is a sole practitioner concentrating on employment law in Washington, D.C. He is former chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section.