GPSolo Magazine - April/May 2004
Confessions of a Solo Attorney
I used to be a terrible hirer of administrative assistants. Why? Well, the first time I attempted hiring an assistant, I hired the first person I interviewed because I felt so bad for her being a single mom. As I continued my attempts as an employer, I had no real understanding of how anyone could be of help to my law practice. To make matters worse, even when I had some idea of how another person could assist me, I expected first-day performance to equal or exceed mine both in quality and efficiency.
It quickly dawned upon me that I was the best qualified and most experienced person for the job. How could I possibly hire someone who would do as good a job as me? So why bother? I might as well save the time and expense and do it all myself.
I know, it’s not a pretty picture. Yet I risk this frank and revealing exposure of my dark past in the hopes of benefiting you, dear reader, in the operation of your law practice.
Besides, after reading about my history, I’m sure that you will feel better about your hiring abilities, even if you have the employee retention skills of a Hannibal Lecter.
The Solo Dilemma
Solo attorneys are particularly susceptible to problems with maintaining employees because as solos we have learned how to be completely independent, doing everything ourselves, and most of us relish this independence. Hiring and maintaining a support staff requires us to develop a whole new set of skills.
Think about it. With software for word processing, billing, case management, and accounting, you really can do it all yourself. But is this the smartest way to go?
Even if you do have the most up-to-date technology installed in your law office, robot assistants are decades off. So who gets to set up and maintain the paper files, goes to the office supply store (or orders online, which also takes time), and attends to the dozens of other non-legal tasks that an assistant could handle? Not the R2D2 robot from Star Wars, that’s for sure.
Understanding the Basics
To enjoy the benefits of having employees, you must understand the basic concept that hiring someone can actually benefit you. That may sound painfully obvious, but while you may understand this from an intellectual point of view, you may be stuck with certain misconceptions regarding employees, such as:
• You might think that you are the only person who can do things the “right” way, even if it is something as basic as operating a copy machine.
• You might experience so much anxiety when attempting to rely on others that you feel it’s just easier to do it yourself.
• You might also feel that you cannot afford an assistant even though hiring one could help you make more money.
If you don’t truly understand the benefits of employees, you will either never make any hires or the hires you do make will be doomed to failure. This will prevent you from changing your law practice from one where you feel overwhelmed and without any time for the rest of your life, to a law practice where effective delegation helps you create a more relaxed, fulfilled, and well-balanced life for yourself.
I didn’t realize that my time is more valuable than the time of someone whom I pay $10 or $15 an hour. Even if my employee takes three times as long to do the work as I’d have taken and makes several mistakes I wouldn’t have made, he or she is still a benefit to my practice. Also, I needed to realize that mistakes would lessen over time so long as I took the time and had the patience to train my staff appropriately.
If I had continued to expect my assistant to do a job as well and as quickly as I would have, all my support staff efforts would be doomed to failure. No employee will ever achieve that level of performance without at least some training and time on the job. I have learned to have patience to allow new employees to flounder a bit, make mistakes, and perhaps take several hours to do something that might take me only a single hour. Eventually I did understand how to approach staffing, and as a result my support staff is a real benefit to my practice.
Try to hire someone who has the skills and experience needed to do the things you want done. This sounds simple, but you must do an analysis of what skills and experience are needed for the job, and I recommend that you write them down before the interview. Then be sure to communicate clearly the skills and experience needed to potential candidates and structure your interview around discovering whether or not a candidate meets your qualifications.
This is not always so easy. People tend to dress up their resumes in a way that makes it hard to know who has had real, solid experiences, and who is merely being artful in resume writing.
One way of cutting through the fluff is to present hypothetical situations and ask each candidate how they would handle the situation. Another way is to check references, although references sometimes pad their recommendations. If spelling and punctuation are going to be important parts of the job, don’t hesitate to give a proofreading test as well.
See as many people as possible in as short a period of time as possible. When I was hiring a clerk, I set up interviews for three hours one morning and four hours the following afternoon. I scheduled one 15-minute interview every 20 minutes, which allowed me to interview up to three people every hour and up to 21 people in 7 hours.
Naturally there were a few empty slots and some cancellations, but I got to see a lot of people in a short period of time, and it allowed me to spot a couple of candidates who really outshone the rest, one of whom I hired. Schedule only two interviews each hour if you feel that you need more time for each candidate.
Finally, clarify in your own mind the benefits of having productive and effective employees. Go as far as calculating the weekly hours you will save for additional billings or personal relaxation in order to motivate yourself to be successful at hiring staff.
Now go out there and make your life easier by hiring an able assistant. True, there will be a fair amount of up-front training, but the first time you say, “Put two hours on the Henderson case for a court appearance” and your assistant knows to open your billing program, select the correct client and matter, type in “court appearance,” and enter the time, with full familiarity of your billing program, you will know that it was all worth it.
Final tip: Don’t make any jokes about wanting to eat your assistant’s liver.
David Leffler maintains a solo law practice in New York City, where he assists his clients in the formation, growth, and sale of their businesses. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.