BEING SOLO: A Paradigm Shift to Increase Your Revenues

Vol. 29 No. 4

By

David Leffler is a member of the New York City business and litigation law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC and spends his time between NYC and Baltimore, Maryland. He previously was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years.


I sense doubting minds who have just read the title of my column. How could this possibly be? Do I have the Nobel Prize in economics included in my résumé? How brilliant an idea could I possibly conjure up in this column of less than 2,000 words?

Well then, let me first demonstrate my financial expertise by describing another money-making venture of mine.

I’m the inventor of the guaranteed-win lottery. Everyone who plays is guaranteed to win. Really and truly, no joke here.

I’ll tell you the secret of how I do it, but you have to promise not to tell another soul, because then it will get around, and before you know it, everyone will be doing it.

Here’s an example of how to win $1,000 (guaranteed):

  • Step 1: Get a cardboard box, preferably a shoebox (don’t ask why a shoebox, it just seems to work better with a shoebox).
  • Step 2: Cover the box with paper and decorate it with all sorts of designs and words like “Guaranteed-Win Lottery—Yay, I’m going to win!”
  • Step 3: Cut a slot into the top of the box.
  • Step 4: Put $20 into the slot every Friday (I’m not sure if this works on other days, so just to be safe I suggest that you stick with Fridays).
  • Step 5: At the end of 12 months, pull out your $1,000 winnings!

Now don’t think I would suggest something that I wouldn’t try myself. I started this last September and I’ve got more than $600 in cash in my little shoebox. Come this September I’m picking up my $1,000 winnings.

Show me another lottery that can deliver as well and as reliably as that. Aha! I know that you can’t.

So, I may not have a Nobel Prize in economics, but I think that I’ve proven my credentials in this regard.

 

Beginning to Shift

Now then, back to our paradigm shift. As a solo attorney, you’ve trained yourself to believe that you have to do all the work yourself and that there is no other alternative. I’m here to tell you that this is not true, and you can change your circumstances with little if any risk, even if you don’t believe that you have sufficient business to do so.

First, you should know that there is something very liberating about having someone working for you. Not that there’s no work involved in supervising and training, but once you’ve got someone doing the job the way you want it done, a certain sense of freedom begins to inhabit your spirit. Perhaps you have a bit more swagger in your step, and you definitely look at the world in a different way.

You may say, “Great, but I don’t have $80,000 a year to pay a lawyer with the kind of experience that I need.”

This sort of thinking demonstrates that you are looking at the situation the wrong way, because you don’t need $80,000 to hire someone of that quality.

What you need is business, and for those of you who immediately respond, “Oh, yea, if I had enough business, I could hire a whole room full of lawyers and never work another day of my life!” think again.

 

Zen-ish Thinking

Here is the fundamental question: If you decide not to hire another lawyer, even part-time, because you don’t have enough business, would hiring a lawyer part-time benefit you anyway?

Notwithstanding that this question implies a bit of Zen-ish thinking, I am not suggesting magical thinking. Just because you hire a lawyer to work for you doesn’t mean the work will magically appear. Hardly. Solos typically cannot afford magical thinking; their profit margins are too thin. So we’ll leave the magical thinking to those who play the lottery.

 

Real (Not Magical) Possibilities

Let’s first examine possible scenarios of how you might use another lawyer in your practice with minimal financial risk.

Here is one possible arrangement: Hire a lawyer part-time to work on a project that you will be billing hourly for legal services and that is a good fit for delegating some or all of the work. (If you never can find work that you can delegate, you’ve got a whole other problem, which I won’t be dealing with here.) You pay the lawyer a fixed hourly fee and bill your client an hourly fee for the lawyer at a higher rate. This is ethical in most jurisdictions, but I would encourage you to verify this in the jurisdiction in which you practice law.

So you might pay the lawyer $100 an hour and bill the client $300 an hour. That’s $200 an hour profit for you. Now that isn’t pure profit without any work on your part for the services provided by this lawyer—you will have to supervise the lawyer, which does take some time, both in delegating the assignment and in reviewing the work that is done.

 

Making the Shift

Now we get to the Zen-ish question: Why would you delegate some work when it is work that you have the time to do yourself? Because you will be learning a skill that can dramatically improve your situation financially. This skill that you will learn is managing lawyers who are your employees. And it is much easier to transition to this business model if you have already had some experience in doing it than if you have never tried it before.

So, if you have hired this lawyer to work on one of your cases, and another matter comes in that you know will overwhelm your abilities to deal with in a timely and effective manner, it is not much effort to consider using the lawyer you already have working for you part-time. However, if you didn’t already have another lawyer working for you, you might decide to take on the case by yourself anyway and suffer the consequences, or pass the business on to someone else, either of which would not be as good a decision as having another lawyer available to whom you could allocate some or all of the work.

The more you get into this mode, the more your horizons will expand. You might have two or three lawyers whom you regularly have work on your matters, each with a particular area of expertise, and you might also decide one day to hire one of these lawyers on a full-time basis. What a great way to hire a full-time lawyer. You’ve worked with the person and know his or her work habits and abilities very well, as opposed to hiring for a full-time position someone with whom you have never worked.

 

Variations on a Theme

There are several billing situations that you might be attempting to fit into this model. If you are working off a retainer that gets replenished when it is used up, then there is no financial risk in hiring another lawyer. You just pay him or her out of that retainer at the rate that this lawyer is charging you, and apply the hourly rate being charged to the client against the retainer.

If there is a retainer that doesn’t get replenished when it is depleted, you run up hours that have to be billed and collected after the work is done. In this situation you have some risk that the client will not pay you, which means you would be responsible for paying the lawyer out of your own pocket.

What about contingency cases? Even there, you might be able to work out a system where you put aside a portion of your fee from winning one case to pay a lawyer on another case. That’s similar to my other examples, except that we are cross-shifting the revenue streams.

 

Taking the First Step

My suggestions here may be a true paradigm shift for you and so may be difficult to adopt, but you have the potential of opening the door to a new kind of law practice that could enable you to make significantly more money than you would working on your own.

One thing I don’t recommend for increasing revenues is playing the lottery—unless, of course, you are playing my guaranteed-win lottery system.

 

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