Volume 20, Number 5 July/August 2003



By Eileen M. Letts

When should a small firm turn away preferred business out of concern that the workload will be too great and the quality of representation (along with the firm's reputation) may suffer? The answer is simple-never.

New clients are the lifeblood for a firm looking to expand. When a law practice generates excessive rain, it should never run for shelter, but must fashion itself an umbrella: Change the firm, expand the firm, or partner the firm with another outfit, but don't turn away clients, as they may never come calling again. Whenever a firm accepts additional work, however, it must take care to best serve these new clients.

In devising a strategy to upgrade a firm's functional capacity, the first priority is to conduct an honest self-assessment to determine the office's current capabilities and needs. An internal evaluation will often reveal that existing resources are not being used as efficiently as possible, and that a firm can readily handle supplemental challenges while retaining its current size. Examine the billable hours of attorneys and the workload allocation among support staff to identify where additional productivity may be wrung from existing assets. With better delegation and increased team effort, small firms may discover that simply utilizing untapped potential will allow the management of added challenges without the need to expand.

Where it is determined that the requirements of a new client will outstrip the current capabilities of a practice, a firm must choose whether to increase its size or to partner with another firm on the project. Partnering may seem the easier and economically safer option, but it carries certain pitfalls: alienation of the client who didn't hire the third-party firm; loss of quality control; and the potential for theft of an account. If at all possible, keeping files in-house is recommended over outside partnering.

When designing an expansion plan, further appraisal should be performed to determine whether the firm will require additional lawyers, paralegals, office staff, information technology, or a combination thereof. Often these needs will depend upon the nature of the work at hand. In class action suits that focus more on document organization than courtroom time, support staff may be the primary need; where procedural complexities will demand extensive research, paralegals may be called for; with intricate fact patterns entailing extensive depositions and investigation, the enlistment of additional attorneys may be required.
Other factors to consider with new hires are whether they will be needed on a part-time or permanent basis, and whether the demands of the representation will require lawyers with specialized skill sets, practice areas, or experience.

Finally, during expansion a small firm must conscientiously balance the need for additional resources with an eye toward cost-effectiveness and profitability. With new clients, critical attention must be paid to superior representation and relationship management, as smaller test assignments may lead to more lucrative associations. With this in mind, expenses should not be spared-but they should be controlled.

Investing in your practice and enlarging the payroll entail an element of risk and can be daunting, but ultimately this is the only way to develop beyond small firm status. When my partner and I set up our own practice, we had only our own talents and an office administrator. Twelve years and several expansions later, Greene and Letts comprises two dozen employees and is still growing to handle our swelling client list. Timidity or self-doubt was never in our business plan.

Common sense, pride, and legal ethics all compel a law firm to provide optimal representation. Solid business practices dictate that a firm never turn away opportunity. An ambitious practice should neither earn a reputation for taking work that it cannot handle nor for being unwilling to accept assignments. Always acquire the client, and always ensure that the work will be managed professionally (even if it means altering your firm accordingly).
"Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it" is a cynical adage to which success-minded individuals should pay no heed. Strive for the business that you wish for, obtain it, and then make whatever changes are necessary to accommodate the work. By gradually enhancing your "umbrella," your small firm will eventually find itself able to handle any rain that comes its way-and it may no longer be considered "small" by potential clients.

Eileen M. Letts is a founding partner of Greene and Letts, an African American owned Chicago firm that specializes in litigation, discrimination, and employment law defense. She currently serves as president of the Chicago Bar Foundation and is co-chair of the ABA Section of Litigation's Programs at the 2003 ABA Annual Meeting. She can be reached at emletts@greeneandletts.com.

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