Starting a new law practice as a solo attorney can be daunting. Everyone spends far too much time in the first years working the jobs of attorney, assistant, bookkeeper, and receptionist. What happens when you realize the work far outpaces your ability to keep up?
Attorneys no longer need to search, interview, and hire an in-house receptionist, legal assistant, paralegal, or bookkeeper. Outsourcing to the right person—whether it be engaging a freelancer on an as-needed basis or contracting with a company that offers ongoing services—saves you time and money.
There’s a common misconception about outsourcing that needs to be cleared up. Many believe that outsourcing involves sending tasks to people in other countries who work for pennies. While the Internet may be free (if you don’t count the cost of your Internet service provider and the equipment you bought to connect to it), people working through the web are not, and as with anything in life, you generally get exactly what you pay for!
Independent contractors—also known as vendors, service providers, or freelancers—are not employees, so you do not need to pay taxes or offer health benefits. Nor do you need to give them space to work. Independent contractors are responsible for doing their own bookkeeping, paying their own taxes, and completing the work in their own work space.
Let’s be clear, outsourcing is not new in the legal industry. Big Law has been outsourcing everything from document review to research to document services. The reason it is hot for 2018 is everyone’s favorite motivator: money.
For solos and small firms, this might be the most compelling reason to outsource. Not having to pay for benefits, office space, and equipment will yield significant savings. Even more important, you will only be paying contractors for the time they spend on tasks you give them, not for the time they spend waiting between tasks.
So now let’s go over how to identify your needs and what you should consider outsourcing or delegating to a service outside your office.
What are the major bottlenecks in getting the paid work done? Are you constantly interrupted with unexpected calls or people “popping in” to chat? Do you have to stop and look for information or documents needed to advance a project toward completion? Perhaps you really do have too much work for one human to process in a typical “work” day, so those items not considered to be time sensitive just pile up.
Now, within your work flow, do you have any hot-button items? By hot-button, I mean very specific ways you need things done? The more particular you are, the better in most outsourcing situations.
One key thing to remember is that absolutely any business—no matter the size or the budget—can benefit from outsourcing. But you need to plan for outsourcing to work.
Creating Your Plan
Even if I have just convinced you that you need to outsource, do not make any moves yet! The absolute worst thing is to jump into outsourcing blindly. Not only will you waste a lot of money, but the people to whom you delegate will have difficulty completing any projects because you do not have the details worked out to give them.
Using a restaurant as an example, it sounds easy just to order some bread from a bakery, right? Well, have you thought about how much you have in your budget for bread? How many loaves you will order? When you would like that bread delivered? Do you have a plan to keep the bread fresh? Even the simplest of tasks in your business require quite a bit of planning.
To begin the planning process, first identify which business tasks are done on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Generally, these tasks will fall into broader categories such as client work, administration, finance, marketing, networking, social media, and so on. Once you know what tasks are done and how frequently, then write down who is responsible for each task (or step within the overall process) and how much time it takes to complete each task.
If you are the sole person handling your day-to-day business details, indicate on your list those tasks that you truly enjoy. If you have employees, analyze what they do day-to-day and determine whether their time would be better spent on higher-value tasks for your firm. For instance, consider outsourcing your data-entry work so your paralegal can focus on contacting clients or finalizing and serving documents. Or hire a virtual assistant to create your e-mail newsletter so you can focus on developing the relationships and gathering the e-mail opt-ins to grow your list.
Certainly, keep for yourself the tasks you enjoy—or that no one else but you can perform. Note, there are not many tasks only you can perform, but there will be a few. You are less likely to procrastinate doing tasks that you enjoy, thus making all other tasks prime candidates to delegate. As you remove things you don’t like to do, you free up time for those things you do like to do.
Here’s a few questions to ask yourself before outsourcing:
- What is my main goal in outsourcing? There is no right or wrong answer to this question, and it will be different for everyone.
- What is my budget?
- How involved do I want to be in the day-to-day?
- Do I have specific deadlines that need to be met?
- Am I willing to share attorney-client work product, website log-ins, and other information? It is vitally important to develop a trusting relationship with contractors before giving this information out. Vet them carefully!
Interviewing Prospective Contractors
No matter which outsourcing resource you choose, always remember to ask questions and do your own research. Read reviews of the site, read individual reviews of the contractor, interview each candidate, and ask for references. As with anything in life, you and I could hire the same person or company and have opposite experiences.
To get the most satisfaction from working with a contractor, you really should interview your candidates to get a feel for their expertise, past experience, and professionalism. We all have been on job interviews and know that brick-and-mortar businesses only hire people they’ve interviewed so they can better decide who really fits and will best represent the firm’s interests.
In writing this article, I realized just how easy it is to hire someone at the push of a button. The Internet is supposed to move quickly, and that has translated into hiring contractors quickly, too. But pushing a button does not tell you anything about the quality of the work or the integrity of the company. Sure, each company has a FAQ page, but even if you find every answer to every question you have, take advantage of the 1-800 customer support numbers located on each site by calling. Test out the company’s customer service firsthand before being seduced by the fast and flashy, yet impersonal, 21st-century methodology to sign up from the web.
Another way to find independent contractors is to do a Google search. If you search for “virtual assistants,” you will find millions of results. The same is true for “graphic artists” or “social media managers.” It has become so easy to put up a website and call yourself a business, but how do you, as the attorney who wants to outsource, choose from a list of millions?
This is where the interview process is vitally important. Even if a trusted colleague gives you a recommendation, still take the time to interview the candidate. As mentioned before, people can have completely different experiences using the same contractor. You need to feel confident that you have found a competent helper who will keep your information private.
Here are some questions that will help you start this conversation and judge how well your candidate can communicate when not in the same room with you:
- How long have you been in business?
- What services do you offer?
- What are your rates? (If rates are hourly, ask how they track their time.)
- How many projects/clients do you currently handle?
- How did you get into this business?
- Who exactly will be working on my project?
- What kind of work did you do before starting this business?
- What computer software do you know proficiently?
- Are you able to meet rush deadlines?
- How often do you check in with your clients on a project’s status?
- Do you work only certain business hours?
- What is your preferred method of communication?
- Can I contact some of your clients for references?
Then, explain some of the details of the project or types of work you need done and ask if the vendor has the skills and software necessary to complete them.
These questions are not in any particular order, and phone interviews with independent contractors are generally more casual than face-to-face interviews. Overall, you are looking for a contractor who is willing to do an interview, who gives detailed answers, and who sounds not only confident but happy to speak with you.
Just as employers try to interpret body language in a sit-down interview, there are certain things to watch for during a phone interview:
- reluctance to share past experience;
- rushed conversation, as if they are trying to get done as soon as possible;
- reluctance to give extra details about their services;
- very short or one-word answers; and
- rudeness or lack of interest.
At the end of the interview you should have a decent impression of what it will be like to work with this person. How does this make you feel? Are you ready to send this person a deposit, or are you feeling nervous at the thought? Always trust your instincts, and if you feel the least bit anxious about hiring a candidate, move on and set up the next interview.
The logic for all this outsourcing is to give you more time to actually practice law, improve efficiency by delegating, and increase profits by reducing overhead.
Believe it or not, those who do every single thing in their business are actually stalling their firm from growth and limiting their earning potential. It’s time to create a lucrative practice without working yourself so hard; find those tasks you do not like, that you are not proficient in, or that always seem to pile up—and outsource them.
Once you decide which task(s) you feel comfortable delegating, then you can start looking for the best resource for your needs. Think of delegating like ordering a coffee. Do you prefer straight-up and strong, light and sweet, or maybe half-caf with coconut milk, an extra shot, and low foam? Once you outline your needs, you will be better prepared to choose the service provider that best fits your needs and your budget. Be sure to do your research on providers to check their expertise and reputation.
Only you can decide what your priorities are. You need to have realistic expectations and think about things such as supervision, quality control, and security. Be sure to read the details about the services your potential providers do and do not offer. Make sure the agreements are clear regarding where the accountability is for proofreading, publishing, and finalizing any work. Of course, be sure you clearly understand the security the potential providers are using—or not. This is so important it could be an article entirely on its own.
Just remember, if the promises sound too good to be true, they probably are.