January 01, 2015

Five New Year's Resolutions for Small Firm Lawyers

Sunny Choi

Dear fellow legal practitioners, it’s time to say hello to 2015. Your Christmas tree may still be up, and your body is probably still recovering from all the holiday gluttony, but mentally, you’re hopefully ready to start the New Year and see what it may bring. You should be feeling invigorated, and there is no better time than now to reevaluate what changes to make for 2015.

Professional goals are often forgotten in making New Year’s resolutions, which is why I’ve provided five resolutions below that I think are apropos for small firm attorneys. These resolutions are not strictly professional but are instead geared toward improving your law practice and career as a whole. Hopefully, you will consider adding some of these resolutions to your 2015 list. I certainly plan on doing so!

1. Have a Good System in Place for Easily Organizing and Efficiently Managing Your Caseload

At a small firm, you’re more likely to be handling anywhere from 20 to 50 cases at any given time, even more if you are a volume-dependent practice. Managing your caseload is easier when you have a good system for checking statuses, keeping track of deadlines, and staying on top of things to know what needs to be done next. Do whatever works for you best, whether it’s a cheat sheet physically placed in each file or case summaries accessible on your firm’s computer network, so that everyone can also have access to your information and be up-to-date. For litigation matters, it’s also helpful to have a timeline that shows filing dates for various pleadings and motions, discovery deadlines, and any other time-sensitive details.

2. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone and Don’t Get Stuck in a Rut When It Comes to Your Personal Growth as an Attorney

What can typically happen if you work for a solo practitioner or small firm is that you reach a point of diminishing returns in your personal growth as an attorney. You stop learning new skills and gaining new experiences both inside and outside your practice area, effectively getting stuck in a rut. If you want to stay at your firm, don’t be afraid to ask that they teach you something new within your practice or to let you tackle a new kind of assignment involving an unfamiliar area of the law. If you decide to leave for greener pastures, don’t take too long to begin the search; otherwise, you will become less marketable as your personal growth remains stunted and you have less to offer another firm.

3. Build Camaraderie Within the Firm, on Both Social and Professional Levels

In a smaller work environment, you need to be able to rely on everyone, including nonattorney staff, to run a successful firm that keeps the clients coming. Work on maintaining good relationships, even friendships, with your colleagues on both social and professional levels. Socially, this means remembering people’s birthdays and caring about what’s going on in their lives without overstepping any personal boundaries. If you’re able to get along socially, chances are that you will also be able to collaborate more resourcefully on cases. Professionally, this means being patient and checking your temper at the door. Too often I hear about attorneys being nasty and berating others for making a mistake, basically without respect or appreciation for those on the lower rungs of the firm hierarchy who work just as hard as the attorneys. A little kindness can go a long way.

4. Expand Business Marketing for Your Practice or Firm, Whether It’s Something Standard or Something Creative

Big law firms have marketing departments specifically devoted to highlighting their achievements to current and future clients. Although you may not have the same resources, there is plenty that you can do to expand business marking for your practice or firm. It pays off in the long run to spend a little time now on building up your reputation. Create a website if you don’t already have one. Always treat working with your vendors and third parties (such as realtors) with the same priority and respect given to your clients—they will be more inclined to refer you to clients. Whether you’re an associate or partner of your own firm, teaching CLE seminars can be a valuable way to establish your expertise in a field. It also gives your fellow attorneys reason to refer their clients to you for a particular matter.

5. Be Patient and Persevere With Paying Down Your Law School Debt

When you’re working for a smaller firm, you’re probably not making big time bucks although you may be suffering from the same big time debt as your peers at larger firms. It can be difficult to remain optimistic about ever paying off those law school loans. However, remember that the tortoise won the race in Aesop’s fable and that we all reach the finish line at our own pace. Find additional ways to come up with extra funds to put toward your loans, such as applying for loan repayment assistance programs offered by your law school. Allocate the extra funds to the highest interest portions of your loan, and make that payment right after your regularly scheduled payment so that most of it goes to decreasing your principal balance. Being steady and strategic can help alleviate your frustrations and keep you focused on reaching your goal.

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Sunny Choi

Sunny Choi is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and currently practices mortgage foreclosures, commercial litigation, and creditors’ rights for a small law firm in New Jersey. She is also the Content Director for Ms. JD and a regular writer for Above the Law’s Career Files.