September 16, 2019 Practice Management

Strategies to Grow Your Small Law Firm

By Greg Garman

Being the head of a law firm requires constantly making choices about how to prioritize and manage your time. The legal field is competitive, and we’re all searching for ways to be more productive and profitable. Figuring out the balance between managing a law practice with the administrative demands of the business of law is challenging. For those of us who want to grow our firms, it’s an even greater challenge.

As a solopreneur or small law firm, growth starts with setting a clearly defined goal on what you want to achieve. Growth can be intimidating and mean a lot of different things to legal professionals who’ve just hung out their shingle. Growth may mean more clients or fewer clients with bigger projects. It can also mean finding ways to operate leaner—to reduce spending or increase investments in certain areas.

Once you’ve defined a growth metric, the next step is to determine which strategy or strategies will move you closer to that target without adding too much overhead. Below are a handful of suggestions to think about on the journey to growth.

Start Delegating

According to the newly released Thomson Reuters 2019 State of U.S. Small Law Firms report, the majority of respondents expressed at least moderate concern about spending too much time on administrative tasks, controlling costs, keeping abreast of new technology, lack of internal efficiency, and increasing competition.

A more disturbing trend uncovered by the study is that few small law firms are taking concrete steps to address the challenges they admit they face. While there have been efforts to move toward possible solutions, too many of them remain fixed on what is known as “the status quo barrier,” better known as analysis paralysis.

One of the main contributors to this paralysis is the fear of delegating. This requires putting on the hat of a business owner and thinking about what’s best for the firm. If you suffer from this affliction, below are a few questions to ask yourself when it comes to delegating.

  • Can the work be done satisfactorily by others? Lawyers like to think only they are qualified to do certain things or that nobody is as good as they are at the job. However, the question isn’t whether someone could do the work better; it’s whether someone else can do satisfactory work.
  • Is there someone better qualified to do the job? Depending on the nature of the work to be done, there may be someone else with more experience than you or special-purpose tools that can automate the job.
  • What is the cost of someone else doing the work versus you doing it? Think about how many hours the work will take, how much it costs your practice, and the revenue you will make.
  • Can you responsibly delegate the work? As an attorney, you have an ethical obligation to supervise the work of others. Many lawyers hesitate to delegate because they fear the work won’t be good enough or something will be missed. Delegating involves exercising control and considering when and how it is appropriate to delegate.

Running a legal practice requires putting on the hat of a business owner and thinking about what’s best for your firm instead of thinking you can continue doing everything alone.

Technology-Assisted Support

In the last decade a number of technology solutions for legal professionals have entered the market to lighten the load. For example, if you really hate typing and it’s becoming a huge, time-consuming task, there are a number of services that provide simple typing and word processing such as Legal Typist. Just voice dictate items, and they type them up. You can even use the voice dictate function on a smartphone.

Another option to consider is getting a virtual receptionist. For as low as $8 per month, test the waters with a virtual robot called x.ai that works directly with the party or parties on the other end to schedule meetings. Other examples include Ruby Receptionist, Smith.ai, Abby Connect, and PATLive. All offer a range of pricing plans and capabilities.

For those small law firm owners and solopreneurs who need more than a virtual receptionist but aren’t yet ready to hire a part-time or full-time employee, a virtual assistant might be the way to go. With this type of technology, competence and sophistication typically scales with cost. “Per-hour” personal assistant services at the low end perform rudimentary tasks, per-hour or credit WordPress assistance are a step above in terms of value add, and an even better option are legal-specific virtual assistance programs such as VAnetworking.

Beyond these human capital technology substitutes, special-purpose legal software such as Clio, MyCase, Rocket Matter, and other practice management systems help lawyers organize calendars, deadlines, tasks, time keeping, and billing. Other tools include automated payments and accounts-receivable software, automated time keeping, and automated forms services such as Lawmatics or Zapier.

Staffing: Time to Hire?

Before hiring a full-time employee (FTE) in a traditional brick-and-mortar office, consider if the work can be outsourced to a third-party services contractor. And, if you’re shifting quickly into growth mode, a flexible option that many small law firms and solopreneurs are taking advantage of is outsourcing to freelance lawyers or contract attorneys.

Hiring a freelance or contract attorney can be a less stressful option than a full-time hire because it allows you to “try before you buy” a candidate while minimizing stress and providing immediate access to expertise outside your practice area. Online marketplaces such as LAWCLERK allow you to find the right individual or “team” of individuals by filtering on practice area, location, or experience.

If you’re ready to take the plunge and make your first hire, there are many positions available—from entry-level to legal-specific roles: assistant, receptionist, office manager, paralegal, or a full-blown barred attorney. All these positions can perform more than one task and can work as virtual employees instead of residing in an office workspace (lowering the cost even further). For example, a receptionist can help with scheduling, fielding phone calls, returning phone calls, and so much more. The receptionist at our law firm is actually also our billing manager. Getting the bills out the door only takes about a week of work a month, so the rest of the time she juggles the phones.

Hiring an office manager or marketing manager might also make sense. They can help with tasks such as operations, marketing, and human resources. Or, if you’re getting bogged down with the actual work of practicing law, then a paralegal or associate attorney should be your next hire.

Keep in mind, hiring an FTE involves the cost and overhead of insurance/benefits, office space, and equipment such as a computer. FTEs must be paid even when business is slow, and if they bring any drama to the office, that can be a huge distraction. Plus, all too often they can leave you in the position of having to re-hire and re-train. If it’s an attorney leaving, he or she could even become your competition!

Now Is the Time

There has never been a better time to grow your law firm than today, given all the available resources at your fingertips and advances in legal technology. Start by defining a clear “growth” goal, then work on getting over the psychological hurdle of delegating work and using technology to help get the job done.

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Greg Garman, Esq., is a co-founder and CEO of LAWCLERK. He is also a founding member of Garman Turner Gordon LLP and has been consistently rated one of the top bankruptcy and business restructuring attorneys in the country. His practice is concentrated in commercial and corporate bankruptcy and restructuring. He regularly represents debtors, trustees, official committees, secured creditors, and other parties in matters involving hospitality, lending, high tech, gaming, airlines, and real estate, among others. He has an active legal practice that is focused on assisting companies with financial restructuring and business reorganization.