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The Cold Truth – Why Small and Solo Law Firms Are the Hardest to Run

two people shown talking in the background while in the front of the picture are two elements that represent law such as a gold law balance scale and a brown with gold law hammer.

Do you agree that solo and small law firms are the hardest to run? I know the feeling of being so overwhelmed that you don’t even know where to start next.  I started my law firm in 2011, just me, myself and I.  I had an office that was about 9 feet x 10 feet, with a built-in desk that made the office feel half that size.  There was barely enough room for the door to close and only enough room for one other person to sit comfortably in the office with me.  I did have a shared conference room, and all the lawyers on the floor shared a receptionist – which I only now realize was a bigger help than I could have ever imagined.  The receptionist didn’t return calls, schedule meetings, or do anything but take messages and patch phone calls over to me when someone called, but having a real human answer the phone and take messages was still a very big deal.

In the early days, after the adrenaline of being my own boss wore off, I would get so overwhelmed I didn’t know what to do next.  The average solo attorney bills a whopping .8 hours a day.  You might be thinking, “there’s no way I bill more than this,” but when you average all workdays, it’s true.  That averages to about $6,000/month or $72,000/year.  Okay, so if your spouse has a job and makes at least $50,000, you’re not homeless.  But if not, you do what you have to do to get to about $10,000 – $12,000/month to survive.  Because at the end of the day, we all do what we have to do until we get comfortable.  This is true with everything in life.  You lose 20 lbs, and your goal was 40 lbs., but now you feel good, so you start to relax and eat poorly again.  Guilty as charged.  In life, we simply do what we have to do, then human nature tells us to stop.  Play it safe.  Don’t strive for more. You have a family, don’t risk it.  You cannot hire someone – how can you ever pay that person?  You’ll go broke!

And so that’s where we stop.  Over the next 10 or so years, you build a practice from about $10/$12,000/month to about $20,000/month.  Ten-percent growth.  Not awful, mind you.  You’re now grossing $200,000 – $240,000/year, enough to drive a decent car and take one trip over a year, and raise your kids comfortably.  There’s nothing wrong with that – that’s not what this blog (or this company) is all about.  But we all know many, many 5- to 60-something lawyers who have one do-it-all employee that is underpaid, and that’s been their practice their entire life.  In fact, I just had lunch with a lawyer in his 60s, kids are out of college, whose main concern was figuring out how to lower his rent by a few hundred dollars per month instead of picking up even one extra file every month, which was worth a lot more than a few hundred dollars.  

Anyhow, you get the drill.  And at this point, you’re either young and you realize you don’t want this future, or you’re already there, and you would never admit to yourself that while what we just described is perfectly okay – there is an easier way.  There’s an easier way, whether you admit it to yourself or not – I know because I lived it, and I got through it.  It wasn’t easy, mind you.  I vividly remember the crushing pain of having to bring in $10,000/month just to pay for rent, mortgage, student loans, cars, and family expenses.  I wore it with a dual badge of honor and an albatross.  Come hell or high water, whatever I had to do to get to $10,000, I did.  We all do what we have to do.  It was my duty to my wife, kid, and myself to make it happen.  I would not fail.  Why is it, then, we don’t realize that if we have to grow our businesses, come hell or high water, we don’t realize that we can actually get there?  the answer is it’s exhausting and risky, and it’s simply more comfortable. 

So this is the cold hard truth – it’s actually harder to run the small/solo law firm I’ve described above than running a medium/big law firm?  Don’t believe me – let me explain. (And by the way, my law firm now has 20 employees, so I’m not the wanna-be guru that got lucky one time and now thinks they’re qualified to give advice).  When you’re on your own, who reviews the bills?  You do.  Big/medium firm?  Billing clerk, while you use your time to make more money.  Who sends invoices and gets clients to pay when you’re on your own?  You do.  Big/medium firm?  The finance department, while you use your time to make more money.  Who screens incoming calls, schedules appointments, sends directions, sends the list of times you need for the consultation, sets up the conference room, etc., when you’re on your own?  You do.  Big/medium firm?  The lovely, well-dressed, well-spoken, happy, and friendly secretary, while you use your time to make more money.  Sorting mail, sorting email, posting on social media, blogging, following up, the list goes on and on.  You get the point, I hope.  By delegating any of these tasks, you can make more money, the bottom line.  

When I finally had enough courage to hire my first employee, she was a law clerk and I offered her 30 hours a week.  I – was – terrified, mind you.  I cannot believe this was who I used to be, looking back, but it was.  I was terrified over $300/week.  That’s it.  Why I was so terrified, I later discovered, but I’ll save that for another blog (unless you email us HERE and ask me directly – then I’ll be more than happy to get on the phone with you and share).  But I did it, and the very next month I doubled my revenue to $20,000/month.  Doubled!  At least I’ll give myself credit for one thing – while I might have been a slow discoverer, I was not a slow learner.  I trusted this lesson immediately, and I never looked back.  When this summer clerk left, I hired a 30-hour-a-week secretary/paralegal that was finishing up her paralegal certificate.  She answered my phones, made appointments, and did some legal drafting.  Not ideal in the long run, but it was an ideal start.  When she was hired away by the county, I didn’t panic.  I hired her replacement and kept my focus on growing.  A few months later, I hired a full-time intake person – a key move because when you set your own appointments, you have just told that potential client that you’re desperate for work and therefore act as your own secretary.  I’m bullish on this point.  Anyhow, hiring a full-time intake coordinator to screen calls, get rid of bad appointments, really create rapport with great potential clients, and do the scheduling and follow-up, was one of my best hires ever.   (This is why we created the Executive Receptionist position at Get Staffed Up by the way, which you can read more about HERE).  Finally, a few months later, when I had now delegated enough time to others that I could bill a whopping 20-25 hours a week, I decided it was time to start the hiring process for my first attorney, which I did.  Three months later, I hired another one.  Four years thereafter, my law firm is at nine lawyers and 20 employees.  And what have I come to learn?  That with all the resources we now have, it’s WAY easier to run my firm today than it was way back in 2011 and 2012.  WAY easier.  There aren’t a lot of tasks I still do myself.  I focus on what I want to focus on – it doesn’t matter where you want to spend your time, just that you actually spend it on what you love, and you hire others who both want and need that job to do what they love.  It’s a beautiful win-win when you hire the right people.  

So there you have it.  I just told you that what you’re doing now is actually the toughest type of law firm to run.  How do you feel?  Do you realize that if you’re running the toughest type of firm to run, that you can do anything?  Or do you resent me?  (If you do, that’s okay – I’m speaking from a place of respect and a serious want to help, so I’m okay with any backlash from people who don’t want to admit simple, universal truths – I was this person for a long time).  If you’re in the former camp, then I welcome you to a better way.  I’ve said this so many times that I’ve lost count, but I wish I had known about offshore/virtual employees a lot sooner.  It would have been a lot less painful.  It wouldn’t have taken two years to hire my first part-time employee.  I would have hired someone virtually, and we would have grown a lot sooner, a lot faster.  Not to grow just to grow but because the more resources you have, the easier life and business become.  You see, you can get all the help you need, really qualified, great help, at very reasonable costs to your business.  Someone to do all the tasks that you hate doing but you do anyway because you think you’re saving money when you’re actually costing yourself money.  All you have to do is pick up the phone and call us, and you’re on your way to a better way.  There are incredible, fun, nice, awesome people out there that would love the opportunity to work with you, they just need the chance to make both of your lives better.  

I sincerely mean this – please email us HERE if you disagree that solo and small law firms are the hardest to run or agree and want to talk about what you should do next.  Our mission is to help you delegate your way to freedom.  Freedom is easier than pain, and it’s a beautiful thing.  Hope to hear from you today.  

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