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Even The Lone Ranger Needed Tonto: Staff Is Essential In Any Solo Practice

by Ed Poll

Technology has conspired with traditional attitudes to make many solo practitioners believe they truly can go it alone. The flexibility offered by word processing and billing software, voicemail, email and other electronic tools is real, but it can become dangerous when combined with the entrepreneur's "I can manage 100 cases by myself" mentality. In your solo practice how often do you tell yourself:

  • "If I do it myself, it will get done right."
  • "This should only take me ten minutes to do."
  • "I always know what needs to be done."
  • "I'm smart enough to figure this out by myself."
  • "I do everything anyway, so I don't need staff."

These statements define an overwhelmed practice that is either headed into the hands of the state bar disciplinary system (where 60 percent of complaints involve practice management and quality issues), or into insolvency.

The successful solo practice truly requires a team—even if that is just you and an assistant to whom you can delegate work that doesn't require your skill and personal attention.

The principle is to delegate "down" to the lowest level of competence you can. That allows you to do the work that only you can do—serving your existing clients and marketing your practice to potential new ones.

Yes, this does cost something. But, realistically, you are leveraging skills of others at a cost of $X and charging that work out at your $Y billable rate. The profit to you is substantial ($Y-$X) as you build your pipeline of future work. Delegation is a principle by which I live. I want to do those things that only I can do, like coaching, consulting and marketing for more work. Other tasks that I need to complete can be accomplished (and usually better) by someone else. The issue of cash flow is important. But, if I can market for new business, I usually can get a client (with their cash flow) before or soon after I have to pay for the service I've delegated.

Hiring somebody is one of the most difficult challenges I know. There are many psychological tests to use, but you have to hire a professional psychologist to administer them (a person different from a headhunter, who has a vested interest in the hiring process).

Ultimately they are self-defeating, because tests imply that there is a "perfect" employee with a 100 percent score, and such persons simply do not exist. What you can and should try to find is the "ideal" employee—one who is competent, highly skilled, congenial and manageable.

The starting point for your search is defining what you need, by asking yourself what you do now that could effectively be delegated, and to whom you could delegate it. Then list the characteristics of your ideal candidate. If it's a secretary, you should have precise standards for document and file management, technology and software literacy, communication skills and professionalism. If it's a paralegal you should define the precise areas to be handled (intakes, pleadings, research, deposition summaries) and the skills required to handle them. Knowing what your needs are and what it takes to meet them is essential to finding the ideal employee.

The search process has changed with the advent of various online job search and job posting services. Many mid-size and large law firms now post their job opportunities and solicit resumes using their websites. For solo practitioners, however, the optimum search process should be simpler and more direct, and should encompass these key elements:

  • Network by seeking referrals from colleagues, clients and bar associations.
  • Educate yourself on basic interviewing skills and key concerns of potential hires (such as family leave time or child care provisions).
  • Review your employment ad and your interviewing techniques with colleagues and friends to ensure their effectiveness, particularly if you've never hired someone before.
  • Be sure to check out all references, credentials and work history of the candidates you interview.

The hiring decision itself is ultimately a matter of gut feel. If you are honest in the interview about your requirements for integrity, initiative, professionalism and technical skills, the right candidate will emerge. But don't cast your decision in stone—give new hires enough rope to hang themselves. You'll know in the first ten days whether the new hire is the ideal candidate you sought. If not, end the relationship and begin the search again. Remember that your goal is to make things easier for yourself, and better for your clients.

Reprinted from the April 2006 issue of The Bottom Line.

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