Solo attorneys take a certain amount of pride in being lone wolves. But even the smartest, most resourceful solo must recognize when it’s time to look for help. That means looking for help. But if you’ve never hired staff before, it can be daunting.
Recognizing the point when it might make sense to consider a hire shouldn’t be difficult, according to Jodi Stanke, CEO of Talon Performance Group in Minneapolis.
“One of the signs is when you’re at capacity; you can’t earn any more revenue because your own plate is full,” said Standke. Look at how and where you’re spending your time. If you’re spending most of it on internal administrative stuff, you might need a staff person.”
Cindy Eidnes, division director for Beacon Hill Legal in Minneapolis, agreed that it can be tricky to know when the time is right to bring in help, but “as soon as administrative tasks are cutting into client-billable time, you have a very strong signal that now is the time.”
Once you’ve figured out that you need help, the next step is to figure out what form that help should take — and what you can afford to get. It’s a good idea to extrapolate your cash flow out a few years to make sure that you can afford to bring in help, according to Tim Mahoney, regional vice president and executive director for legal staffing company Special Counsel.
“That’s just a part of normal, good business planning,” Mahoney said. “Look at your short-, medium- and long-term revenue projections and see if they can support the additional overhead of hiring someone.”
Eidnes cautioned, though, that any projections you come up should be considered rough guidelines and not money in the bank. “It seems like it would be quite difficult to predict long-term revenue with much accuracy, especially for someone who is relatively new in their legal practice,” she said.
Getting what you pay for
A general secretary or legal administrative assistant can fill the bill if you’re after someone to take on basic office and filing work, but you’re spending a lot of time on rudimentary legal work like file prep, case prep, a paralegal may be able to help take that some of that away — or even a law clerk or an associate attorney.
“If the attorney finds himself or herself spending client-billable time at the attorney level doing legal work that can effectively be done by a paralegal or more junior level attorney, consider adding someone at the lower level,” said Eidnes. “Then the client can get its work done at differing bill rates, depending on the level of person doing the work, which clients certainly appreciate.”
Meanwhile, you can make (and bill) time for work that’s specific to your practice area, and probably do a better job at it with the extra help you’re getting.
“You can be freed up to oversee more general office matters and pay attention to the relationships you have in your practice,” said Standke. “Look at not just skills and attributes they bring, but also the intangibles. Often I’ll hear an attorney say, ‘Oh, I just need to hire a secretary.’ They don’t think about what they’re really going to expect from the person they hire — the same values, the same objectives.”
In a rocky job market like the one legal professionals have been enduring, you may find that it’s a buyer’s market when you start looking for support — to the point where an attorney might command the same as a secretary if the job you’re offering is the right fit. An experienced LAA should be able to ask for an annual salary of $30,000, according to Eidnes. So be sure to let candidates know if you’re amenable to flexible hours and even telecommuting; such accommodations could bring in a worker with a limited schedule but superior qualifications.
“You can get high-level talent without paying an arm and a leg, because you’re both benefitting,” said Standke. “Solos and smalls are in a good position to find good help at a reasonable salary if they can bring some flexibility to the arrangement.”
Mahoney recommends exploring such alternative arrangements as contracts or temp-to-hire workers as a way to not only offer flexibility but to weather peaks and valleys in your income. Eidnes points out, though, that temporary legal personnel can cost more on an annualized basis than a straight hire.
“You can make it clear that you’re providing a working interview to see how well they do and if they’re a fit in your organization,” Mahoney said. “You can be more flexible in your compensation if they’re more flexible in their expectations and schedule.”
When you’re ready to make the leap into your first hire, contact staffing agencies to see what’s available and what it costs. Also, reach out to fellow solos who have made hires, and gauge their experiences.
“Legal staffing agencies charge a placement fee for direct hire placements, but they do save the law firm considerable time and effort in going through resumes and preliminarily vetting candidates,” said Eidnes. “[That] makes the fee well worth it to a busy practitioner.”
Contact Dan Heilman at email@example.com.