While the phrase solo practitioner might suggest ideas of going it alone, the adage that’s closer to the truth is “No lawyer is an island.” Every solo attorney has faced times when they could use a hand around the office, but some might balk at pulling the trigger on hiring help.
Fortunately, making that first hire can not only bolster your solo practice, but potentially save it. Windom, Minn., estate planning attorney Hannon T. Ford learned that the hard way when his earlier attempt at a solo practice went under. By the time he started a new practice a few years ago, he’d figured out why.
“For six months it was just me,” recalled Ford. “I didn’t have an assistant, and I think that didn’t give the right idea to people — when you walk into a tiny office and there’s one guy sitting there, it doesn’t make a great impression to someone with a million-dollar estate.”
Since rebooting his practice, Ford has employed either two or three legal assistants for the dual purpose of helping with his growing practice and, as a bonus, presenting prospective clients with a more professional first impression. While that latter effect might not be your first priority, there are plenty of other good reasons for that first hire.
For 23-year St. Paul bankruptcy lawyer Becky Moshier, it was simple: By handling everything herself, she was missing out on work. While she was in court or otherwise indisposed, prospects were unable to reach her. That led to her hire 10 years ago of paralegal Sherry Walker, who has been with Moshier off and on since then.
Better off with help
Solos who have worked both ways say they’re better off with help than without it, and they say a good first step is to figure out what you need help with. That way, you have a better idea of the kind of person you need — whether it’s a receptionist or a full-blown paralegal.
“Make sure you define their job duties – let them know exactly what you need them for,” said Peter C. Greenlee, a Duluth bankruptcy attorney. “That helps determine whether you’ll need someone fulltime or part-time and what their responsibilities will be. You can’t just decide you need help and hire somebody. You need to know what your priorities will be and how you’ll train them in. Define your needs.”
It can also be helpful to consult with fellow attorneys to get a sense for what the pay rate in your market is for the kind of help you want. Make sure to ask for identification and a Social Security card to ensure that the person you’re considering is eligible to work, and also be sure to file the right paperwork (such as withholding allowance certificates) with the IRS and Minnesota Revenue.
Prepare for dry spells
Lawyers also advise that you let your new helper know that the job comes with no guarantees; once an attorney’s revenue stream runs dry, so can his or her ability to pay for help.
“There have been times when I’ve struggled for a few months and dipped into my savings to make payroll,” said Ford. “But I had two good employees and I wanted to do what I could to keep them here. Fortunately business improved and I was able to do that.”
Of course, if you find you need help but can’t or don’t want to hire even a part-time employee, there are half-measures that can bridge the gap: An answering service, a virtual office staff, or even practice management software can do some of the time-consuming chores you want to slough off.
“If you’re not sure whether you want to hire someone, you can use those other means and see if they do the job,” said Moshier. “I know other attorneys who have foregone a staff and done fine.”
But many solos have found that having one or more assistants not only eases their work burden, but also makes their practice feel more like a real business. Greenlee even offers his employees a modest IRA match, something he feels fosters loyalty more effectively than lesser perks, or none at all.
“Do it if it’s at all possible,” said Ford. “It will help your practice and it will show prospective clients that you’re not a fly-by-night operation — that you have the support you need.”