One of the biggest challenges facing a small law firm owner today is that of time or lack thereof. It isn’t due to anyone slacking off, law firm owners are very hard workers.
On the flipside, with all of their hard work, firm owners have the added challenge of performing the sales, marketing, customer service, collections, bookkeeping, etc. which eats into the ability to produce billable hours.
According to Randall Ryder of the Lawyerist.com in his article titled “Three Myths About Solo Attorneys” a firstyear associate works 80 hours per week whereas he puts in 50-55 hours per week. In another well publicized utilization rate study from Clio (2018), solo law firms collect fees on an average of 1.6 hours per day. This begs the obvious question – if a solo law firm owner works 50 to 80 hours per week, why are they only collecting for 8 hours of that time?
I have had the pleasure of conversing with several solo attorneys on this exact question, and here is a list of the possible explanations for this time disparity:
○ The solo attorney is spending their time on other functions of running the practice, namely, sales, marketing, customer service, collections, bookkeeping, etc.
○ The solo attorney is choosing to work less hours or not as hard as the firm associate
○ The solo attorney does not have a full caseload and needs a way to bring in more work
○ The solo attorney does not have a boss; therefore, it is too easy to flitter time away without being aware of it
In my work with solo and small law firm owners, I have been trying to help them solve this problem. Whether the issue is poor time management, lack of sales or performing other functions, there is a solution to this problem. What I came up with are 5 things you can implement today to start taking back control of your time.
It is important to establish why time is so important before we discuss how to solve it. The most obvious reason is the billable hour but there is a lot more to time than money. Think about why you started a law firm in the first place. Did you have a passion for the practice area you chose? Did you have visions of changing the world or the lives of people in some way? Were you tired of watching partners run their firm their way and you wanted to create a better environment for others to work? Do you have a family and a desire to spend more time with your spouse and children?
The answer to this question, if you took the time to think about it, should be jarring. Most firm owners forget why they started their law firm in the first place. We each have the same 168 hours each week and if we are not careful, we can waste the precious time away and steal the possibility of our dreams coming to fruition.
So, I ask you, if you could have 10, 20 or 30 hours of your week back, what would you do with it?
How would you spend that time?
Knowing the answer to this question will help motivate you to implement one of these 5 strategies:
Studies prove that when you work on two projects at once, you do not get 50% of your focus on each but rather 40%. The extra 20% is lost to brain switching where the cognitive function of changing gears uses up precious brain computing power. Therefore, it is so important to choose only one goal for 90 days in a maximum of 5 life domains (but better if it is limited to 3). So, you may choose to focus on your business with one goal, health with the second and marriage with the 3rd, for example.
Once you have a 90 day business goal for your practice, you can now break it down further into a monthly and then weekly goal. Armed with the goal for the week, you can now choose the ONE most important task to complete each day that brings you closer to that weekly goal.
There is a great saying that is often attributed to Bill Gates but I found it published so I will credit the author here. “Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a month. We overestimate what we can do in a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in a decade.” by Matthew Kelly from the book The Long View
By knocking off that ONE task consistently every single day, you will be surprised to find that you’ve achieved your 90 day goal at the end of the quarter. More importantly, by deciding on one 90 day goal, you essentially have said no to everything else which will not only free up time for you but also free up lots of brain space for other essential functions.
This suggestion goes hand-in-hand with the first. A planner if used correctly will allow you to start the day with a plan on the items you must accomplish. You do not let anything else come across your desk until this has happened. What I do personally is check my email once at the start of the day for any “emergencies” so that I know to add them to my list. I then make my plan for the day. I do not check my email again until my core goal focused tasks are completed for the day.
Attorneys are more efficient with their time than most other professionals (if you have ever waited in a doctor’s office, you probably know what I mean). However, they are still human, yes, you are human. It is a human tendency to get distracted easily. In today’s day and age of smartphones, Alexa and social media, the distractions are in overdrive.
The first step is to see if you actually have a problem. You can do this by auditing how you spend your time. Before you roll your eyes at me and say, “yeah right”, let me explain to you how easy this can be. In a time-audit, you don’t change any of your behaviors, nobody is watching you or judging you, think of it as research. The other thing you can do to make this super easy is to use a toy I recently discovered called the Timeular - https://timeular.com. This neat little thing has a side for each of your designated functions and when you turn it, it starts tracking the time spent on that function. A time audit has never been so mindless and easy before.
Wait until you see the results of tracking your time for one week. The action step to take as a result of the time-audit will be obvious to you!
The key to this concept is really understanding the true value of your time. Law Firm owners tend to value their time in the denomination of their billable hour, so if you bill $250/hour and I asked you what one hour of your time was worth, you’d likely say $250/hour.
I am going to demonstrate to you in 2 ways why that is wrong. If the value of your time is equal to the productivity level of your actual performance then you should take your total income divided by your total hours worked in a year. So if you earned $150,000 and worked 60 hours per week, your time is worth $48 per hour [150,000 / (60 x 52)].
If you understood your true potential, which is running a million dollar+ firm with other associates doing the work and your only focus was growing the firm, then you likely are working 20 hours per week and your time is worth $962 per hour [1,000,000 / (20 x 52)].
These are the only 2 ways to value your time. Regardless of which way you choose (I hope the latter), wouldn’t an assistant costing $1 (offshore) to $20 per hour be worthwhile to free you up to perform your valuable work?
I won’t repeat the explanation in number 4 above, but, sometimes an assistant is not enough or is the wrong hire. If your time experiment demonstrated that you are spending a significant portion of your time performing legal research, drafting legal documents and/or communicating with active clients, then you need a professional to assign these tasks to.
Whether a paralegal or attorney are the right next move depends on your financial situation, the work involved and your own personal comfort level. If you are unsure, go with the less expensive option – a paralegal – so that you can pay less while you learn how to be a leader to that new employee.
My last point in this area is that you need to remember that it is not an all or nothing decision. They are plenty of alternative arrangements to be made that will work for your unique situation. For example, when I first opened my accounting practice, I sent my client work to accountants in India and I just oversaw them. As my client base grew, I hired part time accountants who were stay at home professionals with young children looking for part-time flexible work arrangements. Not to mention my assistant in the Philippines who is phenomenal and worth every penny of the small salary necessary for that country.
Running a small law firm can be a very stressful endeavor and the biggest creator of that stress is the constant race against the deadline and pitting the needs of the firm against all your other personal needs in your life. Lack of time creates stress. Solving the time conundrum will free you up to thrive in ways you have never been able to thrive before.
So choose one of the 5 suggestions above and implement it. To get more tips and insight on growing your law firm, join our wonderful community on LinkedIn and/or Facebook – Become a Profitable Law Firm.