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Solo In Chicago

...empowering the Second City's entrepreneurial legal community

Sunday, March 19, 2006

March madness and my madness

Well, now that all the Midwest teams (except Bradley...go Braves), including my law school alma mater, Southern Illinois University, are out of the tourney and my wife is up in Michigan visiting her parents, I'm going to spend my Sunday afternoon thinking about law firm organization.

The last month or so has really got me realizing I need to add some pieces to this puzzle ASAP! The man and his laptop along with occasional independent contractor secretarial support is just not enough anymore. Not that I haven't been thinking and planning some of these issues for a while, but now it's action time.

The Greatest American Lawyer and Home Office Lawyer have provided some great ideas that I'm going to steal. I suspect the first "big" move I'm making is just getting a virtual legal assistant on board along with a digital dictation solution in place. I'm just doing way too much nonbillable work right now or billable work is getting put off as I do other billable work. Right now my office set-up is such that having multiple employees in one located is just not realistic so they have to be offsite, as least for now.

Probably the longer-term and bigger picture issues I'm thinking about are the missions and structures of the Firm. I have a number of thoughts in my head and hopefully over the next couple hours here I can make some progress. I have sort of three "models" going around in my head.

1. Solo practice with multiple support staff. My first lawyer position out of law school was as the first lawyer employee for this type of set-up. I see a lot of upside to it. The lawyer-proprietor after training this model for 20 years had 4 great support staff, none of whom worked full time and none of whom had benefits. I thought the staff gave great customer service and the set-up allowed the lawyer-proprietor to really be out of the office a lot and still maintain a real nice living. The downside I saw to this model was just sometimes feeling a little "out-gunned" when you had a case against a big firm with a bunch of lawyers at their disposal and also I sort of like the idea of leading or being part of a team rather than just being on my own.

2. Traditional law firm. I suppose there's not just one "traditional" set-up. What I mean by this category is the law firm with one secretary per lawyer and then likely some minimal reception staff and then often a pool of paralegals that might be shared depending on the size of the firm. I haven't been involved with this set-up a ton since a couple of big firm summer jobs during law school, however, to me the failure here is simply too low of a lawyer to support staff ratio. It seems to me you want to get to 2/3:1 ratio of support staff to lawyer rather than 1:1. Isn't that where you make the money? Having non-lawyers under the direction of a lawyer getting legal work done and not paying lawyer salaries for them?

3. De-centralized model. This is where I'm focusing my attention. In the near term I would expect to somewhat follow item #1. Longer term simply I'd like to get the Firm larger than that. As I sit here in the early planning stages, I'm envisioning five teams. Three of the teams would be simply practice specific legal groups in our three practice areas: family, healthcare/elder, and real estate law. Then there would be two additional teams: office management and marketing.

So I'm sort of fettering out item #3 as we speak. And the other aspect of item #3 is the question of how to add additional lawyers? I'll say it right out front, I hate the idea of "Associates." I didn't like being one when I was one and there's just a certain condescension in the word, I think. You're a competent lawyer or your not, right? But I digress. I'm thinking of sort of a network of freelance lawyers or Of Counsel arrangements to assist me. Dennis Kennedy had a good recent posting on Of Counsel resources. Or will these people not really part of the firm undermine our mission? I don't know yet. It just seems to me that hiring lawyers can be so expensive, though I expect it will happen eventually.

Okay, that's what is on my mind for the next few hours, errr, months...


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