Strategies for Handling Growth at Small and Solo Law Practices
Too many lawyers running solo practices or small firms feel stuck "serving the business" instead of their businesses serving them.
That was the case for Stephanie Brinkley, who focuses her practice on family law and family formation matters. For her first decade in practice she remained a "small operation." Her firm grew modestly, and she added some dedicated staff. But she still had that feeling: "I'm drowning and it prevents me from doing what I love—practicing law. After 10 years, my business needs to be working for me and not the other way around."
Ryan Stowe, the principal attorney at Stowe Law Firm, a North Carolina criminal defense practice, had a similar realization. "I was spending a lot of time doing things that someone else could be," he recalls. "I should focus on legal matters, the things that only I can do.” Someone else can go to the post office, prepare client updates, or do bookkeeping while you use that time to review discovery, calculate guidelines, or appear in court.
When lawyers feel overextended, it’s often because they are trying to do it all. That’s why, before you begin marketing campaigns, we recommend putting plans and processes in place to manage your growth. That way, when your client intake numbers grow, it doesn't feel like it will drown you.
Today Stephanie Brinkley has staff and systems in place so she enjoys a higher quality of life even as she helps more families. Ryan Stowe sees ten times more clients each year than he did when his practice began, but he still feels less strapped for time and more able to give all of those clients the attention they deserve: "Growing has meant having supportive staff who look for things that they can take off my plate. So I can just focus on one thing at a time."
Key Strategies for Working Smarter
Brendan Chard, president of The Modern Firm, says "When our marketing clients turn the corner like this, I get so excited, because they're experiencing growth in revenue and growth of their practices—and still doing good work. But sometimes, unless they already have the staff and the systems in place, they may struggle. We want to help them prepare in advance to channel that growth.” Brendan and his team have noted some key strategies that lawyers like Ryan and Stephanie use to enjoy having more work, more revenue, and more time in each day.
1. Outsource and Automate Mundane Tasks
You'll be better prepared to get things done in your business if you lay the groundwork for success in every facet of your life, not just the office.
Stephanie Brinkley explains, "You just have to get help where you need it… Take care of yourself. Make time for your health and for your family...You don’t have to fully staff your office with salaried employees right away. Hire contract workers—just to take things off your plate that you should not be doing." Let someone with expertise you don’t have handle those tasks, like bookkeeping, scheduling, HR, and so on. There are specialized vendors, or perhaps people in your network, that can help with almost any trainable business task.
Technology also helps tremendously. As Ryan Stowe explains, "we use technology and automate as much as we can.” The efficiency allows him more time to really “increase our level of service, even though we have more clients.” Automation of mundane tasks creates space for creative thinking on bigger issues.
Brendan notes that this same business thinking can apply to life outside of work as well. “Time is the limited resource, we all have the same 24 hours in a day; if you can invest increased earnings to get help with the daily grind, it can be a huge stress relief.” Things like lawn service, cleaning help, meal and grocery delivery, laundry service, online fitness classes and more can enable you to spend time on things you enjoy more. Sometimes there’s pride in being able to do it all, but frequently, there’s simply too much for one person to do.
2. Partner with Vendors That Understand Law Firms
Make sure the help you get for your firm is tailored to the legal industry. It’s even better if they understand your specific area of the law and your clientele. Those idiosyncrasies affect every aspect of your business.
Stephanie Brinkley says, “If marketers don't have attorneys involved in creation, they aren't going to have an appreciation for the professional rules of conduct for your state, and the advertising rules, and all of the 'buzzwords' and claims that can get a lawyer into trouble."
At Stowe Law Firm, this included shifting to a law-office specific CRM software platform, Lawmatics. Instead of spending time customizing and adapting to a more generic solution, this software, and others such as Clio, MyCase, and Law Ruler are built for the law firm business model and ready to roll with much less initial setup.
3. Take Time to Plan and Budget for the Future
Most small firms and solo lawyers worry that they cannot afford to hire staff. The first hires a growing firm makes are usually for workers whose time isn’t billable. But their help will free up more billable time for your attorneys, which invariably translates into increased revenue even after you deduct the cost of that employee.
That said, as income grows, don’t let lifestyle eat all of the new earnings. Take the time to sketch out a plan for the next quarter or year. At what point will you need to add another staffer, or upgrade your CRM software, or even move to a bigger office? Make room in your budget so you can hire extra staff and expand without stress.
In five years Ryan Stowe went from seeing 100 clients each year to seeing more than 1,000. “We've had to move multiple times as we added staff,” Ryan explains. “And we've finally just bought a building so that we don't have to move again two years from now."
That was possible because Ryan made a point of always looking a little further down the road to budget for the support his growing practice would need.
4. Identify, Track, and Evaluate Meaningful KPIs
A KPI (or "key performance indicator") is any quantifiable measure that lets you determine how your business is faring. KPIs for small law firms can be a set of questions that help you easily understand the quantity and quality of leads, the progress of your caseload, or the performance of your employees.
"I went to law school," Stephanie Brinkley says. "Not business school. But I've learned how to evaluate my firm like a business. I have KPIs for my employees now, and I hold them accountable. They have target goals they need to meet, and if they exceed them, they're getting rewarded."
Establishing and tracking meaningful KPIs is the only way to know if your efforts are effective. It can also show you what isn’t worth doing, or what can be better handled by someone else. The key is finding KPIs that align with the priorities you have for yourself, your firm, and your clients.
Skyrocketing revenue isn’t worth much if you’re miserable. Way more clients isn’t great if those clients don’t have the issues you enjoy working on. A bigger team isn’t worth it if there isn’t work to support them.
5. Get Comfortable Saying No
As your marketing efforts and practice grow, so will the number of decisions you need to make. You’ll have more options in terms of who to hire, what services to offer, when to use vendors and contractors, where to expand, which clients to take on, and so on. You’ll have the opportunity to say yes to many more opportunities. And, as you have more overhead, you may be sorely tempted to say yes a lot, taking on clients or projects that you’d previously have declined.
Remember to take time to check in with yourself and ask Why? Why am I grabbing hold of this opportunity? Why am I making this move? Ensure that you’re staying true to what motivates you to work for yourself and the vision you’ve set for your practice.
“We face pressure, practically on a weekly basis, to push Modern Firm into other verticals such as dental, CPAs, doctors and other professional services,” reflects Brendan Chard. “And, we get inquiries from much larger law firms who are interested in working with us. But every time we’ve drifted from our lane, it’s been a mess. Our business was built to serve small law firms, and thousands of decisions have been made along the way to support that specific clientele. If they aren’t a small law firm, we have to decline the work.”
Embrace Sustainable Growth with Modern Firm
Embracing growth is a big shift in mindset for many lawyers.
To Brendan Chard, the most important thing is how happy his clients are with their practices and work/life balance. "We're not interested in helping lawyers attract a whole lot of interest and then get crushed by it. However we can, we want to help them adapt to growth, and make the most of the 'good problem' of having too many clients." The Modern Firm can help any firm not simply succeed in grabbing attention, but manage that success, and build it into the growth that’s right for them and their practice. Get in touch and let’s talk about preparing your practice for growth that feels good.