I was interviewed recently on the topic of opening my own office. I had run a solo practice for years until mid-2010 when I accepted a position as in-house counsel, and had spoken and written about the advantages and disadvantages of running one’s own shop many times in the past.
In the interview, I mentioned that (more or less) many lawyers feel the need to have an assistant out of sense of ego, and that they feel that a lot of clerical-type work is either an inefficient use of their time or, quite simply, beneath them. I took a (justifiable) amount of flack for that particular comment, but from an unexpected source: assistants.
Don’t get me wrong: many assistants provide an invaluable addition to any office staff. I know quite a few lawyers (most of whom are in larger national or regional firms) who have extremely busy practices and would be quite lost without their assistant(s). However, my point was quite likely (and – for those who know me – unsurprisingly) indelicately put. My point was that a solo practitioner doesn’t (at the very least not initially) necessarily need to have an assistant.
Unless one is starting one’s practice with a host of existing clients, many sole practitioners begin their solo stint in a very quiet, and very empty, office. This may come as a shock to some, but clients aren’t frantically searching the (online and offline) world, looking for new lawyers to whose door they can beat a path. The phone may stay quiet for long periods of time. While this is a welcome development for those who are engaged in a busy legal practice, it can prove more than slightly disconcerting as the accounts payable begin to accumulate.
My advice to the neophyte solo practitioner was that he or she can well spend their time setting up the kind of practice (and office) in which they’re comfortable and at ease. Create a market presence (again, both online and offline). Create (or burnish) your reputation as a purveyor of legal advice and counsel. I intentionally refuse to associate the word “brand” with legal practice; the day lawyers insist on referring to themselves and their practice as a “brand” is quite probably a sign of a marketing apocalypse.
You also need to figure out the type of office in which you want to work: will it be formal? Casual? Mac? PC? Luddite? These are all factors with which the lawyer need first be familiar – and comfortable – before hiring (and possibly training) a new assistant. Do you have the billings necessary to support an assistant? While some lawyers still have what could be politely referred to as a “Dickensian” approach to HR, much of the modern world has embraced flexibility and informality, and has realized the monetary worth of a good assistant. Budgeting for the cost of an assistant – their benefits, their tax & payroll costs and their workplace environment costs – is more than just a minor item that needs to be addressed.
Finally – and most importantly – is the real question: do you need an assistant? Are you an accomplished multi-tasker who is far more familiar with the functionality of a computer than any assistant could ever be? Do you think that computers and word processing are just passing fads until the true epiphany of the typewriter can finally dawn on people? Any good businessperson (a category into which, as a solo entrepreneur, you have now been welcomed; congratulations) needs to know two important things: (1) their strengths; and (2) their weaknesses. If, like me, you went to law school because there was no math, then you’ll need someone to do the bookkeeping. If, like some, it takes you 10 minutes to peck out a two-sentence email, then you might want to consider someone to help out with word processing.
Does every lawyer need an assistant? No. Does this diminish the value and (frequently underestimated worth) of assistants? Not in the least. A solo practitioner needs to know what they need in order to run a successful practice. For some, this means assistants. For others, sometimes there is no assistance required.