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Leadership and the Sole Practitioner

I was asked recently to speak (via webinar) to a group of lawyers in Christchurch, New Zealand, as part of the New Zealand Law Society’s “Stepping Up” course. This program, which other legal regulators should emulate, requires any lawyer wishing to practise law as the equity owner of a law practice to learn about business fundamentals, client care, trust accounting, and so forth.

On this particular occasion, the theme of the Stepping Up course was “leadership,” and so I prepared some remarks on that topic. But one thing I was especially asked to think about was how “leadership” could mean anything at all to a lawyer in sole practice or in a very small firm. Who were you supposed to be leading, exactly, and in what direction?

That’s a pretty good question. Here’s the answer I came up with.

When I worked as an editor for a legal magazine, I managed a small team of two or three people who reported to me. I considered it one of my managerial responsibilities to help these people either take my job someday, or find a better one elsewhere. (They all did the latter.) To accomplish this goal, I tried to help them be highly successful at their current jobs.

Around this time, I came across a really smart observation about leadership that I now can’t source properly. (If it’s yours, please take credit in the comments.) It was this: “Leadership is the art of removing the barriers that stand between your people and their goals.” I can tell you that in a very large lawyers’ organization, there was no shortage of barriers of this kind, so I tried my best to carry out this practice.

That’s still how I think of leadership: Removing the barriers that stand between the people you lead and their goals. So what does that mean in a sole practice?

Well, assuming you employ staff members such as secretaries, office administrators, and the like, you can certainly set about identifying the many barriers to success they face daily and doing away with them as best you can.

But there’s one really important person who also needs you to perform this valuable service, and that’s you.

I’m fairly certain that right now, in your sole practice, there are myriad obstacles, big and small, preventing you on a daily basis from becoming the lawyer you want to be and running the practice you want to have. Demands and distractions, details and diversions, death by a thousand cuts of the productivity you wish you could achieve. Personnel problems, communications breakdowns, unanticipated interruptions, administrative minutiae, and the list goes on.

If this describes your daily life in practice to any significant degree, you’re absolutely not alone. Released last fall, Clio’s second annual Legal Trends Report confirmed the findings of its predecessor report, which is that lawyers in small firms are being swamped by administrative duties.

The 60,000 lawyers in Clio’s database spend only 2.3 hours a day on billable tasks, and collect just 1.6 of those hours. Where does most of their time go instead? These lawyers spend nearly half of their day on office administration (including attending to licensing and CLE, billing work, and configuring technology), and another third on marketing.

Leadership in a solo or very small law firm resides first and foremost in removing the barriers that are preventing the firm’s most valuable person — you — from being as successful as they can be.

So if you don’t have an office administrator, hire one. If you have one and you’re still swamped with minutiae, reconfigure that person’s duties or consider changing or adding personnel. If you don’t have someone handling or at least helping with your marketing and business development, hire that person, whether full-time, part-time, or freelance. If you say, “It takes too long to train someone, it’s easier to do it myself,” stop saying that right now. It’s not helping.

You’re a lawyer. The highest and best use of your time and energy is lawyering: connecting with clients, understanding their problems, crafting solutions, and building relationships. Delegate to other skilled people those tasks that they’re better suited, in terms of both talent and disposition, to carry out.

You’ve probably found yourself saying, on more than one occasion, that as a sole practitioner, “I’m my own boss.” Stop and think about the implications of that statement. Is your boss helping you do your job as well as you can? Is he or she taking away the barriers between you and success, or is he or she content to let you waste your time and talent on matters that you shouldn’t be dealing with?

Be a great boss to your firm’s most important member. Show leadership within your own practice. Identify the obstacles that stand between you and your ever-growing success, and get them out of your way.

Start the discussion!

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