One of the hardest parts of being a solo attorney is all the non-lawyering tasks that have to be accomplished on a day-to-day basis. What’s worse is we can’t bill clients for that time. It’s not just me that sees this as a problem for solo lawyers: LexisNexis recently released a survey indicating solo and two-attorney firms work more hours per hour billed to a client than attorneys in any other sector. Disregarding the numerous methodology issues raised by this survey (and there are enough for an entire additional post), this survey raises some interesting questions about how solos can become more efficient.
There are dozens of interesting thoughts from this article, but I’m going to hone in on two in particular: the use of legal staff and the use of technology.
One plausible explanation given for smaller firms being somewhat less efficient is that the larger a firm is, the more they will be able to delegate non-legal tasks to non-attorney staff:
“Bigger law firms often have armies of support staff and sophisticated billing systems that boost efficiency and let ‘attorneys be attorneys,’” said Loretta Ruppert, senior director of community management for LexisNexis Legal and Professional. “But at the smaller end of law, they typically wear multiple hats.”
On one hand, this is a good point. Many solo attorneys answer their own telephones, most probably write or manage any ad campaigns they might do, and, for many, a specialized staff person to do the accounting and taxes is a pipe dream, so the attorney does it.
On the other hand, management takes time. Somebody has to tell the support staff what to do and be accountable for their work. And until the Rules of Professional Conduct change, those tasks can’t be delegated to a non-attorney management wiz kid. Given how poor attorneys generally are at grasping management theory and technique, I wonder how it’s possible that any segment of firms bills 92 percent (like the 11-20 attorney “medium sized” segment of the survey) of their attorney time to clients while actually keeping the office operating.
Even assuming a solo lawyer can perfectly manage staff, there’s an additional issue unique to solos. Many solos have practices with fluctuating books of business that bounce back and forth between the break-even point for making staff worthwhile. Considering the effort and expense that goes in to hiring and training an employee; it’s probably wise to err on the side of caution rather than efficiency in the calculus of whether to add staff. That’s before even considering the human cost of hiring an employee and then having to cut him or her loose after six months because business drops off.
While technology, such as remote receptionists or cloud-based billing software, can reduce the amount of time an attorney spends on overhead, that comes with its own difficulties.
Using technology to be more efficient
I am a very pro-tech guy, but this comment about how lawyers use technology shows considerable cluelessness:
“It’s more an indication of the way they use technology,” Ruppert said. “What we have found is that law firms are bucketed into three different areas: traditional, progressive, and low-tech firms.”
While “technology” can certainly make a law firm more efficient, it also takes considerable effort. Presumably, the folks going to the ABA TECHSHOW are writing that off on their taxes and they hopefully aren’t billing that to clients, so it’s unbilled work. In addition to that, a tech-savvy lawyer needs to read technology blogs and magazines, and probably tries out a number of products that don’t work well throughout the year.
While this may be fun for some, it is still work that a lawyer can’t bill! The comment from Ruppert is basically a caricature of LexisNexis: technology (no specifics) will help you soak your clients for more money since you can work the same amount and bill more.
In the real world, what technology can do for law offices is help them provide their clients with better service. Technology can provide more accurate and detailed billing statements through Clio, better availability through phones that send email, and make lawyers more efficient by saving money on paper and paper-related machines (paperless office), and phone service (Skype and Google Voice).
Keeping up with the latest legal technology will make an attorney more efficient, but it probably won’t make that attorney bill a greater percentage of his or her day. It might just make a client a little bit happier though. Isn’t that the greatest payoff, both personally and financially?