Lawyer-turned-consultant Allison C. Shields of Legal Ease Consulting explains how she rescues lawyers who are headed for a meltdown (and other great tips for solos).
We spoke with Allison to learn how she helps solo lawyers who are feeling overwhelmed from the stresses of being a self-employed attorney. She also shared some other tips that will help simply the lives of busy lawyers, so follow the conversation and use her advice to improve your own practice.
Tell us about Legal Ease Consulting, Inc. What inspired you to make the switch from working as an attorney to helping other attorneys manage their practices?
As a practicing lawyer and law firm manager, I’ve experienced that feeling of complete overwhelm, of not knowing where to start or how to dig out, of working seven days a week with no vacation – what I call lawyer meltdown.
While dedication and hard work are necessary to be a good lawyer, I’ve had to re-learn my own lesson over and over throughout my legal career – to be a great lawyer (or any type of service provider), you have to be a whole and complete person – and to be a whole and complete person, you have to have a life outside of work. To help others you have to fill your own well first – not just financially, but emotionally and creatively, too.To help others you have to fill your own well first - not just financially, but emotionally too. Click To Tweet
I started Legal Ease Consulting, Inc. to prevent good lawyers from leaving the profession and to help lawyers rediscover their reasons for going into law in the first place. Just because law is a serious profession doesn’t mean lawyers can’t enjoy themselves in the process and learn to find some balance.
At my last firm, the atmosphere was energizing and I loved the people I worked with. In addition to handing the usual legal work and client tasks, I became more and more involved with management, administration and marketing at the firm. The more involved I became, the more excited I got about working with others in the firm. I was trying to move the firm to the next level, finding better ways to serve clients, creating systems that would make us more effective, and thinking of new ways to reach out to prospective clients.
Eventually, I realized that what I really wanted to do was to help lawyers prevent or overcome lawyer meltdown. Now my clients get the benefit my experience as both a lawyer and as a law firm manager.
What are the most important lessons you learned about being a solo business owner?
As a solo business owner, and since I was previously part of the management team at a mid-sized firm, many of my experiences can provide useful lessons for self-employed lawyers.
One of the most important lessons I learned is that in addition to having a life outside of work, you have to love what you do during the work day. Of course, there will always be tasks that are necessary for you to complete that may not be enjoyable, but overall, you have to want to go to work every day, and find enjoyment in what you do. Establishing a niche practice can help with that, either by focusing on one specific area of the law in which you can become the go-to person in your community, or focusing on a specific type of client or community to serve. You need to feel a passion for what you do and who you do it for.One of the most important lessons I learned is that you have to love what you do Click To Tweet
You need to learn how to turn away work that isn’t right for you, either because the client isn’t one that you are comfortable working with, or the work isn’t within your area of expertise. With my consulting clients, the clients or matters that cause them the biggest headaches are those that, in some way, knew they should not have taken on in the first place. Many are surprised that when they get rid of the clients and matters that aren’t the right fit for them, they attract more of the kind of work they enjoy.
No matter how hard you work and how careful you are, you’re going to make mistakes. It’s how you deal with those mistakes that will make all the difference. As a law firm manager, one of the biggest frustrations was finding out that an attorney made a mistake and tried to cover it up or hide it, rather than coming right out and admitting to it. Hiding problems from clients just creates more problems.
As a solo business owner, you wear many hats, and one of the biggest lessons I learned is that to be successful, you have to balance working on your practice with working in your practice. You need to spend time doing the things that bring in business or make your practice more efficient and effective, in addition to doing the legal work itself. You need to constantly be networking and making new connections, marketing your practice, finding ways to make yourself and your practice more productive, and new ways to serve your clients better, all while billing consistently and keeping an eye on the finances. You need to find a way to do all of that while getting the legal work done well and on time. Being a great lawyer isn’t enough anymore, and as a solo, there isn’t anyone there to feed you work.
What are the most common challenges facing self-employed lawyers today?
As a self-employed lawyer, it can be difficult to stay motivated, and to know where to turn for help. Larger firms have more people to share the work and to bounce ideas off of. That’s why it’s so important for solos to establish or join communities, whether they are in an office suite, a local bar association, a networking group, or form their own mastermind groups so that they have others to consult with.
Competition, particularly in areas like New York, is fierce in the legal marketplace. There are new law school graduates every year who can’t find jobs, so they hang their own shingle and go into practice, often at very low rates. And on top of that, the legal marketplace has changed – a lot of work that was traditionally done by solos has been taken over by “do-it-yourself” platforms or low-cost online services such as Legal Zoom. It is more difficult for lawyers to justify why a client might need an attorney at all, let alone hire them.
As a solo, it can also be hard to stay focused and not get distracted because no one is watching. In a firm, you have others to keep you accountable. Even the most motivated lawyer can fall into bad habits, procrastinate or just have a bad day. Solos should combat this by establishing accountability partners and setting external deadlines for themselves to ensure that important work gets done.
It can also be tough to establish boundaries with clients – as a solo, you often feel more responsible for your clients because you’re the only one who’s working for them. Having fees and procedures established in advance, and provided to clients from the first consultation, can help you to establish some of those boundaries.
What tools can help make their jobs easier?
The list of tools that can make attorneys’ jobs easier is almost endless, depending upon their specific challenges. Anything that helps lawyers to create or automate systems and procedures can help make their jobs easier by freeing them up to focus on other things. This can be everything from a good scanner to case and practice management software .
Practice management software can help organize each client’s documents and data, and some even include client-facing portals to allow clients to access some of their documents and information on their own. It can also include timers to help with hourly billing and built-in reminders to help calculate deadlines and statutes of limitations.The list of tools that can make attorneys' jobs easier is almost endless Click To Tweet
There are also many apps that can help lawyers improve their productivity. There are apps that allow you to sign documents on the go on an iPad or smartphone, to business card scanning apps that take the extra work out of networking. Also, there are timekeeping apps that integrate with practice management programs, helping lawyers keep track of their time and bill for activities when they are out of the office.
Answering or reception services can be invaluable to self-employed lawyers. With these tools, an attorney’s phone can always be answered professionally, even when they are in court or meeting with clients. This way the lawyer doesn’t miss an important client call or potential new client consultation, and unwanted calls can be screened so it doesn’t waste the attorney’s time.
A good scanner with cloud-based services can make documents available anywhere, at any time. Combined with an OCR feature, scanned documents become instantly searchable, limiting the amount of time needed to find the correct file. Self-employed lawyers often need to be productive on the road, between court appearances or client meetings, and these tools can be a great help.
Perhaps the best productivity tool for lawyers is their calendar. It is useful not only for planning deadlines, appointments and court dates, but for keeping track of networking events and blocking time to ensure that important work gets done.
Any final pieces of advice for attorneys starting their own practices?
Get up, get dressed, and go to work every day, even if you don’t have a client yet. There are plenty of things that need to be done to start your law firm out on the right path.
Don’t try to go it alone – join networking groups and attend as many meetings as you possibly can. Get involved in your local bar association – those who are involved are often happy to help new lawyers, especially those lawyers who volunteer their time to the Bar. Start making connections – you never know who might be your next client or referral source.
Also, attend CLE classes, not just for the legal knowledge, but also for the networking potential. Volunteer for local pro bono clinics through your local bar association if you need to get experience. Write articles for your local bar journal, start a blog and start building your reputation. These are all things you can do, no matter if you’re just starting a career in law, or you have been practice for years. Being a self-employed lawyer can be immensely satisfying when you do the best work you possibly can for your clients and make service a top priority.