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How to Go from Solo Practitioner to Building a Firm (Without Screwing It Up)

Tell me if one of these scenarios sounds familiar.

  • You’re a solo practitioner with no employees and you’re afraid to hire someone.
  • You’ve hired people in the past and it didn’t work out. Now you’re gun-shy.
  • You have employees but you’re stressed out because you’re not sure what it takes to make them successful. You think having employees is more of a drain than it’s worth.
  • Every time you hire someone and train them, they leave. Instead of going through this again and again, you might as well just do everything yourself.

These scenarios are all roadblocks to a big transition. The transition from solo attorney with no support, to a real business.

But to be clear, having employees doesn’t magically earn you “real business” status. You only have a real business if the business can operate successfully without you being there. We'll get to that in a second.

When is it time to hire a new employee?

Most attorneys make the mistake of waiting until they’re drowning in work to hire a new employee. At that point, you feel desperate for help because it’s the only way work will get done.

If you don't hire, something might slip - and there's really no choice. That said, if you hire help only after you're drowning, you'll get some temporary relief. But you’ll also develop bad habits. It forces you into management by crisis.

You'll be forced to throw your new hire into the deep end, without enough supervision. You won't really know if they're a superstar or not, until it's too late. And even if they are great, being tossed into a swirling storm of work won't be a great first experience for them.

When you have so much going on, how are you going to train? How can you create the overall system that makes it possible for an employee to support you?

Those are strategic questions, not tactical, middle-of-a-crisis questions.

The right time to hire is before you think you need to hire, and before you feel you can afford it.

Most lawyers are floored when I say that. Hire someone before there’s more than enough revenue to support them? Blasphemy!

Until you think about every other business in the world.

Other businesses have to buy equipment to manufacture their product before they can make it. If they waited to buy the machine until demand was there, they wouldn’t be able to deliver on time. They wouldn’t be able to deliver reliably.

Why? Because instead of running the machine and filling orders, they’re sitting in the middle of the shop floor, parts all around them, still trying to set up the damn machine.

I’m not saying you should have to skip meals so you can take on an employee. But you can’t tell yourself, “I made $X last year, so I need to make $X plus the salary of an employee before I hire someone."

Hiring someone is an investment in your business. An investment that will bring a return if handled properly, but not an investment that will necessarily make you money from day one.

Click here to get access to my free Law Practice Growth Guide that shows you how to grow your law firm predictably and create freedom for yourself.

And if you insist that it does make you money on day one, then you're risking hiring in a crisis. Strategic investments don't pay off on day one.

I know that salary number sounds huge. But remember, you don’t pay an employee their full salary on their first day. An $80,000 salary for an associate is a lot less scary when you break down the costs per month and figure out how many additional matters it’ll take to be profitable.

How do you get started?

First, you need to realize that you’ll never have a real business unless you learn to leverage people. And by leverage I'm not just talking about the arbitrage between what you charge and what you pay. I'm talking about operational leverage.

You have to start viewing your business as something independent from you. Something that continues to run even if you’re not there. And doing that requires an investment of knowledge, capital and time. The knowledge of how to run a real business. The capital to acquire that knowledge and the people to support you. And the time to make it happen - because there's no overnight magic push-button that takes you from here to there.

Until you’re willing to make those investments, you’ll always be frustrated trying to get to the next level. You may have a decent profession and a decent income, but if you can’t leverage people, the day you stop working is the day you stop earning.

Just don’t kid yourself and think you’ve solved a problem just because you’re paying a salary. Or even just because you're paying a salary and making a profit on the employee. That's nice, but it's just a day's arbitrage unless you've structured your staff to support the practice as a business.

I've met more than a few lawyers who have staff, but don't have a business. They invested the capital in the employee, maybe even the time to get them up to speed, but not in the knowledge of how to focus that employee on creating a real business for the attorney.

What the employee does to support the firm, how they do it, and how they create systems that mitigate the risk of them leaving make all the difference. (Did you catch the nuance in that last sentence that most miss? They - your staff - should create systems to mitigate the risk that they, themselves, leave. You don't create them. Powerful concept. It's one of the things we show you how to do in our Alchemy Mastermind coaching program)

Then ... you apply those systems to your next employee. Rinse and repeat, and remove yourself from the day to day. From the things you don't want to do. To focus on the things you really love to do.

It’s entirely possible to have employees that help separate you from the day-to-day of your business. And if they leave, it’s not an earth shattering event – as long as you’ve set things up the right way.

If you don’t know how, make it a priority. It’s time to invest in that knowledge.

Raj Jha

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