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Solo and Small Firm Practice

Expanding Your Solo Practice Without Hiring an Associate

By Russell Knight

Few lawyers truly relish the solo practitioner lifestyle. After all, being a true solo means doing all the work … even work you don’t like. Having a staff member — especially an associate — means having someone else to do the grunt work, and presumably, the law firm owner would get paid for it. Ideally, this would also free you to take on more clients.

While this sounds wonderful, the new staff associate would have to be paid, whether or not you collect on their billings. Few solo practitioners have $60,000 to $100,000 laying around to pay someone on the strong hopes they could bill at least that much. What’s more, client work usually comes in incrementally, not in tidy associate-salary lump sums.

A Lower-Risk Option for Adding Legal Staff

Contract attorney and freelance services might alleviate the salary issue and meet a solo’s staffing needs in certain situations. But there is a time-tested solution that allows a solo practitioner to bring on additional staff with little to no risk.

If you are a solo practitioner, you likely have an office, desks, a conference room — all the basic necessities of a functioning law office. Obtaining these basic items seems as daunting to a new solo practitioner as hiring an associate does to the seasoned solo practitioner. So, why not offer the use of your office to a young, fresh solo practitioner who is just beginning a practice? In exchange, you can ask for x number of hours of work from the new lawyer. Twenty hours a month seems standard. Additional hours worked can be paid at a fixed and low hourly rate. (Be sure to check your state and local rules regarding fee arrangements.)

You can find a young lawyer who needs office space and a stream of work in numerous places: bar association meetings, at court, or even through an ad in a legal periodical.

Benefits for Both Parties

This arrangement is a win-win for both the established solo practitioner and the new lawyer. The seasoned solo has additional help at virtually no extra cost while the fresh solo has an office, a stream of work to hone their skills — and a new mentor.

How do I know this will work? I have done it. Originally, I got the idea from older attorneys who told me this is how solos operated in the 1970s. So I offered the arrangement to a younger attorney who immediately did more than enough work to earn his keep. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching the younger attorney, who worked for me on both the business and practice of law.

The experience unquestionably made me a better lawyer.

Nothing Lasts Forever: Next Steps  

Soon enough, however, the balance in your relationship will begin to shift. The fresh solo practitioner will bring in their own clients and hesitate to take on more work from you. This takes about two years, in my experience.

To keep the fresh solo in their pseudo-associate status, simply start making them a co-counsel in all of your new cases. This gives them a feeling of ownership and forces them to absorb the risk in the cases. The percentage of billings for these cases is negotiable, but should probably be at least 50%.

Eventually, of course, the younger associate will want to keep all of the billings. At this point, you will have worked together for years — so make them a partner.

Continuing to Scale

Once you become partners, you can reach out and offer another brand-new solo the exact same deal. It is a completely scalable and risk-mitigating process for building your practice.

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Russell Knight

Russell Knight is a family law attorney with firms in Chicago and Naples, Florida. He earned his J.D. from the University of Illinois. In his spare time, Russell enjoys learning new languages, running and cooking. Follow him at @RDKLegal.

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