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When lawyers are surveyed about what keeps them awake at night, their top issue is almost always a feeling that their offices or cases are out of control. It’s not just a fear. In my experience, for far too many lawyers, it’s a true state of being.
Why is that the case, and how can it be fixed? Start by characterizing the problem.
The typical law office — especially a smaller one — is woefully understaffed. Lawyers learn early in law school to simply “do what it takes” to get things done. So, they normally work abnormal hours — exceeding the hours in which they can provide their highest-quality work. That typically means that a lot of work gets done at the last minute, often by seeking delays or making excuses to the client. When a lawyer is working every day at 120 percent, it leaves little room for procedural, thoughtful handling of work, and certainly not much for unexpected crises. These lawyers are already too busy dealing with their own manufactured crises.
This second reason flows from the first. Most lawyers were never taught how to manage others, or effectively utilize team members. I’ve seen top-drawer lawyers in great firms with access to great staff and associate support grinding out 70- to 80-hour workweeks, largely doing work that could be done by a paralegal or associate, because “I want it done right. Nobody else can do it as well as I can.” The result is an overworked lawyer, living on the edge, with precious little time left for handling crises.
In a small firm, a “checkbook mentality” can sound like “I can’t afford a paralegal.” While the truth is that a paralegal should be a profit center, not an expense, all the lawyer can see is the $40,000 or $50,000 salary to be paid out, not the $100,000 to $150,000 they should realize in paralegal revenue. A variation on this theme is the lawyer who hires a great paralegal, assigns bales of non-billable work, doesn’t set billing expectations and then complains that it was a bad investment. A good paralegal, well utilized, increases the capacity of the firm to take in more business, provides a higher level of client service, makes the firm more money, frees up the lawyer to do better work and have time to market and — for heaven’s sake — have a life.
In larger firms, the motivation goes beyond the checkbook mentality to, let’s say it: greed. “Why should I give it to an associate or paralegal when I can do it and bill it at my rate?” A myopic view at best, a disastrous one at worst, this is one reason for the profession’s high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, heart attacks, divorces and suicides. Lawyers with this kind of attitude can allow the practice to consume them totally, with not-so-surprising consequences.
This checkbook approach to law practice also means the lawyer doesn’t have time to market — it just isn’t a priority until it is, and then it’s often too late.
Most lawyers use inadequate tools to keep track of the status of every case. Most do it with stacks of files. One lawyer admitted, “I keep all my files close so I can smell the smoke when something starts burning.” Or they do it reactively — responding to a phone call from a querulous or unhappy client asking about the status of the case … or to opposing counsel setting a date for a deposition … or to discovering a court date on their calendar.
There is more than one potentially disastrous outcome to this lack of client communication or proactive case management. I’ve seen contingency firms with files that have essentially been forgotten until a statute warning pops up, because the attorney sent a demand or request to opposing counsel, and was waiting for their reply — which never came — as a prod to move the case forward. Firms that function this way, in “reactive” mode, are not serving their clients as well as they could. And they often have unhappy clients and face grievances and malpractice complaints.
Don’t despair. In these “Getting a Grip” posts, we walk through solutions to that feeling of losing control.
Originally published January 6, 2016.
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