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On Balance

Overcoming Fear of Success Through Ethical Safeguards

By Megan Zavieh

Self-employed lawyers rely heavily on their ability to propel their businesses forward — more so than lawyers employed by others or members of large firms. Fail to keep the engines going and your practice will close. Too much propulsion, however, and you might have the opposite problem: a practice thriving beyond your capacity to handle it.

Fear of Success, or Too Much of a Good Thing

Fear of success holds many of us back from fulfilling our true potential in solo and small firm practice. Sure, you can implement ideas from “The Secret” or “You’re a Badass” or similar tomes focused on the laws of attraction. But if you truly begin to realize the success you envision, will you be able to handle it? Or will the influx of work lead to all-out panic and inability to cope, thereby scuttling the very success you were seeking?

If you are determined to build a thriving law practice that will reliably pay the bills, there are steps you can take now to prepare for success. With proper planning and consideration of ethics obligations, you can reduce or eliminate the fear of being as successful as you want to be — opening yourself up to the possibility of making the success real.

Develop the Infrastructure to Meet Ethics Obligations on a Large Scale

In “The E-Myth Revisited,” Michael Gerber talks about structuring your small business as if it were run by a group of people. My interpretation as it applies to small law practices is to develop infrastructure as if you were a bigger operation.

Create an organizational chart detailing all the roles that must be filled in your firm. You will probably have a chief operating officer, chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief marketing officer, chief technology officer, managing partner, supervising attorney, associate attorney, paralegal, receptionist, and perhaps a clerk or two. Next, detail what all of these positions do.

For example, a CFO would likely oversee all financial operations, including preparing and sending client invoices, collecting on client invoices and managing the banking for these funds, paying all firm overhead, ensuring that firm overhead is within budget and managing that budget. The CFO might also have an accounting clerk who handles some day-to-day tasks.

Once you have spelled out roles and tasks, you can add in the names of the people who currently fill those roles. At the moment, it might be you for every single one of them. That’s fine. That still helps with this process.

Now, when success hits and you suddenly have more client work than you thought possible,  money is flowing in the door and your biggest worry is that you will drop the ball, you can look at your organizational chart and figure out which roles you are ready to hand over to someone else. Common first hires are clerical staff (accounting staff, receptionists, file clerks) and lower-level legal staff (paralegals, associate attorneys).

Without that organizational chart, administrative tasks can fall by the wayside when client work is suddenly pouring in. This is when we see lawyers not sending bills or collecting for the work they’re doing, calls not getting answered or returned, and clients becoming increasingly unhappy. Lawyers may also start to cut corners on the legal work because they lack the time to fully research an issue or draft a brief as carefully as they otherwise would. These lawyers will likely soon be defending a bar complaint rather than riding the wave of success as their practice grows.

Put Systems in Place for Routine Administrative Tasks

Whether you choose to remain on your own or hire people to fill some of the roles on your organizational chart, your firm will run more smoothly as it grows busier if there are systems in place to handle routine tasks. You’ll want to customize this for your own practice, but here is an overview of systems you should cover.

Onboarding new clients. When you get a new client, the onboarding process should be simple. When you have three clients, you can afford to start from scratch each time and take several hours to put together the client’s file, get the retainer agreement drafted and signed, collect the initial deposit and so on. When you have 50 or 100 clients, however, that just won’t do. So when you’re starting out, organize onboarding as if you already have dozens of clients:

  • Create file systems for paper and electronic files so you create the same labels every time.
  • Create an online intake form that clients complete, which syncs directly to your case management system.
  • Use case management software that allows for simple online billing and payment solutions.

Cover the ethics trouble spots. Make sure your systems cover the areas where you are most likely to drop the ball when you are busy.

  • Communicating with clients is a key component of competent ethical representation. Find a system that ensures regular contact with clients and returning of phone calls and emails.
  • Include a system for managing trust accounting — an area of frequent trouble for solo lawyers.
  • Continuing legal education requirements always fall off lawyers’ radars when they are busy. Set up a system for monitoring this because mistakes in CLE compliance can lead to suspensions from practice (and ethics charges in some cases). That will quickly ruin the success you have built.

At first, it may seem a bit silly to put these systems in place, especially when you are not busy. After all, what does it hurt to create a client engagement letter each time, when you have plenty of time to spare? Keep in mind that you are not building these systems for today. You are building them for the day you do not have plenty of time.

Build a Network to Rely on in Times of Success

We often think of networking in terms of knowing who to turn to if things go south. To guard against ethics violations and malpractice claims, you need a backup attorney in case you are injured or unable to handle client obligations for some negative reason. Having a good network is also critically important when your practice takes off in a major way. What happens if you are suddenly too busy to take on all the clients knocking on your door? To whom would you refer out a case? Who could you call to work on a contract basis until you figure out if it is sustainable to hire an associate?

The time to form these relationships is before you are overwhelmed with work.

For solo lawyers, it may seem equally scary to have no business or to have too much business. But having no business defeats the whole purpose of going out on your own. Think ahead to how you want your practice to run once you are incredibly successful, and build the framework today. Then when your efforts to build business pay off, you will reap the rewards with less stress and better representation.

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Megan Zavieh Megan Zavieh

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of “The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide.” At Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action and guidance on questions of legal ethics. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Her latest book, “The Modern Lawyer: Ethics and Technology in an Evolving World,” (ABA 2021 ) covers how to run a modern practice while staying in line with current ethics rules. She podcasts on Lawyers Gone Ethical, blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.

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