Do you have the capacity to be a million-dollar lawyer? Here’s how to embrace the principles of scale and go beyond your perceived limitations.
Across the economy, entrepreneurs struggle to unshackle themselves from the constraints of time. A few succeed. Most fail. The only way to break free of the ticking clock is to execute strategies that help you achieve scale.
In business, scaling involves taking steps to add new revenue at a faster rate than new costs. In other words, scale is achieved when a business can take on more work while maintaining, or even increasing, its efficiency.
In the practice of law, scale works the same way. As an individual lawyer, your “costs” are your time, so if your ability to take on a new client depends solely on your ability to bill more hours, your practice can’t scale. No matter how hard you work, this approach will only take you so far.
If you want to go farther, you can’t think in terms of squeezing more productivity out of yourself. You must rise above your own limitations by building teams, processes and systems that allow you to scale.
Work on Your Practice, Not in Your Practice
When I started my legal career at the Chicago office of an international law firm, I struggled to keep my head above water just dealing with the discrete tasks I was assigned in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case. I couldn’t imagine how our practice group leader was quarterbacking several such cases involving billions of dollars in assets and tens of millions of dollars in legal fees.
I later came to realize how he did it. While he was involved at a high level, he primarily relied on teams of other lawyers to run the day-to-day operations, with processes in place to keep him informed along the way. Like a good general, he set the strategy and left it to his lieutenants to execute. This approach created capacity for him to pursue even more business.
In short, he worked on his practice, not in his practice. Instead of getting bogged down in all the details, he put systems and good people in place that made it possible for him to operate above the fray.
If you want to grow a significant legal practice — for example, $1 million or more in revenue — you must start thinking of yourself as a CEO who can scale, not a freelancer who merely tries to work harder and faster. Believing that you’re someone who can move past the constraints that cap many lawyers’ potential is critical, as actions tend to follow identity. To help set the stakes for yourself, consider: Are you willing to settle for the same results year after year because you never built something that could operate independent of your time and effort?
Once you buy-in, the hard but rewarding strategic work of scaling begins.
Three Steps to Scale
Growing your practice beyond yourself is not easy. But there is a way to push past your own limitations to far greater levels of success. Here are three fundamental steps to achieving scale.
Step One: Create Capacity
Scaling your practice is dependent on creating capacity to work on your practice. Taking a step forward requires you to step back and view your expenditures of time and attention holistically. If you’re spending all your time focused on billing hours and keeping up with administrative tasks, you’ll never have the time to work on the important but not necessarily urgent issues related to building and scaling your practice.
You must make more time by ruthlessly examining your priorities.
That’s easier said than done for a busy lawyer, but for most of us an honest assessment will reveal that there’s time to be wrestled back in all of our workdays. Research by Julian Birkinshaw, of the London School of Economics, suggests that knowledge workers spend 41% of their time on discretionary activities that provide little personal satisfaction and could be handed off to others. Even one hour per day — 10% of a 10-hour workday — is enough to make significant progress on building your practice.
Making more time to work on what’s most important involves delegation and elimination. Assess all of your daily activities and determine what needs to get done, but not necessarily by you. (Time entries, simple correspondence, engagement letters and billing tend to fall into this category.) Next, evaluate what you can eliminate altogether. This often requires having the discipline to say no upfront to low-value tasks.
In my experience, when lawyers go through this process, they create at least one hour per day for themselves, which allows them the margin time to move to step two.
Step Two: Create Systems
Systemization allows your practice to run like a well-oiled machine: more streamlined, productive and profitable. Many lawyers view what they do as the delivery of bespoke services, but a large part of their work is — or should be — more akin to a repeatable process. Lawyers can systematize many aspects of their practices to achieve scale.
A system is a set of processes, tools, people and strategies that work together to solve a problem or achieve a goal. Your job, as the CEO of your practice, is to design systems that allow you to steadily remove yourself from low-value tasks so you can focus more attention on high-value ones.
For example, system design is integral to the delegation of tasks, such as turning over to your administrative assistant the responsibility to create new engagement letters. You can’t simply assign responsibility without proper documentation and guidance. You must document the steps involved, conduct training, and provide constructive feedback. It takes time to create systems, but a 10-hour investment to create a process for a task that takes an hour of your time each week will earn a positive return in just a few months, and that return will compound over time. The system takes the work off your plate forever.
Keep in mind, too, that systems are not just for administrative tasks. If you really want to scale, you must also systematize as much of your legal work as possible. Doing so allows you to leverage teams of other lawyers, as set forth in step three. Think through the activities required to create work product for your clients. What aspects of the work can be reduced to a repeatable process? What templates, forms and playbooks can you create to ensure quality and consistency?
Litigation, transactions, corporate bankruptcy filings, incorporations, estate planning … most legal matters follow a predictable pattern, often guided by a statutory process. If your practice is narrowly focused, it will be far easier to create effective systems. There is less friction in scaling when you consistently deal with the same types of matters for the same types of clients, which allows you to spot patterns and anticipate issues in a way that’s not possible when you’re spread thin.
The more you can systematize the process of serving your clients, the more you’ll be able to rely on others to handle the day-to-day work — which is the key to bringing in more and better new business.
Step Three: Create Teams
Lawyers who earn more money, and gain more autonomy, generate business sufficient to keep not only themselves busy, but others in their firms as well.
Systems enable you to create leverage in your practice. With systems in place, you’re no longer the bottleneck through which all decisions must pass. The systems determine what to do and how it should be done, and you’re there to weigh in at a high level.
Once you’ve built a framework for how things get done, you can establish an organizational structure and identify the roles and skillsets you need to support your practice. You’ll need administrative support in areas like client onboarding and marketing, and attorney support, including team members with varying levels of experience, to get the legal work done. At first, you may start building your team on a very small scale, with only a couple of people to help execute your vision, but your organizational chart will grow along with your practice over time.
Most lawyers go find support when they need it, drawing from a pool of candidates based on who has capacity. Scalable lawyers identify their needs and attract talent before it’s an urgent priority.
Scale Beyond Your Perceived Limitations
Time is finite and therefore it’s a scarce and valuable resource. We all have the same 168 hours every week to work with. If you try to do everything yourself, you’ll limit your potential. By embracing the principles of scale, you can go further.
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