How to Have a Successful Firm and a Successful Life

Why Lawyers Really Struggle for Work-Life Balance

By | Feb.28.18 | Balance, Daily Dispatch, Law Firm Management, Law Practice Management, Profitability

Link Christin recently posted a fine article titled “Shoot for a Realistic Work-life Balance in 2018.” While he does a nice job presenting practical steps you can take right now, when many firms are “shifting away from unhealthy work models,” I want to examine the root causes of these harmful models and present a process for building a more successful law firm and successful life.

Otherwise, it’s like telling someone with a broken leg “just try to be more careful walking, and take a lot of aspirin.” Palliative, but not curative.

So Let’s Address the Real Reasons Why Law Practices Don’t Work

What’s my definition of a practice that doesn’t work? In a phrase, it’s one with a structure that has not changed significantly since its earliest days.

When a practice is small, it’s easy for the attorney to keep track of and stay on top of a few files, and stay in communication with a few clients. But as the practice grows, the typical response is simply, “I have more work to do, so I have to work harder.” So, the attorney keeps working harder, adds a couple of staff, and now has both more work to do and more people to try to manage. Unfortunately, the attorney typically has no managerial skills, nor a plan for growth, except to “work harder, work longer.”

Soon, working nights and weekends becomes the norm, along with waking up at night worrying about what didn’t get done, and getting calls from irritated clients. “That’s just what it takes to have a successful practice.”

Young attorneys with lots of energy and a “sacrifice now to succeed later” mindset work long hours, try to keep that ever-expanding number of matters in mind and on their desks, and grow older. Over time, the energy and drive they had at 30 decreases. But the work — if they’re lucky — keeps expanding, and every year it becomes harder to maintain the 30-year-old’s pace.

Is it any wonder the profession has high rates of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, heart disease, divorce and suicide?

In This Profession, Success Kills

The problem is that law school embeds a “no boundaries” mindset to the practice of law. Big exam tomorrow? Big load of assignments? Work until the wee hours, pull all-nighters and take amphetamines to keep going. Then go out for some celebratory, stress-relieving drinks afterward. Associates in large firms know that that mentality continues into practice. Thrown an overwhelming load of work on a short deadline? Work until the wee hours, pull all-nighters, start missing family time and personal time, and go out for a drink after work to relax. Well, “That’s just what it takes to succeed in the practice of law.”

In most larger firms, associates are still working in a kind of extended boot camp, where it’s “Let’s see who can survive the pressure.” But for many, the alternative — starting their own firm — can be a nastier edition of the same game. Struggling to make a living. Then seeing the work expand to take over their lives — without an escape clause. They just have to keep working harder as the firm grows, because, “I’m making good money, my name is on the door and I have some prestige. I can’t give that up!”

The path to achieving better work-life balance starts with refusing to accept that “this is the way we’ve always done it.”

And it starts with asking a clear question: “How do we need to operate differently so I can have my nights and weekends free again?”

Six Steps Toward a Successful Firm and Successful Life

Successful lawyers learn new ways to operate their firms so they can keep building their practices while having (or recovering) a life.

At the 20,000-foot level, here are my six steps:

  1. Acquire better management skills
  2. Implement better technology
  3. Create and install better systems and procedures
  4. Develop better teams — lawyers, paraprofessionals, support, contract staff — and delegate more work
  5. Build a better market focus
  6. Deliver better legal services

Notice the placement of the element that is most lawyers’ greatest pride: legal services. Last. Why? Because most of the work of any firm is procedural and straightforward. It’s not rocket science. And frankly, if you rarely need the rocket scientist, it’s cheaper to collaborate with another firm than pay for such expertise. Conversely, if you have a practice that is all rocket science, like appellate or patent law, it’s a different animal and one that is harder to grow. So the logic for that situation is reversed. The most successful practices deliver non-rocket science services because the market is larger and the services are easier to deliver.

One Cautionary Tale

Most lawyers are cheap. They have a cash-flow mentality: “We can’t afford that.” They think of cost first and desired result … well, rarely. So even as they address any one of these six steps, they will tend to reduce their decision to the lowest — or cheapest — level. Then, when early actions fail to deliver the desired efficiencies or revenues, they will discard it as a bad deal and return to the “more work means more work” approach.

Successful attorneys (my standard: one who has a great practice and still has a great life) understand the need to look beyond “costs” to “benefits” that can increase profitability and improve everyone’s well-being. For instance, in a rising market, successful attorneys never hesitate to hire a skilled (expensive) paralegal because they know a good paralegal will be a profit center — they can and should bill about three times their salary. Successful attorneys never hesitate to make a “capital investment” in people or technology because the goal is a long-term payoff of happier clients and better, more expedited work. And they never stop the quest for a better market focus and a better client base.

They don’t get stuck in “Well, that’s what we do.”

Did you get that? “Capital investment.” It means cost now, return later. It’s the difference between a “practice” and a “legal business.” Truly successful firms understand that to deliver the best legal services, to develop the best reputation and establish the best client base, they must have a foundation of great “business” practices.

“Practice” and “business” are not antithetical. They’re complimentary. Collaborative. Cumulative.

Stay Tuned

For the past 25 years, I’ve been deeply invested in showing lawyers how to create better practices and lower their levels of pain and frustration. In the following months, I’ll share the detailed advice on how to implement those six steps for success.

Dustin Cole is President and Master Practice Advisor with Attorneys Master Class. For nearly 25 years, he has delivered CLE programs on practice management, marketing, risk management and succession planning for bar associations and organizations. He has keynoted and trained at nearly all of the nation’s solo and small firm programs, worked with more than 400 individual attorneys, and conducted operations and marketing analyses for more than 100 firms. Email him at  

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