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Struggle for Work-Life Balance, Part 5

Want More Balance? Build a Better Team

By Dustin Cole

In “Why Lawyers Really Struggle With Work-Life Balance,” I discussed six steps to building a practice that runs smoothly and allows you to have a life. Here we’ll discuss the fourth step, building better teams.

Few people went to law school because they wanted to be a manager. In fact, many went because they never wanted to be a manager. But without strong support from others, your ability to deliver services and build your practice is severely limited.

Without at least one good team member, your practice is a merely a job — a job that evaporates when you are not present, and which has little or no value once you retire.

With a good team member, your practice starts to become a business: Work is done, clients are communicated with and money is made — even when you are not present. And your business begins to have an intrinsic value beyond yourself.

What is the purpose of a team?

  • To delegate what you hate to do
  • To delegate to someone who has more or different skills than you
  • To delegate to someone who can make you more efficient
  • To increase your firm’s capacity
  • To decrease your stress and frustration
  • To delegate to someone who can make you more money

In a word, the purpose of a team is leverage — sharing the workload, pushing work down that doesn’t require your skill level, and supporting good client communication.

Of course, the wrong team can turn a practice into a nightmare. It’s no wonder so many attorneys say “I’ve tried hiring staff — they just make things worse. I’ll never do that again.”

A successful practice requires skill in building the right team.

What Stops Lawyers from Hiring?

By far, the most common objection to hiring is: “I can’t afford it.” This comes from a cash-flow mentality — looking at cost rather than value. The reality is that a new hire should be a profit center, either billing two to three times what they’re paid or taking work off your desk so you can bill more.

A good team member can make your life easier and make you money by:

  • Taking non-billable work off your desk so you can move work more efficiently and bill more
  • Doing billable work that does not require your skills, fully or partially paying for themselves
  • Doing tasks such as bookkeeping, calendaring, file organization, and meeting preparation that free you up to be more productive
  • Doing work you hate or are not good at
  • Helping you stay organized and efficient
  • Helping you deliver better, more responsive client service
  • Serving as a “second set of eyes” to increase accuracy and reduce errors
  • Helping move work more quickly to get paid faster

And the risk isn’t necessarily a year’s salary. It’s one or two month’s pay — if the experiment is unsuccessful, the new hire can be let go.

The Hidden Factor: “I don’t know what to have them do because everything is in my head.”

Remember the difference between a business and a job. Hiring is an opportunity to systemize your practice. It requires you to write your first clear job description (you need this) and create a procedures manual. If this sounds like a big task, the easiest way is to have your new hire write down the steps of every task they do for your review, to assure work is done in a standard fashion. Now the next hire can step into a well-defined role with a clear job description and written procedures for their tasks. (See “Systems and Procedures: How to Make Your Practice Work Well, Consistently.”)

The Bluster Factor: “I don’t need staff because I have great technology!”

Great technology doesn’t substitute for a second pair of eyes for quality control, a second pair of hands to do non-billable work, and a second person to communicate with clients.

In fact, great technology can increase your efficiency, but you will still have a ceiling on your time and energy — and therefore a ceiling on your income. Besides, I have never encountered a techie lawyer who wasn’t working long hours, weekends, and from their hotel room on vacation.

And as a side note, many prospective clients view an attorney with no staff as unsuccessful (and therefore not a good lawyer).

The Personality Factor: “I don’t want to take the risk.”

Most attorneys are risk-averse and afraid to hire because it seems like a permanent decision. Again, you can hire on a trial period and, if it doesn’t work out, you can fire the person and return to your former manner of operation.

The Chicken Factor: “I wouldn’t be able to fire them if they didn’t work out!”

Sadly, I have encountered dozens of firms with unacceptable staff members who are still present — and getting paid — because the lawyers can’t bring themselves to fire them. It requires a perspective shift from “I can’t be that mean” to “the business I own requires a more committed and more skilled team member.”

A New Hat When You Hire: Manager

The moment you hire someone — whether full time, part time or on a contract basis — you take on a new and important role: Manager.

Without adding “manager” to your job description, your practice will never reach its potential. In fact, you will likely commit yourself to a career of stress, frustration and long hours — or a career of just “getting by.”

It’s not just adding the title to your resume, though. To succeed, you must focus on learning the skills to manage people well, or at least reasonably well.

Essential Traits of a Good Manager

Google conducted an experiment some years ago. It eliminated all managers. That’s right: It was a disaster. Afterward, they studied what attributes constitute a good manager and concluded that a good manager should:

  • Be a good coach.
  • Empower the team and do not micromanage.
  • Express interest and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being.
  • Be personally very productive and results-orientated.
  • Be a good communicator — listen and share information.
  • Help the team with career development.
  • Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.
  • Have important technical skills that help advise the team.

In short, the real role of a manager is to serve the team in such a way that they can accomplish their work successfully. A manager is a facilitator for the work of those they manage.

Here are my more specific additions:

  • Clearly define the team member’s job description, roles and responsibilities.
  • Provide written procedures and guidance for accomplishing their jobs.
  • Provide appropriate equipment, facilities and technical support.
  • Provide clarity on assignments — exactly what and by when.
  • Maintain accountability for tasks to be completed.
  • Provide positive feedback and encouragement.
  • Provide regular performance reviews with specific feedback.
  • Provide specificity on benefits, including days off, leave policy and overtime.
  • Compensate competitively and provide incentive and “good job” bonuses.

What Makes a Great Team Member?

Hiring isn’t easy. Here are few important attributes of exceptional team members:

  • A strong work ethic
  • Dependable — they consistently follow through
  • Consistently willing to go “above and beyond”
  • A positive “can do” attitude
  • Consistently seek to learn, improve and grow
  • Self-motivated and work effectively with little supervision
  • They take pride in their work
  • Supportive of others in the workplace
  • Communicate effectively — willing to ask questions to be clear on their tasks
  • Flexible and adaptable

Did you notice that “has the specific skills needed” is not on the list? While very important, a skilled person without many of the above qualities is far less desirable than a person with lesser skills but who fits the above profile.

How to Hire the Right (or Wrong!) Team Member

Here’s how to get the wrong person in place:

  • Hire when you’re in crisis.
  • Hire purely on the recommendation of a colleague without checking references or skills.
  • Hire cheap.

And here’s how to get the right person in place:

  • Provide a clear job description.
  • Provide a written offer that includes leave, benefits and other compensation.
  • Do a personality profile — personality type must match the position requirements or the team member will always struggle, be stressed and may leave abruptly with a trove of unfinished work left behind.
  • Hire when you are not in crisis.
  • Do a formal background check.
  • Check all references, then talk with others in firms or businesses of the references, and, if possible, where the candidate worked before.
  • Check social media.
  • Give a test project or ask technical questions that should be within the applicant’s skill set.

Finally, here are sure-fire ways to regret your hiring decision, and blame the team member:

  • Don’t give them any training — throw them into the job to figure it out for themselves.
  • Be inaccessible for questions, and irritable when they ask.
  • Don’t give them any feedback on their performance.
  • Give them poor or no instructions or deadlines on tasks.
  • Yell at them when they make a mistake.
  • Just say “do it over” when they hand in a task that is poorly or incorrectly done.
  • Be out of the office frequently without notice.
  • Give them their paychecks late.
  • Never say “thank you” or “great job.”

It’s Up to You

Bottom line: You are responsible for your candidate’s success. You:

  • Wrote the job description (or not)
  • Wrote the ad
  • Did the interviewing
  • Did the training
  • Provided the supervision, feedback and mentoring

Remember, a great team lead by a good manager equals a successful and growing practice.

Catch Up with the Series

In Part 1, “Why Lawyers Really Struggle with Work-Life Balance,” we talked about how successful lawyers learn new ways to operate their firms so they can keep building their practices while having (or recovering) a life. Here are six steps toward building a more successful practice.

  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.

Illustration ©

Illustration ©

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Dustin Cole Dustin Cole

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 attorneys, and conducted operations and marketing analyses for more than 100 firms. Email him at

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