91% of practicing US attorneys own or work for firms with 4 or fewer lawyers, according to Zap Data (a division of Dunn & Bradstreet). Many are “solo by choice,” as Carolyn Elefant likes to call them. From my perspective, there seem to be many small firms that would like to grow, and would enjoy financial and operational benefits by doing so, but don’t feel they know how to successfully execute a growth plan.
Trying to grow your practice can be scary, particularly if you don’t have a good handle on your firm’s financials. The first and most important step is to gain a concrete grasp of your firm’s financial position and outlook, and to run some “what-if” scenarios to account for ups and downs that can occur. This will allow you to identify the resources that will be available to finance the addition and define the objectives that need to be met to have a successful outcome.
The next step is to create a compensation framework for potential partners, of counsels and associates. Consider what is needed to attract and maintain the caliber of talent that you seek, as well as the expected return to your firm. For an experienced, business generating partner you will derive less financial benefit (on a percentage of billings basis) than a more junior attorney who is not a self sufficient rain maker. Be mindful to establish simple arrangements that incentivize the behavior you want and don’t create conflicting interests within your staff. Once you have created compensation frameworks, you may occasionally choose to sweeten a deal to attract a unique person, but you want to be careful not to stray too far or too often.
You will want to target candidates that add to the firm’s capabilities, not just those who increase billings. If you have a significant level of stable billings, you will probably look to hire an associate to maximize your return. If you are looking to grow your firm’s scale, expand capabilities or add to management capabilities, a partner level addition is the right path. If you have a very up and down caseload which at times requires experienced staff and at other times does not, you might look to add of counsels that can generate some work to keep themselves busy, but who are also available to service your clients.
Attracting the people you want is very similar to a sales process. To be successful, you need to identify and define the factors that differentiate the job opportunity you are providing from the others that are available in the market. Consider creating a slide deck to communicate your selling points, such as a more competitive bill rate structure, better service capabilities, fewer conflicts, a better technology platform or a better compensation structure. You will want to define what it means to work for your firm and why it is a better platform for them on a personal level; explain how you help them develop their business developing skills, show how you help them develop new legal skills, demonstrate a better work life balance with work-from-home capabilities and let them know their voice will be heard.
When you work for BigLaw, the career path that your employer has placed you on is clear. Make sure that the career path you provide to your prospective employees is equally clear. People need to understand how they can move up in your organization, what moving up can mean in terms of income, and how they will develop professionally in your organization.
Lastly, share with prospective employees the lifestyle benefits they will enjoy when working for your small firm. Potential employees want to feel empowered; let them know that they will be brought into the firm’s process if they join your team. While this does include the personal touch of knowing everyone’s name and having direct communication with the people who have their names on the door, the participation in your management process will inevitably attract interest. Sharing information about the performance of the firm, staffing decisions and planning, client development strategy or even operational issues like IT and benefits selection are unheard of in BigLaw; in your firm your employee will be part of a team with a purpose.
A little financial planning, along with a bit of “sales” strategy can go a long way to finding and attracting the resources that will take your firm to the next level. It’s a process that takes time and doesn’t typically come together on the first go round, so get started today!
David DePietto is the founder and CEO of NexFirm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org