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You have three deadlines, two client meetings, an appointment with the phone repairman and a court appearance. And that’s just this morning’s schedule. This isn’t the first time it’s happened. You’re pleased that your practice is thriving, but not so happy about your developing ulcer. In a word, you’re swamped. As a sole practitioner or a lawyer in a small firm, being buried in work and administrative tasks is serious business. There’s no support system to help bail you out. DON’T PANIC Although your immediate impulse is to hire someone — anyone — ASAP, experts say that crisis-driven hiring can lead to trouble. “If you have a whole lot of work and you’re panicked, instead of hiring someone on a permanent basis, try to find creative ways to handle [the crisis],” advised Melba N. Hughes, executive director of the National Association of Legal Consultants and founder of Hughes Consultants, an Atlanta-based placement firm with offices in New York. Use a contract lawyer or temporary support help, she suggested, or try a joint venture with another attorney. When it comes to hiring a full-time person, Hughes recommended “look[ing] strategically two to five years from now and not at your immediate need.” Legal recruiter David S. Gruskin, the regional vice president and managing partner of The Partners Group, a placement firm with offices in Atlanta, Washington, Houston and Charlotte, N.C., said that “At least with associate hiring, I see solos and firms of three or fewer making the decision on feel — often the feeling is panic.” LOOK TO FUTURE AND MOVE SLOWLY Instead of making a panic-stricken dash to hire, a solo or small-firm lawyer “should analyze both what’s going on in the marketplace and what they want to accomplish as a professional,” said Hughes. Solos and small firm lawyers need to ask themselves: “Do I want to grow? Do I need to grow to meet my income objectives? How do I want to grow?” she said. “Not thinking that through is a mistake, because oftentimes people become sole practitioners because they enjoy the freedom.” Having others in the office means “much more management time relating to other people,” she continued, adding that having to consider others’ needs in addition to your own can be unsettling. “If someone has been a sole practitioner for two to five years … it’s not that they shouldn’t hire, just that they should just prepare themselves [for this].” If introspection reveals that you really don’t want to compromise your solo freedom, Hughes recommended analyzing your client base to identify your best clients and those who are less beneficial. Then reduce your workload by forming an alliance with another attorney who can handle the cases that don’t interest you or aren’t as profitable. Former sole practitioner Randall M. Kessler of Kessler & Schwarz said that, for him, the time to hire is whenever he feels that client service is suffering. Kessler, a divorce attorney, started out in 1991 as a sole practitioner with one support person. His firm now has six lawyers and six paralegals. Kessler said that when he finds himself thinking, “I’m so busy that I’m not doing a good enough job for my clients,” he decides to bring someone else on board. Although Kessler doesn’t undertake a specific analysis, he also doesn’t rush the process, and he spends time researching job candidates before hiring them. Thomas Richelo of Richelo, Morrissey & Wright also believes in taking the slow road. Richelo opted to share both space and support staff when he first went out on his own in 1991, a common first step for sole practitioners. He used that structure for almost three years before partnering with two other lawyers. “We were very cautious,” he said, noting that the trio waited five years before hiring an associate. “We did not believe in growth for growth’s sake.” HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH? Of course, part of the recommended caution involves cost. “Having more people does not automatically translate into more profits,” warned Hughes. To make sure that more workers generate more profit, the costs associated with the new hire — salary, space, additional equipment, liability and health insurance — need to be calculated. According to recruiter Gruskin, small firms without big institutional clients they can count on for a minimum number of dollars each month should forecast client acquisition and need and resulting revenue as part of the staffing equation. In calculating how much small firms can afford to pay a new hire, he suggested “scrutinizing in terms of ‘the person will bill X hours, generating Y revenue, so to make a comfortable net profit, I can pay Z.’” The current market rate for salaries also must be considered. “One small firm’s managing partner likes to say that he wants to be the highest-paying small firm in the city, but not by more than one penny!” Gruskin said. Sometimes, a cost analysis leads to the decision not to hire. Sole practitioner Kathleen M. Womack employed various secretaries from the time she went out on her own in 1991 until 1998. Since 1998, it’s been just her and her computer. “I found that I was more productive without any [support staff],” she explained. Womack, who has a general civil practice, said she was spoiled by an exceptionally competent first secretary. When that secretary moved on and Womack had to replace her, she found that “for the salary I was willing to pay, the people weren’t the caliber that I was hoping for.” Womack concluded that staff training and supervision were taking too much of her time and decided it was more efficient to handle her own clerical work. Jacquelyn H. Saylor, chairwoman of the Atlanta Bar’s Sole Practitioner and Small Firm Section and partner at The Saylor Law Firm, also endorses the computer-as-staff way of life. “Our philosophy is to minimize the staff required to deliver high quality services by maximizing technology. … I know some firms that have … hir[ed] more staff [and] are not necessarily more profitable than when they were smaller.” ATTORNEY: STAFF OR TEMP? If you decide that you need, want and can afford to hire, the next step is determining what type of position to create. Do you need another lawyer, or would support staff serve you better? Should you immediately make it a full-time position or ease in with a temporary arrangement? Lee Ann Bellon of the legal recruiting firm Bellon & Associates recommended that solos and small firms start with a temp-to-perm arrangement. “It’s such a big investment for them,” she said, “and that way they can determine whether they really have enough work for the person as well as whether it’s a fit.” Some attorneys, however, don’t share that view. “It almost has the connotations of a pre-nup,” said Richelo. “It’s not a very positive spin.” But according to Bellon, temp-to-perm is simply an honest approach. “The reality is that anyone who starts in a new position is on trial [at first],” she said. Those firms that can’t afford to pay market salary, “really are better off doing a temp-to-perm,” she continued, “because what they’re going to be looking at is someone who is willing to take a below-market salary. It may be someone who is just down on their luck and turns out to be great.” Then there’s the question of whether to hire a lawyer or a support person. If your intention is to expand your business, bringing on another attorney is often the way to go. “The difference between hiring staff and hiring an associate is that, at some point, the associate will be self-sufficient,” said Kessler. “It’s really an investment in yourself — you’ve got the business, you know how to do things — with a little guidance, they can be another you.” In choosing between a paralegal and a secretary, Kessler likes the combination approach. “A paralegal who does secretarial work — I’ve had a lot of success with that,” he said. He favors hiring paralegals because they are “committed to being in law — they’re not just taking a job while deciding what their career goals are.” He requires paralegals to handle some secretarial matters, but he minimizes the amount of phone answering they do and allots substantial paralegal responsibility to each case. “And they are paid like paralegals,” he added. Whatever you do, don’t sugarcoat the job to interested candidates. “A common mistake I see is overselling the position rather than being frank,” said Gruskin. “Long-term retention is much more probable when both sides are on the same page about the nature — good and bad — of the position and the firm from day one.” FINDING MR. OR MS. RIGHT Now that you’ve started interviewing, what do you look for beyond paper credentials? “You need somebody who is smart and somebody you get along with,” said Kessler. “Everything else can be learned.” To test-drive the personality fit, he recommended multiple meetings in social settings. “We go to three to four lunches,” he said, “And my goal is to take someone bowling.” He told the story of interviewing one potential paralegal. “She basically said, ‘I’m good at what I do, and if I suck, you can fire me.’ And that was it. She was so down-to-earth that I just knew this was someone that I liked.” Bellon, a 20-year veteran of the Atlanta legal recruiting arena, also emphasized compatibility. “The personal fit is so incredibly important in the small firm. In a large firm … you don’t have to like everybody there. But in a small firm, you work so closely that the personal fit is essential.” Like Kessler, Bellon recommended several meetings with potential hires, both in and out of the office. “Try to get a sense of whether you want to see this person day to day,” she said. WARNING: PROBLEMS AHEAD! No matter how smoothly the in-person interviews go, never neglect to verify the information on a candidate’s resume. Wendy Bliss of Bliss & Associates, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based human resources consulting firm, is author of “Legal, Effective References: How to Give and Get Them.” She said that even more thorough fact-finding is needed when it comes to background investigation. “You need to dig deeper than just their name, rank and serial number,” she said. Bliss recommended using a comprehensive employment application and getting a signed release to contact references. “Educational credentials should always be verified. Falsification of those is one of the most common misrepresentations on resumes … [and] there is temptation out there when the job market is tight,” she said. When talking with references, ask about the candidate’s past duties, performance, work habits and behavior. Also, said Bliss, pay attention “to pauses, tone of voice and other nonverbal signals. You can glean information from whether they are hesitant or enthusiastic to talk about the applicant.” If the references are not forthcoming, you can try to loosen their tongues by telling them that the applicant has signed a release, which precludes liability for sharing job-related information. Bliss said that the best insight comes from direct supervisors, and if the candidate refuses to give permission to contact any of those, “that is a red flag,” she said. In addition to flat-out lying on their resumes, many job seekers inflate their experience, believing they are only putting a good spin on their credentials. “People can have trouble distinguishing between positive marketing and making up stories,” Bliss said. “Poor hiring can really sink any business or firm, and the consequences are magnified the fewer people you have.” Warned Bellon, “If it seems too good to be true, you’d better check.” Laurel-Ann Dooley is an attorney and freelance writer in Atlanta.

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