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Solo and small firm practitioners all seem to have the same misconception: that being busy, and sometimes very busy, is a good thing. They have this notion that simply because their desks are buried beneath mountains of paperwork, their shelves are collapsing under reams of files and they are seemingly running from one meeting, deposition or court appearance to another, that they must be doing something right. Yet often the same lawyers who appear the most starved for time are the ones scrambling for business, trying to keep up with their bills and contending with constant office staff turnover due to a lack of funds to hire and retain good help. And when one asks these lawyers how business is, one invariably gets an answer such as “struggling,” “barely surviving” or “I’m applying for med school next week.” Now how can this be — isn’t busy good? Don’t busy law offices make money? Well here’s a revelation for the small or solo practitioner: Busy is not good. It is if one is in retail. Lawyers, however, are not in retail. Despite that reality, many practitioners have come to judge themselves by this “busy” standard, equating it to success. But ironically, ask those same practitioners what their long-term goal is, and they say nothing about being busy, but rather would tell you they’d like to do less work, come into the office less often and spend more time with family, while still making as much or more money than they do now. So by that standard, being busy isn’t an accomplishment — it’s more of a failure. More than one firm has gone bankrupt with an office full of cases. The real problem is that it isn’t being “busy” that counts — the only question from a business standpoint is whether or not a firm is “profitable,” a word that, put in mathematical terms, measures the ratio of work performed to the dollars generated from that work. So busy is only one part of the equation, and it’s not the good part. The way to become more profitable is to adopt a “less is more” concept of business, a change that mandates adopting a “quality over quantity” method of evaluating cases, and of running one’s practice. It’s a tough thinking shift for the small-firm practitioner who may get a sense of security in counting a caseload that extends into the triple digits. So how can a lawyer become more profitable by adopting this “less is more” strategy? Well, first, he or she will need to fire up those dismissal letters and motions to withdraw. He or she’s going to need them. It’s time to take a long hard look at the caseload. GRADING SYSTEM The first step is to adopt a grading system for one’s cases, where cases are evaluated and assigned a grade, from A to F. It works like this: “A” cases are those in which the client is easy to work with and/or a great witness. The merits of these cases are very good and the income stream from them (or the likelihood of settling for good money, if a contingency case) is very high. It’s the case of a sympathetic plaintiff who sustained a devastating injury in a clear instance of defendant liability, or of the soft-spoken and amicable client with plenty to spend on litigating his case where he is clearly in the right. The possibilities are endless. “F” cases are the opposite: ornery, obnoxious and argumentative clients who may drain the office’s resources through their calls, complaints or paperwork. The facts of the case are overly complex and the client nearly impossible to prevail upon. The lawyer finds himself chasing after the client to respond to letters or to pay retainer fees or bills. Or, if on contingency, the likelihood of his making any significant recovery is very low. In the meantime, it seems as if many hours of labor have been spent on the case. “B to D” cases are a mix — maybe a fantastic client with difficult facts, or an obnoxious client from whose case the lawyer stands to earn good money. Of course these factors aren’t set in stone — a lawyer should customize his or her own grading scale in evaluating his or her caseload. Some attorneys make it a point to get rid of one case from their office every month. That may be a bit extreme, but the point is a good one — as smaller firm practitioners, their time is valuable. The attorneys are the money-making machine for their firm. If they tie up the machine and bog down its mechanisms, its profitability declines. D and F cases keep lawyers from plugging out the A through C cases, where they stand to make good money, in fewer nonbillable man hours. D and F cases prevent lawyers from doing nonlegal things such as marketing, training and other tasks that yield profits in the long term. How many times have lawyers thought about all the great things they could do to maximize their profit if they “only had the time?” This is apart from the psychological and mental health benefits of ridding oneself of the headaches and stresses that one’s D and F cases bring. Sometimes the desire to take and keep the lower-echelon cases comes not out of a desire for profit, but pure ego. Attorneys may have a mindset that believes that they can do the impossible — they can win the cases with no facts, tame the wild client and face down any challenge. They need to restrain their egos. They can indulge their egos when they are getting better results on the cases they keep and making more money on everything they do. REJECTING CASES RIGHT AWAY Eventually, the goal is to get to the point where they can see the D and F cases from the start, and reject them before they need to dismiss them, although there are, admittedly, those cases that look like As and Bs that slowly and painfully degenerate into the lower echelon. The scary part of dismissing cases — or rejecting business from the start — is that voice in one’s head that says, “What if nothing else comes through the door?” Relax. The truth is, an attorney’s case flow is what it is — assuming he does nothing different. If a lawyer averages a new case a week, that average will continue. Even if no other cases ever came through the door, the lawyer would be in trouble anyway — that F case he just let go wasn’t going to save his ship. So small firms and solos should do it now — rate all their cases. They should take all factors into account, and get rid of those cases that bog them down. They should not become victim simply to counting their cases. Remember that every time a firm dismisses a case or client, it’s not a loss but a gain, freeing the firm up to work on the cases that will allow it to be not just busy, but profitable, and buy peace of mind as well. The next time someone asks if a small firm lawyer is busy, he can say “no,” and smile, because he knows he’s profitable enough to go home to spend time with his kids while the rest of the legal world pores over a desk full of paperwork. Jason Weaver is a partner at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.’s Taylor Hodkin Kopelowitz & Ostrow.

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