I don’t like authority. I never liked having a boss, so it’s no surprise that I started my own firm. But I also never liked being a boss, so it might come as a surprise that three people work for me. I figured out how to run my firm in a way that not only makes more money than I could on my own but also frees me up to do more interesting work.
Practicing law wasn’t always this good. None of my previous jobs was an ideal fit. But I learned lessons about what did and didn’t work for me — I loved bankruptcy work but hated poor customer service that resulted in unhappy clients.
When I finally opened my own firm in 2004, I wanted to keep the solo practice simple. I never wanted employees. I hoped to do mostly Chapter 7s, since those cases have short lives. I hoped to have the least amount of overhead imaginable.
It’s good to have hopes, but sometimes hopes and realities don’t match. About a year and a half into the practice, I was spending more and more time taking creditor telephone calls and less and less time making money. So, in early 2006, as much as I never wanted to do it, I got some résumés from the local paralegal school.
The first couple of interviews were nightmares. One was magical. I just knew Jessica would be the right person. I told her I could only afford 10 hours a week for a while, but if she stuck around it could possibly turn into a 40-hour-a-week job.
When I didn’t have to answer those ridiculous creditor calls, I was free to make money. I still was terrified of overhead. But, until hiring Jessica, I never really thought about the real value of my time. I never considered how important it was for me to spend time doing things that generated revenue as opposed to working on things that did not generate revenue and that I could pay someone else to do.
As revenues increased simply by having Jessica at the firm 10 hours a week, an obvious and simple equation finally screamed out at me: If I paid Jessica X dollars per hour, and I could spend my time doing things that earned significantly more per hour, I’d be making a nice profit.
This makes total sense and is obvious. But when you are a solo who is easily freaked out by any increase in overhead, it’s not that easy to internalize—and even harder to take the risk.
In less than one year, Jessica had a 40-hour-a-week job. She freed me up to take an otherwise-impossible assignment: of counsel to a bankruptcy litigator. I drafted the lawsuits for someone whose entire practice was devoted to prosecuting automatic-stay violations in bankruptcy. That work became quite lucrative.
Adding an employee forced me to grow. Going from just me to me and an employee was a huge step and a huge responsibility. I now had someone who was depending on me so she could pay her bills.
Also, I had to figure out how to be the boss in a way that worked for me; my dislike of authority goes both ways. I treat my employees as team members. I hated it when my old boss said I worked “for” him.” I don’t say people work “for” me; I say they work “with” me.
Making requests is more effective than issuing orders. I don’t like being told what to do, but I’m pretty likely to get something done when I’m asked. I never tell my employees to do anything. I ask them.
Gratitude is important. I thank my employees regularly. That one simple approach to management is hugely important in a small law office.
Another key to success has been training. I’ve written a 60-plus page manual for how to run my practice. It documents nearly every possible task that the firm does, broken down into simple steps and written in outline format.
I have a new employee spend a couple of days with that manual and ask questions. I then assign tasks, which I micromanage for a few months until I’m comfortable that the new person is doing tasks properly. After that, no more micromanaging, but there are semi-regular checkups (without an employee knowing) to make sure everything is happening as it should.
So, I ended up with Jessica doing wonderfully and a ton of stay-violation work. I noticed that I was turning away more and more regular bankruptcy clients. It’s a pretty good problem to have. It’s much more important to me to have a balanced life than to make a ton of money. But the long weeks started to occur more frequently.
In addition, I had learned a lot about myself. My talents lay in marketing, problem solving and connecting with people who are struggling financially. Anything that happens in a bankruptcy after the first consultation had started to bore me.
Every Chapter 7 and 13 follows the same path. Every case is different, but similar things happen in each and every case. I decided I wanted someone that I could groom to be the machinist that is required in a bankruptcy practice.
I’d built a pretty efficient infrastructure and wanted someone to run it. The lesson that I learned in hiring Jessica, the value of my time/profit equation, would apply to hiring an associate.
So, in January of 2009 I wrote a business plan about how I could hire an associate who would become my partner one day. I did not want to add overhead, but I wanted to work 40 hours a week or less. There was plenty of money to hire an associate, take a pay cut and improve my life, but I did not want this relationship to be short term.
I’d been mentoring a young attorney, Ryan, who wanted to start his own bankruptcy practice. It seemed we’d taken similar paths and had similar life goals. As I fleshed out my business plan during January to April of 2009, it became clear that Ryan was the right person for the job. I never posted a job listing. I proposed a deal to Ryan. To make it work, he’d have to take a pay cut for a while, as revenues increased. To my delight, Ryan took the job.
Ryan started in August of 2009. Going from two people to three changed the dynamic of the firm considerably, but the core rules were still there: Treat people well, be kind, ask instead of tell, and micromanage the new guy for a bit until he can walk on his own.
Those rules are working well. I make about 30 percent less money than I did before hiring Ryan, but I rarely spend more than 30 hours a week at the firm. I also get to spend most of that time doing the things I’m really good at and almost zero time doing the things I don’t like. It’s also given me time to start building another business that I enjoy even more than bankruptcy.
I’ve even added a fourth employee. The analysis regarding the addition of a new person was the same: Does the money spent on that person create profit as it relates to Ryan and Jessica’s time?
I’ve come a long way. I never even wanted an assistant when I opened this place in 2004. Now, I have three people working with me, freeing up my time to do things that I love and that are more lucrative. Not bad for a guy who doesn’t like authority.