It’s an accepted convention of Hollywood set design that a lawyer’s office should be a dimly-lit chamber filled with polished mahogany furniture and shelf upon shelf of leather-bound legal volumes.
In reality, most lawyers spend their days in offices very different than those in the movies, but not so different than those in which you might find any other white-collar worker in the year 2017. That includes alternatives to traditional leased offices. More and more law firms are turning to shared workspaces as a cost-effective answer to their need for suitably professional and productive office environments. At every Industrious location nationwide, you’ll find members in the legal field.
Before he founded Lawyerist (where he’s now Editor in Chief), Sam practiced law and managed his own small firm for the better part of 10 years. In 2009 he teamed up with Aaron (now Lawyerist’s CEO) to create what has since become the go-to resource for thousands of independent attorneys on topics in legal technology, marketing, and firm management.
We spoke to Sam about how lawyers can grow their practice, common mistakes that small firms often make when first starting out, and what unique requirement lawyers have of their offices.
How can lawyers spend less time on non-billable work like marketing and bookkeeping?
It’s pretty clear from some recent surveys that small firm lawyers get paid for less than 30% of their time, on average. That’s because they’re spending the other 5–6 hours of the day managing their firms and trying to get clients. (It’s actually worse than that because the survey assumes an 8-hour workday. Most lawyers would laugh at that assumption.)
There is definitely a lot of room to improve efficiency by hiring — starting with administrative staff. Lawyers also spend a lot of time and money on marketing that doesn’t work. Getting strategic about marketing means getting more clients in the door, while simultaneously opening up chunks of time for other things.
Small firms could also benefit from project management systems that can deliver a more consistent level of service, more effectively and efficiently. In many cases, doing away with the billable hour altogether can benefit law firms and their clients.
What are some things to do before deciding to set up your own practice?
Whether you’re coming from a larger firm or beginning a legal career, it’s important to make strategic upfront investments in your firm that will pay dividends down the road.
That means starting with enough cash that you can get by for a few months even if you don’t make any money. One of the biggest mistakes we see lawyers make when starting their own firm is not giving themselves the tools and systems they need to be successful from the outset. Even if they survive, they struggle to catch up later on.
Are there aspects of managing a law firm that should be outsourced? Any that should be kept in-house?
Definitely! Most law firms shouldn’t try to build their own websites or manage their own online marketing—although the firm should be actively involved in both. Most small firms should have a virtual receptionist instead of, or in addition to, an in-office receptionist. Often times, it’s also advantageous to outsource bookkeeping and accounting.
It should always be a cost-benefit analysis. When you could be delivering greater value by doing other things, find someone to do it for you. And there are sometimes advantages to outsourcing instead of keeping the work in-house.
Can small firms compete to attract top legal talent?
Small firms can be more nimble [than big firms], meaning they can identify and quickly take advantage of opportunities. For example, small firms can be flexible about working arrangements, quickly incorporate new technology, or adopt a project management system in order to increase efficiency and improve outcomes for clients. It’s an environment well-suited to innovative or entrepreneurial-minded people.
There are plenty of traditional small firms out there. But many others are learning that, in order to take advantage of the trends currently shaping law practice, they need to be working with creative, tech-savvy people who see opportunities in those trends.
That’s not part of the culture you’ll find at many big firms.
How optimistic are you about the prospects for small practices going forward?
We’re very optimistic about the prospects for innovative, client-centered small firms, no matter what practice area they specialize in. We’re very pessimistic about the prospects for traditionally run small firms. That’s the dividing line. It’s less important which practice area a firm focuses on than the business and client-service models it develops to serve its clients.
Sure, DIY portals like LegalZoom are going to be encroaching on lots of the work traditionally done by lawyers. But that’s just an opportunity for lawyers to stop wasting time on work computers can do and to focus instead on building better ways to deliver value to those clients.
As part of your How Lawyers Work series, you’ve spoken to dozens of lawyers about the type of workspace they choose. What have you found makes a great office for lawyers?
Alternatives to traditional offices are on the rise, if they haven’t already become the norm. We actually know a lot of lawyers working out of Industrious locations and other coworking spaces across the country.
Lawyers prioritize the same things in an office that everyone else does: location, size, price, etc. But they also have to see the office from their clients’ perspective. How hard is it to find the building? How hard is it to find parking, and how expensive? How hard is it to find the office within the building?
Maybe the most important question to ask is, do clients even need to meet with us in person?
Increasingly lawyers are starting to think of their office (or lack thereof) as connected to the value of the client service model they offer.
Is coworking growing in popularity?
Coworking is definitely on the rise among lawyers.
Of course, there are some unique concerns about coworking a lawyer might have. Lawyers have to keep their clients’ information private. That means mail can’t be left sitting out in the open, shared printers and copiers can’t be used for confidential documents, and conversations with clients have to take place where they won’t be overheard by neighbors. Many coworking environments are perfectly fine on this front, but lawyers have to think about these issues in ways that other companies might not.
Some firms may worry that a coworking space doesn’t present the right impression to their clients—although a lot of firms seem to have come to the opposite conclusion.
How about Lawyerist? What’s your workspace like?
Most of our team members work remotely, so we just needed a small space for the two of us to work and record podcasts, with enough room for other team members who work from the office occasionally.
It’s actually pretty hard to find small offices in good locations that don’t require big buildout budgets, so Industrious was a great fit. Plus breakfast every day, snacks every afternoon, great coffee, an awesome view, bike parking, and a fitness center? We feel pretty spoiled actually.
What are the best blogs, books, and podcasts that you’d recommend for lawyers?
Well, Lawyerist.com and The Lawyerist Podcast, obviously!
Every lawyer who wants to understand the trends shaping the practice of law should read Jordan Furlong’s Law is a Buyer’s Market. Building NewLaw is a really well-done podcast about change and innovation in law practice.
We’ve also put together a reading list of all the books we’ve distributed at our TBD Law conference.
With apologies for stealing another question from your How Lawyers Work series, what are three things you do without fail every day?
We both deliberately cultivate habits, so we both have way more than three things we do every day.
But if we had to choose just three daily habits, Aaron’s would include drinking Bulletproof Coffee, reading the Wall Street Journal, and organizing his day in his productivity journal. For me, it’s taking my dog for a walk or run, snuggling with my two daughters and wife, and staying up later than I probably should.