My Story – Hiring My Law Firm’s First Employees – Part I

This is the next post in my blog series about starting and building a law practice. This is an ongoing series that I will add to as time allows. It will cover everything a lawyer needs to know about creating and growing a thriving law practice.

As I write this on May 3, 2021, it’s been a while since my last post (July 2020) in which I discussed some of my early lessons in solo law practice growth.

Today, I’m restarting the series (thanks to those who have asked our support team about it, and sorry it took me so long) to tell the next part of my own practice story — my early lessons in hiring and managing employees.

Why restart the series now?

Short answer — Now I have time!

I’m surrounded by extremely motivated, dynamic, competent, aligned, and trustworthy people. I trust them to run the business, grow the business, and most importantly take care of our attorney customers. This is an exercise that I believe all business leaders or owners have to go through, and then revisit at each stage of growth (or at each pivot).

Having done that now, as if by magic (it’s really based on objective principles that every lawyer can learn and apply to their practice), the right people are running things. I’m now essentially irrelevant to the daily operations of LawLytics. I could now be abducted by aliens for months. And, once the aliens prove their thesis that humans are flawed creatures, erase my memory of the experience and return me home, I believe that LawLytics would have grown, our technology and process would have improved, and my team and customers would be thriving without me. This wasn’t always the case.

In later posts in this series, we’ll dive deep into hiring and managing people. It’s probably the second most important skill that most lawyers — who want to build a successful law firm that doesn’t cannibalize their life — need to master. The first skill is being a great practitioner — unless you want to delegate that too. If so, well cover that in future posts and on my new podcast (coming soon).

In the (still) early posts of this series about starting and growing law practices, I’m taking the time to tell my story, which I hope will frame the advice and opinions that I give in future posts. In the last post, I discussed some of my early lessons in growth, including intake and client expectation management. Because of my early solo success, I found myself as a young attorney rapidly burning the candle at both ends. In this post, I’m going to talk about my first experiences in hiring employees for my new solo law practice.

I had survived until I got my first clients. I had discovered the internet as a source for new business for my new solo practice. I had learned how to position myself and my firm to make selling my services predictable. My firm was growing rapidly, and I was, quite frankly, exhausted. I realized that something had to give. At that pace, I would burn out eventually. That scared me. But even scarier than burning out was failing my clients and risking my future as a lawyer.

Serving my clients well meant taking cases to trial, or at least showing up on the day of trial prepared to try the case to verdict if the prosecutor didn’t offer an acceptable deal that would put my client in a position that would be better than going to trial and losing. This meant a lot of prep work, which meant sacrificing sleep.

I didn’t want to sacrifice anything, so I worked on everything. But it was too much. Two pots of coffee a day worked for a while, but then I started getting caffeine-induced anxiety and acid reflux. I have a decent head of hair today (unaided by science, though showing some signs of impending grey). But, in those early unbalanced days of my practice, my hair started rapidly falling out as my life and my healthy 20-something body went further out of balance.

After several months of this, I realized that it was not sustainable. I was in fight or flight — survival mode.

Realizing I needed to hire somebody for my law firm

Many attorneys spend their entire careers in survival mode, where they are playing whack-a-mole in their practices and their lives. They go from one fire to the next. This leads to general unhappiness, family troubles, chemical abuse and addiction and a cascade of consequences.

Today, more than two decades after starting my first law firm, I’ve known far too many lawyers who have taken their own lives. I’ve also known lawyers who committed stupid offenses and were disciplined, disbarred, and even incarcerated because they self-medicated to handle the occupational hazards that come with practicing law (and that can become amplified when you’re a solo practitioner).

I’ve written about the question of whether lawyers can be happy in the past, and will cover happiness and other lifestyle topics in later posts in this series. (I’ll also talk about this in what I think will be a fascinating upcoming podcast interview with Kathryn Burmeister, attorney and the author of Overcoming Addiction To The Status Quo).

I recognized that I was going down a slippery slope with my practice. The more money I made, the harder it was for me to keep up. But every client that I took on gave me more experience, more credibility, and more money. With each case, my skills as a young lawyer were improving, and each dollar I earned validated my alternative approach to law school.

I was a successful one-man band. But I was playing too many gigs while acting as my own agent, publicist, and roadie. Coffee wasn’t enough to keep me functioning, and I recognized that it, combined with stress and exhaustion, were rapidly taking a toll that could soon cause long-term damage. At that point, I could easily have gone down the path of switching from coffee to something more potent. I was already using coffee to keep me functioning during the days and often late into the evenings, and Tylenol PM to attempt to get some sleep. But I realized that would be a stepping stone to needing something more. One Tylenol PM had turned to two, and what was next? If I continued I would be treating the symptoms rather than the disease.

Successful law practices are never built alone

What I really needed was to start thinking like a business owner rather than a solo operator. Businesses hire employees, and I would need to do so if I wanted to sustain what I had built — let alone grow. I had already moved from my starter Seattle office into an office building filled with attorneys in Bellevue, WA. The office was close to home, spacious, and provided access to some great attorneys for advice and camaraderie. It also provided a shared receptionist who did some light administrative work for the resident attorneys.

Now that I’ve laid the foundation in this post, my story about hiring law firm employees will continue in my next post. In that post, I’ll talk about managing a fractional employee, and then move on to my next hires which included a recent law grad who I hired as a hybrid paralegal and associate attorney, my first true legal admin hire, and hiring my fiancée (Yep, I went there. I would advise my younger self to proceed with caution).

These will be stories about me making a lot of mistakes. I’ll reveal some hard lessons I learned in the hopes that showing my scars, ignorance, and foolishness might help fellow lawyers who are beginning their journey into the business of law.

About The Author

Attorney Dan Jaffe previously built successful small law practices in WA and AZ. He currently serves as the CEO of LawLytics.

Other posts by Dan.