My First Legal Assistant – Part IV – Hiring My Law Firm’s First Employees

Today we’ll talk about my next hire, which was my first true experienced law legal assistant. We’ll discuss how that made my life and my practice so much more scalable — but how it also made me vulnerable as a solo practitioner. This is the next post in my solo law practice story, which is an intro to a larger series about building a solo or small law firm that I plan to write. I’m sharing my story to provide context to my perspective. This week, I’m writing about my first experiences hiring and working with employees at my law firm:

So, my associate left. On her way out, she helped me as much as she could. But, without her or any other staff, I was now below the baseline. I needed to hire and hire fast, or there wouldn’t be enough coffee in the world to keep me functioning, nor enough luck to prevent me from making a serious mistake and jeopardizing a client’s case or my legal career. I wasn’t going to let that happen. I reverted to my original job description with a determination not to mess it up this time. I hired an experienced legal assistant, Kelly.

My First Legal Assistant

Kelly worked out very well. She had far more experience than I did, and was able to make me better at business and consequently a better attorney. Kelly managed my schedule. She booked my PNC meetings (and she had most of them talked into hiring me before they even walked through the door). She provided close air support as I was driving from court to court, keeping prosecutors and clerks informed if I was running late. In the case of scheduling conflicts, she’d find a defense lawyer colleague who was at or close to the court where coverage was needed, and she’d get them the information needed to cover for me. With Kelly running the show, my life in the law improved significantly.

I was able to focus on business, legal strategy, and my marketing without sweating the details. Revenue grew because we were not missing clients. I was able to handle the caseload of myself and my former associate combined (though, unfortunately no more Korean-speaking clients), and with far less stress and with fewer things slipping through the cracks. With Kelly’s help, I was able to install systems to make all of our processes run more reliably. I was organized, and able to practice law intentionally instead of reactively for the first time in my career.

Looking back, I can say with certainty that, as a lawyer, having the help of an experienced legal admin was key — and was much different from hiring a young lawyer. The young lawyer I hired amplified the need for me to be vigilant and hands-on. I was responsible for her and her performance. I was a supervising attorney with a lot to learn myself. She was learning from me — my bad habits and knowledge gaps as well as the stuff I was actually getting right. Having an associate as a first employee had given me a false sense of my ability to expand capacity. Kelly, on the other hand, expanded capacity in ways that I didn’t know were possible and made the practice of law much more enjoyable. I started to have fun.

But Kelly’s presence was not without a downside. She was so good that I immediately relaxed and became dependent on her. This was great when she was there and performing at her default high level. But when she got sick, or had to tend to sick children or other family issues, or just having a really bad day (as will be the case with every human employee), I was suddenly under the gun again, scrambling to make sure everything was covered. Keep in mind that this was in the early days of the internet. We each had a separate dial-up line and modem.

There was no such thing as the seamless remote work that, in 2021, is hard to imagine life without. We depended on physical files and a shared local hard drive. So, when she was out unexpectedly, it became an analogue fire drill.

The benefits and pitfalls of having a great first legal assistant

Because of Kelly’s facilitation, my practice grew rapidly, which meant more cases and clients to handle. I was doing more and making more. But when she was out and I had to cover all of my duties as well as hers, my stress levels reached new heights.

On those days I would be driving from court to court, trying to mitigate my tardiness with the next court and the client at the same time, trying to arrange coverage, trying to return PNC phone calls, trying to confirm plea deals, or chase down discovery, or arrange an expert witness — all while navigating the very busy, and often gridlocked, streets and highways in the Seattle area. But I had gotten a taste of that sweet, sweet, lawyer life with a highly competent employee. So, to mitigate the stress (and the mounting anticipatory stress) of Kelly’s potential absence on a daily basis, I formed a hypothesis based on the most simple mathematical equation: 1+1.

Well, math be damned.

I managed to once again mold convenience into a nicely packaged logical box. I was a lawyer under stress, but I had seen the light — and it was bouncing off all that cash that my firm was minting. I wanted to decisively prove wrong those who warned me against starting my own practice right out of law school. I wanted to prove wrong the professors and the career services folks at the law school who told me my legal career was over before it even started because I hadn’t followed their path. I wanted to prove my law school thesis (ok, and maybe, just a little, to strut my larger income and “career freedom”) to my school friends who still labored in Big Law libraries and file rooms, carried briefcases, or squired for judges.

Looking back, my observation about myself as a lawyer was that the knowledge, confidence, competence, authority, and power that I wielded in the legal realm produced a facade of those things disguised as competence in and about things of which I knew nothing. I call this my “Lawyer Voice.” And, as much as it’s a tool and an asset in certain realms, it’s a liability when used on other people — and it’s a damn tragedy when used on myself.

It’s my observation that many attorneys never escape thought patterns that oscillate between street-fighter, chip-on-shoulder, or fight-or-flight management. Or impulsive thinking disguised as genius. Or boorish delegation hastily constructed within the “I’m a lawyer so this person or company wouldn’t dare cross me because I’d sue them (or at least write them a threatening nastygram) frame.

I attribute this next mistake to impulsive thinking disguised as genius.

I hired my no-legal-experience Pilates instructor fiancée to be my second Kelly.

Oh no, you didn’t! Yep, I did, because, what could possibly go wrong? What didn’t I think of?

Let’s talk about that tomorrow.

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.