This is the next post in my ongoing blog series about how to start a law practice. In these early posts, I’m telling my story. Today I’m up early to write the second part of my story about my first law firm hires. In yesterday’s post, I described where I was at in my law practice at the time. I had moved into a larger office with some great attorneys in a great location. The office provided a shared receptionist, who answered my calls and took messages.
It was the early 2000s. Pre-9/11, but after the dreaded Y2K situation turned out to be a big nothingburger. Smartphones were imagined, but I was walking around with a disposable battery-powered Palm Pilot with an impossibly small stylus that I had to tether to my PC with a clunky thick cable to sync. MySpace had not yet been founded, Google was pre-IPO and talking a lot about not being evil, and Facebook was a twinkle in Zuckerberg’s teenage eye.
I set this time stage for context: If I was just starting out in today’s Covid (and hopefully soon to be post-Covid) world, my journey as an employer would look different because of the amazing technologies that are available. (Every lawyer is committing business, lifestyle, and potentially legal malpractice if they fail to adopt these technologies.) These technologies do many of the things that, in the early days of my legal career, lawyers depended on people to do.
That said, it’s people — not technology — that will make or break your law practice. Every lawyer in the developed world has access to infinitely more information and technological convenience. And, the technology is getting easier and easier for lawyers to operate and become empowered by (that’s what LawLytics is really all about).
However, people remain pretty much as they were twenty years ago — imperfect, infinitely variable, unpredictable, vulnerable, inconsistent, sometimes distracted, rarely (in the right culture) but sometimes destructive — and the lifeblood of every successful business. Without the employees that I’ve had the honor to work with over the course of my career (and without the lessons from the occasional destructive employee), I’d be much less successful. I’d have missed out on the great honor and experience of being an employer, and learning with — and from — my employees.
So back to my story about being a young lawyer and hiring employees…
I had clients and revenue. My practice was growing rapidly. I had a real office (not a starter office-closet) and a building with parking occupied by lawyers. The building provided a shared receptionist. She answered my phones, which were routed through a rat’s nest of analog wires that somehow connected the right lines to the right rooms.
Even though email was prevalent by then, this building’s procedure was that messages were written on carbon paper and placed in an inbox by her desk adjacent to the main lobby. The carbon copy of the note was slapped onto a spike.
It was helpful to have somebody answering my phone because, when I was in court, in a meeting, or on a phone call, she would be able to tell clients that not only was I out, but when I would be back, and when to expect me to return their calls. It was also helpful because potential clients who call and reach your voicemail tend to dial another attorney.
Managing how she represented my firm and working with her on how I wanted things done vs. how other attorneys in the space might prefer her to do things gave me an initial glimpse into what it might be like to manage employees. It was difficult.
There were blank stares. There were confirmations of understanding that didn’t inspire confidence. To be fair, I wasn’t her boss. She was, if memory serves, the niece of the building owner’s long-time paralegal.
I was essentially a client of a service-based business (the shared office building). But I saw enough of other attorneys working with her, and with their direct report employees to understand that being a boss can be challenging and frustrating. And, in some circumstances can be more work than simply doing it yourself.
Most of the messages she took for me were clear, and I’m sure that I stopped losing some of the business that I would have lost had potential clients reached my voicemail instead. But she was working primarily for the building owner, which was a firm focused on plaintiff personal injury. She also served other tenants that did civil work. She didn’t necessarily understand my criminal defense practice. And, because her attention was divided between so many attorneys and so many phone lines, my firm was not the highest priority.
One day I returned from court after hours and retrieved a written message from the receptionist. The message noted that somebody called because they wanted to hire me. They were being charged with “pestering a prosecutor.”
While I’m sure it happens and can be quite annoying for prosecutors, there was no such crime in Washington State.
I routinely got crazy calls, so I initially thought it was just one of those. I ignored it until the next day, when I was able to talk with her about the message.
At first, she was adamant that the man said “pestering a prosecutor.” But when she began filling in some details that weren’t in the note — including that the caller had been arrested in an area of town that I recognized as being notorious for prostitution — it clicked. I asked, “Are you sure he didn’t say ‘patronizing a prostitute’?”
She looked at the message and gave a nonchalant shrug. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s it.”
(At that point in my practice, I was still willing to take sex-related cases — they were easy to deal with at the misdemeanor level. That would change the first time an obviously guilty and unrepentant child molester walked into my office. Some lawyers are cut out for serious sex crimes defense work, and some are not. I am not.)
I immediately called the accused john, only to learn that he had already hired another attorney because I didn’t get back to him fast enough.
While I wasn’t going to lose sleep over missing one solicitation case, it did beg the larger question: what else was I missing? The receptionist was essentially outsourced. At the time there were phone answering services, but none that were geared towards solos and small firms like the Back Office Betties of today.
At least this receptionist was legally trained and served only attorneys, so I figured despite some potential spillage, I likely had it pretty good. Had I been in the office, or had a dedicated employee in the office at the time that the accused john called, my firm likely would have earned his business.
My law firm’s first job posting
At that point, I believed that I likely needed a legal assistant. I spent time pondering what duties I would have an assistant cover, and came up with the following list:
- Communicate with the courts and the Department of Licensing (an administrative body that clients accused of driving offenses in Washington State had to deal with…and which was the bane of my existence).
- Draft and file all routine motions and notices with courts.
- Run our relationship with the messenger service that delivered our paperwork to the courts, and then returned a conformed copy to prove that it had been filed (and when).
- Communicate with clients on routine matters including billing, scheduling, and reminders.
- Communicate with potential clients doing the initial phone intake, and complete initial screenings when they filled out a form on my firm’s website.
The assistant’s job would be to screen the tire kickers, those who couldn’t afford my services, and those who were already represented, and to get viable potential clients scheduled for a meeting with me in my office.
Based on the list, I believed that I needed an intelligent person but I didn’t need somebody with paralegal credentials, nor somebody with a lot of experience.
I would continue to draft all non-routine motions and briefs. I would also do my own legal research for my cases, which at that time I viewed as something that I should not delegate. I was still learning myself.
I posted a job listing on Craigslist, and within a day I had dozens of resumes to sort through. Most were from people who had worked as receptionists or office assistants. A few were from paralegals. And one was from a young attorney who had just graduated from law school at Berkeley and taken the bar.
In tomorrow’s post, I’ll explain how the above job posting resulted in me hiring my first associate — and why, although she was a promising young attorney and a really good person, it was a naïve business decision.