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Too many trying to balance too much

Delegating some tasks can let small firms do actual ‘lawyer work’
By Jillian Kestler-D'Amours
March 24 2017 issue

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Between recruiting new clients, securing office space, hiring staff and completing actual lawyer duties like filing briefs or preparing for court, to say that lawyers at small law firms and solo practitioners have a lot on their plates may be an understatement.

“Everything falls onto your shoulders,” said Jordan Furlong, a consultant and legal market analyst with Law 21 in Ottawa.

“You’re not just practising law, but you’re running a business and you’re keeping the books, and you’re managing supplies, and you’re answering e-mails and you’re making phone calls. And it’s just one thing after another.”

And often, those seemingly never-ending to-do lists can be overwhelming — not to mention can keep lawyers from using their time to complete law-related tasks that bring in money and new clients.

Lawyers in solo practices, and small- and medium-sized law firms, generally spent just over two hours, or only 28 per cent, of their eight-hour workday on billable activities, according to a recent report on legal trends published by law management software firm, Clio.

And on average, law firms will collect payment on only 1.5 hours of billable time each workday, the report found.

According to Furlong, it’s critical that lawyers take the time to complete “an honest inventory” on how they are spending their time throughout the day. That can help identify which tasks can be delegated and ultimately, better maximize a firm’s overall productivity.

“Making that decision to delegate and outsource, and then holding true on it, that’s a management decision,” he said. “A lawyer who is going to be a good manager makes a decision to say, I should be maximizing the percentage of my time that’s going into actual ‘lawyer work.’ ”

It could mean hiring an assistant or secretary to handle administrative duties in the office, even on a part-time basis. Or, if the budget doesn’t allow for new hires, firms can use a virtual assistant or online service to handle some of those tasks, Furlong suggested.

Peter Dillon, a partner at Siskinds LLP, said the biggest stressor in his work has been how to handle the steady and continuous flow of e-mails each day.

“E-mail is just by sheer volume, in my practice anyway, a real time management problem,” Dillon said, adding that sorting and replying to e-mails has become “a treadmill activity,” and a task he must relegate to evenings and weekends.

“If you’re not sort of turning off your e-mail for a certain period of time, I can literally spend my days just responding to e-mail. I tend to relegate it to times when the e-mail isn’t coming in and that’s nights and weekends,” he said.

But that’s a concern shared by almost all lawyers, no matter the size of their firm.

Dillon said he wasn’t sure there were big differences between the pressure lawyers face at small and larger firms, but he conceded that larger firms have management committees to help take some tasks off lawyers’ plates.

Mary Jane Dykeman, a partner at DDO Health Law in Toronto, said it’s crucial for attorneys at smaller firms to be mindful of how they are using their time. She said she tries wherever possible to block out chunks of time for specific tasks — no meetings in the mornings, for example.

“It’s not a surprise,” said Dykeman, who is launching an online coaching and e-learning platform for lawyers later this year.

“We know we have to run the firm and we know we have to do the core work that keeps the lights on and keeps everyone happy. But you do have to be organized or you will be losing time every single day when you really don’t need to.”

She estimated that up to a third of every day is spent on running the firm, and she said lawyers would benefit from recognizing early what tasks they can delegate to other, qualified staff members.

That’s why investing in having a good team is so important, she added.

“There are very skilled, excellent people out there, who provide a service. I think the problem is sometimes we tend to think, ‘Well I need to do it,’ or ‘I’m not sure whether we should invest and spin it off to another group,’ ” she said.

“It’s well worth the investment financially to have a good team around you who can come and report to you.”

Keeping up with advancements in the industry more generally, from current laws to new technologies, is also a huge issue, and may weigh more heavily on smaller firms that don’t have departments dedicated to each, specific issue, Dillon said.

“The larger the firm, the greater the likelihood that they’ve got customized software or they’ve got firm styles and formats and a lot of stuff is simplified and made easier. The small firm practitioner has either got to do that him or herself, or contract with a service provider to provide those tools,” he said.

But while it can be a source of stress, Dillon said working in a smaller firm often gives lawyers a sense of responsibility and motivation, and “that sense of the buck stops here…[that is] sometimes hard to impart to associates at a larger firm.”

“Sometimes at a larger firm there’s this expectation that clients, for example, are kind of like manna from heaven: they just appear. When I was at the really small firm, you realize that if you’re bringing in a new client it’s because you’re going out there and doing the marketing and doing the recruitment,” Dillon said.

Furlong, meanwhile, said small firms should seek feedback from clients about how their file was handled, and what the experience was like. Those responses can be taken over the phone or by e-mail, and they will help firms hone in on where they can improve and best put their energy.

“The client asked us for X, did we give X to the client? And if not, what did we give?” he said.

He added that learning to differentiate between a task that is urgent, and a task that is important, will also maximize productivity at smaller firms.

“Lawyers tend to be very task driven…They respond to urgency; if something is urgent, that makes it important. And that’s not always the case,” he said. “One of the great managerial tricks is learning that some things are important but not urgent, and other things are urgent but not important.”

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