The Firm: Growing your firm: Adding an associate

By Correy Stephenson

The Daily Record Newswire

Sole practitioners often choose to practice law alone because they prefer both autonomy and flexibility.

But flying solo can become a problem if the practice suddenly gets busy, or if the lawyer wants to quickly take advantage of an opportunity.

"Solos often don't have any slack built into their practice," noted Laura Calloway, director of the Law Office Management Assistance Program for the Alabama State Bar in Montgomery, Ala. "But just like we pay for and carry around a spare tire, law firms ought to have a little bit of spare capacity ... [for] when a great opportunity or a really good case [comes along]."

Test the waters

If the time appears right to add "growing room" to your practice, the first step is to determine if you can generate enough work to cover the cost of another lawyer.

There is no bright line rule for when to add an associate, but there are some important considerations, including the cost of an extra body and the firm's workload.

"Lawyers need to ask themselves if business really slows down, can they afford to cover the associate or [will they] be forced to turn around and ... fire them after two months," said Sheila Blackford, a practice management advisor for the Oregon State Bar in Tigard, Ore.

To test the waters, Blackford suggested engaging the services of a contract attorney for a few months to see if there is really enough work to bring in a new person.

In most situations, a new associate "is not going to bring in enough business to pay for their own costs, and will be mainly taking on the work you already have coming in the door," she said.

Using a contract attorney can help determine if the flow of work is steady and consistent enough to take on another attorney.

If you do decide to hire, consider a trial period of employment, with a review at the end of three to six months, Calloway said.

"It helps you get to know the other person and think more clearly about your expectations, and it makes the decision easier to let somebody go if they are not working out."

Once the decision to add an attorney is made, it's important to try to "plan ahead as much as possible," said Blackford.

She suggested buying an hour of time from an employment lawyer to understand all the potential issues, including workers' comp and tax concerns, that need to be considered.

"Solos often fall into these arrangements and don't consider all of the ramifications until later on," agreed Courtney Kennaday, a practice management advisor for the South Carolina Bar in Columbia, S.C.

She advises assuming at the outset that the arrangement may not work out, and planning for that possibility.

Kennaday stressed the importance of a written agreement and clear compensation plan.

"A lot of solos hire an associate and don't necessarily think about making that person a partner," she said. "But they need to consider what to do with this person in the long-term and whether they want to make them a partner or have them buy out their practice."

Find a complementary fit

While it can be fun to agree on everything, Calloway suggested that lawyers look for an associate who can complement their personality and practice, not parrot it.

"Obviously you want a person who is a good fit for your firm, but people often tend to hire someone with the exact same personality," she said.

Instead, try to find someone who might take a slightly different tack, and even grow the firm in a different direction.

If you have a family law practice, for example, consider hiring someone who also has an interest in bankruptcy or tax, two practice areas that often overlap family law, Calloway suggested.

To help with the interviewing process, ask a colleague to sit in, she said. That person "can pay attention to cues like body language and personality, while the interviewer can focus on the questions and answers."

If a sole practitioner has staff, like a secretary or legal assistant, having them sit in on the interview and weigh in on the hiring decision is also important, she said.

Especially in an environment with so few people, "the firm needs to work as a team and every person has to work together," Calloway said.

There are pros and cons associated with hiring a fresh out of law school attorney versus a more seasoned lawyer.

More recent graduates offer the chance to "mold" them to fit the firm, Calloway said, but will probably require more training time, which a solo may not have to spend.

Blackford cautioned that solos, especially those have been in practice for a longer period of time, should also consider generational differences when hiring.

Younger people "have different expectations and a greater focus on quality of life," she said.

And consider the comfort of clients as well, Blackford added. "Will this person fit and make the clients happy or unhappy?"

Satisfying clients was part of the appeal of adding to her firm for Chicago sole practitioner Nancy Hendrickson.

She first took on a senior counsel to expand her practice, which focuses on business issues, including securities fraud and investment-related disputes.

"It really gave the clients more comfort to give us more work," Hendrickson explained. "As a sole practitioner, I am one person and can only be in one place at a time and there are only so many hours in a day."

In fact, being able to offer the expertise of both attorneys interchangeably has worked so well that when the other attorney moves to Seattle later this year, she will be opening a branch office of the firm, she said.

Hendrikson added a third lawyer to her firm when her senior counsel went on maternity leave just as a big, document-intensive case got underway.

To start, she hired an associate as an independent contractor.

But after a few months went by, "I realized he knew more than anybody else about the case and he was a really, really good attorney," she said. "He had to stick around."

Hendrickson "got creative" with the economics and managed to come up with a compensation model that worked.

"The moral of the story is ... if you find good people, snap them up," she advised.

Published: Mon, Sep 5, 2011

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