This is a guest post by Alison Pacuska, the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier paralegal, administrative, and legal assistant services with a focus on intellectual property and solo practitioners.
It may seem counterintuitive to step away from your workload to consider work processes and capturing billable time, but efficiency is crucial to improving your practice — not only for client support and satisfaction, but profitability as well. This is especially true and especially difficult for solo practitioners.
“The 2019 Thomson Reuters State of US Small Law Firms report shows that 72% of small firms spend too much time on administrative tasks, but 83% have done nothing about it! This is a mind-boggling contradiction.
Thomson Reuters defines efficiency as “the amount of time spent working on a matter compared with the amount of time for which the lawyer is paid for that matter.” This means, in order to be an efficient attorney, you must spend more of your time on billable work.
The report further shows that, on average, 39% of an attorney’s time is spent on non-billable tasks (13% meeting or speaking with clients, 10% admin, 10% management, 6% marketing and business development).
39% of an attorney’s time is spent on non-billable tasks
When it comes right down to it, the hardest challenges a small or solo practice face are business management challenges: client development, office management, business finances, client expectation management, human resources, and other aspects of running a business (that you were never taught in law school).
So, to increase productivity (and profit), here’s what small law firm owners need to do: Increase billable time and reduce non-billable time — it’s that simple. If you don’t, you’ll be losing money for no reason. You are likely to lose clients or not be able to take on new ones because you’re overworked. And who wants that extra level of stress anyway?
But how do we reduce non-billable time while continuing to bring in new clients and keep the business running? By outsourcing strategically.
Studies show that it takes up to 25 minutes before you can truly “get back to what you were doing” when you are interrupted by a phone call. And a study cited in Psychological Science showed that the quality of the work you did after you returned to the task also suffered.
It takes 25 minutes to “get back to what you were doing” after an interruption
But, you need to pick up every call to avoid missing new clients who are looking for an immediate response (note: almost every potential client wants you to pick up on their first call).
If your phone, chat, or email rings or alerts you an average of a dozen times an hour, have a receptionist service screen these alerts and set your devices to do not disturb. Then, check on your alerts after you have completed an important project. You’ll be surprised at how much time you can save.
A virtual receptionist service can screen spam calls, initiate client intake, schedule appointments, even forward calls to your admin or paralegal based on the parameters you set. Boost your efficiency by integrating your receptionist service with a practice management tool or CRM like Clio or Lawmatics (Smith.ai integrates with dozens of popular CRM and practice management platforms) to calculate ROI, keep track of communication, and reduce the time you spend transferring data, have calls, emails, and texts recorded in your practice management system and create a time entry for each one automatically.
The billable time you are able to recapture with a virtual receptionist will more than make up for the cost of your service, and you are likely to reduce stress — an incalculable value.
There are services and even direct freelancers out there who work with lawyers to provide admin support at various levels. Some even specialize in your field of law.
A freelance legal secretary can help with time entry, process billing, set up meetings, and manage your email inbox. They can also communicate with the client about day to day case matters; “no news is good news” is not a message clients like when it comes to their legal matters, and your legal secretary can be very effective in filling this gap. Having a legal secretary to do your admin work may not be billable, but it again takes more time back for you to do substantive work.
Your secretary can easily record the workflow processes you prefer and help you establish Firm Best Practices so that anyone who becomes involved with your firm experiences the same level of quality service and the same procedures. They can include checklists and even be identified to your malpractice insurer to add value and a layer of protection to your firm.
Revisiting that 39% that was not captured — you can probably take back 15–20% of your time spent on non-billables just with a freelance legal secretary.
Take back 15-20% of your time with a freelance legal secretary
I’m sure you have many substantive tasks that are billed at a lower rate or written-off to show they were billable but you didn’t charge for them. Stop working for free and give these tasks to a qualified virtual paralegal.
A paralegal can do initial drafts of pleadings, discovery, case memos for legal research and strategy development, coordinate hearing and trial preparation. A paralegal can also be a next up line of communication with the client, answering questions and keeping them informed about the process of their case and even conveying some strategies from the attorney to the client and vice versa — something a receptionist can’t do and your legal secretary may not know enough to do, especially if questions stemming from motions and updates shared in your practice management software raise questions for the client.
I cannot stress this enough: You can bill substantive work performed by a freelance paralegal to the client. If you would charge for the work were you to be doing it, then it’s billable if a paralegal performs that task. While your paralegal may need to spend a small amount of time on non billable work, in my experience 90% of a freelance paralegal’s time can be billed.
You can bill substantive work performed by a freelance paralegal to the client
No only does this brings your efficiency up even further, you have freed yourself to do even more work for your clients, and given yourself breathing room for that 6% of time spent on marketing and business development.
Bonus efficiency tip: Implement a practice management system today to have all your billing, time entry, case management, documents, communication logs, court rules, and calendars organized and at your fingertips. Make sure your team members are added and have the access they need to enter their time. Whether it’s Clio, MyCase, Smokeball or any number of other options, these systems are designed to interact with IOLTA, various accounting systems, email, etc.
More time spent doing quality work, and billing for your time, means more clients and a better reputation. It can be scary to go virtual and hire staff but technology tools and virtual staff are a necessary part of the 21st century. Clients expect them, and they allow you to close the efficiency gap and dedicate yourself to the fulfilling work you set out to do.
Take just a few minutes to get these resources in order, establish procedures for your team, then start outsourcing to a virtual receptionist service, a legal secretary, and a freelance paralegal. Good teamwork pays dividends all over your practice and your life.
Your practice depends on it.
Alison Pacuska is the president of Pacuska Professional Services, a boutique consulting firm focused on top-tier paralegal and legal assistant services with a focus on intellectual property and solo practitioners. Talk with her about your practice needs.