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  • Writer's pictureLisa Dawson

The Coach: From solo to firm: Part one | Gary Mitchell

Updated: Mar 31, 2020

(January 7, 2020, 9:30 AM EST) -- So, you want to grow up eh? Going from solo practice to building a firm is no easy feat. First, let me congratulate you from one entrepreneur to another. It takes guts, stamina, persistence, determination and a lot of hard work. What I

intend to do in this two-part series is lay out what I believe are the key elements of growing from solo practice into a firm.

In this first part of the series I am going to cover capacity; when to bring people on; and building your team.

With any small and growing business there is always the chicken and

egg syndrome of what comes first. While each of your situations may be different and a little unique, the standard issues that fall under the chicken and egg are:

Capacity vs. taking on employees

How much new work do you need to support a team? How large should your team be? What roles are the most important? How do I plan for growth? It’s hard when you first start out because you have to do everything yourself. When do you start delegating and bringing in more help? If you want success, you’d better plan for it. Don’t be caught in the office until 10 p.m., or over the weekend for months on end. You will burn out.

Abraham Lincoln said, “He who represents himself has a fool for a client”. If you agree with that statement, it follows that you will agree with this: “An owner who tries to fill all roles has a fool for a boss.” Generally speaking, my rule of thumb here is when you have been consistently at 60 per cent of your own workload capacity, clients, files and administration, it’s time to start looking. I say that because at some point you will need to invest your time in onboarding and getting anyone new on your team up to speed. It you hit capacity, you won’t have time to do that. You will never get off the treadmill unless you look ahead, plan ahead and expect to bring people on. Fear has a lot to do with it. Fear it might be too early to get help. Fear you will put too much money out and won’t have enough coming in.

But let’s look at my formula a little closer. If you start looking by the time you are consistently running at 60 per cent capacity, you have the luxury of time to find the right people. By the time you reach 80 per cent capacity, you still have that luxury of time to train them and get them to the level you want before you hit 100 per cent capacity. In solo practice, most of your time is spent doing the work. As you grow into a firm, a lot more of your time will be required in leading and managing your people. Keep that in mind.

Building your team As Jim Collins says in his book, Good to Great, “Get the right people on the bus.” Don’t get fixated. on job titles. First take a look at your role. You will always be the most valuable asset in your firm. Identify duties and responsibilities that could easily be delegated to someone else. When you look at the math, the difference between what you charge for your services and what you will pay someone to do it for you is blatantly obvious. This is where I’ve not only seen a number of people burn out but leave growth and profits on the table.

Another thing to consider are the tasks that you don’t like doing. Get them off your desk,

especially the ones you’re not the most adept at. Build your team around your own strengths. Fill the holes left by your weaknesses, giving you the freedom to focus on your strengths. And guess what? You’ll make more money in the process.

Get the right people in the right roles. Once you’ve done that, as Collins also says in his book, make sure they’re in the right seats. This means make sure everyone on your team is in the right place within your firm, doing the most valuable tasks that support you and leverage their best skills.

The winning formula for HR Starting with you, have everyone on your team doing tasks that they are great at and thoroughly enjoy. And, back to the math: should a lawyer be doing the work that a paralegal could do? Should a paralegal be doing the work an assistant could do? Make sure, starting from the top (you), that everyone is in the right seat. Delegating

Now that you have other people working for you, a few tips to help you with delegating to get the most from your people:

Give clear and concise direction/instruction. You can’t be too clear. You may have done this

task you are delegating 1,000 times but it may be their first time.

1. Understand that no one on your team will ever have as much skin in the game as you. It’s a fact. This is your baby.

2. Get their sign-off that they understand what you need and when you need it by and agree

to a hard deadline.

3. Let them know you are there to help. It’s very common for young or new employees to try

and figure it out on their own. They fear that coming to you will make them look

incompetent. You must encourage a culture where the “lone wolf” approach is not

welcomed. You are always there to help. Trust me on this. It will improve their skills and

shorten their learning curve. And you won’t be held back by missed deadlines — your clients will appreciate that. I have used these strategies with clients with great success.

This is the first of a two-part series. Gary Mitchell is a strategic business coach working with law firms across Canada. He specializes in leadership, transition, HR, business development and practice management. He is the author of two books, the latest being, Raindance II: A Blueprint for growing your practice. He can be reached at or 604-669-5235.

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