Honing Your Efficiency

Alison Pacuska

It may seem counter-intuitive to step away from your workload to consider work processes and capturing billable time, but practice efficiency is crucial to improving not only client support and satisfaction, but profitability as well. If you are a solo practice, it is even more critical.

The 2019 Thomson Reuters State of US Small Law Firms report shows that 72% of small firms find they’re challenged by spending too much time on administrative tasks, but 83% of them have done nothing about it!

This is a mind boggling finding.

72% of small firms find they’re challenged by spending too much time on administrative tasks, but 83% of them have done nothing about it!

Let’s talk about what it means to be efficient, by starting with TR’s definition — it’s a good one. “[W]e define 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.” An attorney must spend their working time effectively, substantively; the idea is to insure that the time you spend working is as close to the amount of time you bill as possible. Thomson Reuters’ report indicated that 39% of attorney time, on average, is spent on non billable tasks (13% meeting or speaking with clients, 10% admin, 10% management, 6% marketing and business development).

When it comes right down to it, the hardest challenges a small or solo practice face are business management challenges: having time for developing new clients, dealing with office management and the costs of expenses, coping with clients who want more while paying for less, human resources management, and the like.

A practice needs to capture as much billable time as possible and if 72% of you are not doing that — then 72% of you are losing money for no good reason. An attorney who spends their time scrambling, writing off work, or is non-responsive to clients because they are overwhelmed eventually starts losing clients through dissatisfaction. This creates a vicious cycle, scrambling for even more work, being even less effective, and eventually leading to burn out when the stress of so much business focus combined with the stress of your client cases grows to unmanageable levels.

Reduce your non billable time, or find a way to capture or convert it to billable time.

Here are 3 ways you can improve your efficiency and get out of this hole you’ve dug for yourself:

Hire a virtual receptionist to screen your calls and initiate the intake process. It may be an expense that seems more than you can manage, but the simple act of not being interrupted by the phone constantly matters.

Studies show that it takes up to 25 minutes before you can truly “get back to what you were doing” when you are interrupted, to make matters worse, a study cited in Psychological Science showed that the quality of the work you did after you returned to the task also suffered.

If your phone, chat, or email rings or alerts you an average of a dozen times an hour, having someone screen out half of those is a significant help. Just be sure to set your phone and email on do not disturb as well — checking them only at set times or after you’ve completed an important project.

A virtual receptionist can screen out spam calls, initiate client intake, schedule appointments, even forward calls to your admin or paralegal to field for you based on the parameters you set. Having someone answer the phone shows your client there’s a person there for them all the time. You can’t recapture their costs directly but they will enable you to dedicate more substantive time to your client matters, which then enables you to bill the client for the work you do instead.

Hire a freelance legal secretary. 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.

They can 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.

Revisiting that 39% that was uncaptured — you can probably take back 15–20% of your time spent on non-billables just with a freelance legal secretary.

Hire a freelance paralegal. I’m sure you have many tasks which are substantive but for which you either bill the client at a lower rate or you write off (to show it was billable, but you didn’t charge them for it). 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 — something the 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.

You can bill substantive work performed by a paralegal to the client.

If a paralegal is doing substantive work, work for which you would normally charge, that work is billable at a paralegal rate and this brings your efficiency up even further.

Most importantly, you have freed yourself to do even more work for your clients, and given yourself breathing room for that 6% of your hours spent on marketing and business development.

Add in the bonus of a practice management system and all your billing, time entry, case management, documents, communication logs, court rules, calendars, etc. are all at your fingertips. Adding team members to your practice management system allows them to enter their time.

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- all that technology, all those expenses! Technological tools, like virtual staff, are a necessary part of the 21st century. Clients expect them, and the courts expect them. 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 assign tasks to your paralegal. Good teamwork pays dividends all over your practice and your life.

Your practice depends on it.

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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 the your practice needs.

Alison Pacuska

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Assisting attorneys and executives create order from chaos for more than 23 years.

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