Should you hire a legal assistant to help you?

hire a legal assistantI sat down for lunch yesterday with a young attorney that just recently opened up her own practice. She doing a good job for herself, getting cases, using technology, etc. But she is still doing a lot of the administrative tasks that a law firm requires… by herself. Some of the things she does:

  • Scans new documents into the computer
  • Keeps track of all her receipts in an excel file (not Quickbooks)
  • Opens new client files
  • Answers the phones
  • Any other administrative task you can think of that a paralegal or legal assistant could or should do

So the question becomes, should she hire some help? Should she hire a legal assistant or a paralegal?

Why don’t lawyers hire help when they need it?

Making your first hire is a stressful and difficult decision. There are a lot of (legitimate) reasons why a young lawyer would be scared to hire someone. I was once in this same position. Here are some reasons that I and other young lawyers wait too long to hire someone:

  1. It will cost me too much time and money to train them to do things I can do on my own for free.
  2. I want to hire the best person I can find and I can’t afford that right now.
  3. I can’t afford to hire someone full-time.
  4. I don’t have enough work for them to do.
  5. I will spend all this time training them only to have them leave.
  6. I don’t have the office space for an assistant.

Let me address these concerns one at a time.

It will cost me too much time and money to train them to do things I can do on my own for free.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that you are probably right. It will take you some time and potentially some money to train the right person. Whenever you hire someone, you will be training on a constant basis. My paralegal has been with me almost two years, and I am still training her on almost a daily basis. And yes, there are some things that would take you 10 minutes to do that might take him or her an hour to figure out… the first time. But then you will find that they will start to figure it out and over time you can give them the same task and it won’t take that long because you will have trained them how to do it.

I want to hire the best person I can find and I can’t afford that right now.

We always want to hire the best person we can find, but that doesn’t mean that you should wait. There are a lot of people looking for jobs right now, and you can find some very good paralegals for very reasonable rates. Don’t let that be a hindrance to you. I chose to hire someone straight out of paralegal school.

I did this in part because I wanted a clean slate with my paralegal so that she learned how to do things my way. If she had spent the last 10 years at another family law firm, then I may have had to retrain her to unlearn bad habits that she had previously picked up. Anyway, the key takeaway from this is that you can pretty much pick and choose the person you want right now because there are so many qualified candidates. Don’t let your fear of what it might cost keep you from getting your feet wet.

I can’t afford to hire someone full-time.

This is legitimate. My paralegal still is at between part and three-quarters time. She is going full-time at the beginning of the year, and I can’t wait. I wanted to start slow to have her grow with my firm. Also, I was burned in the past by paralegals that took off too many sick days (paid) that I had to fire.

So this time around, I hired someone for 15-20 hours a week. Her hours have been creeping up lately, but that is because I have an awful lot more for her to do. She now is between 20-25 hours a week.

I don’t have enough work for them to do.

Give it some time. You will. It’s amazing the things that I give to my assistant to do that I never thought I would. Frankly, she just doesn’t have enough time to do everything that I want her to do.

I will spend all this time training them only to have them leave.

That is a distinct possibility, but it is not something you can control. If you treat your people right, and pay them well, the chances of them leaving will decrease – but there is no way to eliminate this risk. I’ll talk more in another post about the importance of systems in your law practice. If you have systems in place on how you want things done, it will become easier to train the next person and get them up and running quickly.

I don’t have the office space for an assistant.

When I started in 2010, I didn’t have the office space for an assistant either. When I determined that I needed an assistant in my office to help me, I went out an found a new office with more space. So that is your first decision – can you find a new space that will give you the room to hire someone?

Some people are locked into a long-term lease that they can’t get out of. In that situation, have you considered a virtual assistant? There are several virtual “services” that I use, even with a full-time assistant, including Call Ruby to handle calls that my assistant doesn’t answer (remember she is not full-time yet), and Speakwrite to handle my dictation needs.

But in this day and age of Skype and ridiculously cheap phone service (I pay $90 a month for a complete phone system through Vocalocity), you could hire someone virtually to help you with calls and to handle simple tasks for you. If this person is also local, you could have them come by the office for a weekly meeting with you to go over tasks and cases, which I recommend.

However, I don’t see how you get around having at least one staff person in your office at some point. You need this person to help you greet potential clients, get ready for court when you have a litigation practice, etc. It is so much easier to do this with face-to-face communication than virtually. That being said, there are virtual law firms that make it work without physical space. But that’s a different law firm model that I know very little about.

So what’s the bottom line here?  When should you hire a legal assistant?

Should you or shouldn’t you hire an assistant? In my mind, when you are doing work that you could pay someone $10-15/hour to do, there is no reason that you should be doing it yourself. Your time is better spent doing legal work that you can bill $250 an hour for. Frankly, it is just a waste of your time and money to do those things yourself. In addition, you can ask that your assistant keep track of their time and bill your clients accordingly. If my assistant is able to bill an hour or two per day to my cases, she effectively pays for herself. Anything over that is additional revenue to the firm.

Have you recently hired a legal assistant?  Are you thinking about hiring a legal assistant but are scared to do so?  Please post to the comment section below and let me know about it.  I’d like to hear from you about what is working and what is not with your law practice.