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Managing workflow in small law firms

Choose your clients wisely, and it’s okay to refer work to others.

Bahar Hafizi

Since August 2020, there has been a significant uptick in my firm’s workload. I am a solo practitioner with a corporate commercial practice, focusing on financial services and real estate matters. The new work came both from new and existing clients. And even though I have a robust support network at my firm, I have found myself working long hours with little reprieve.

My experience is not isolated: colleagues in the corporate commercial space in Vancouver and across the country are experiencing heavy workflows. But the practical reality is that changing a firm’s profile by adding associates is not always the desired or attainable solution. Many sole practitioners choose to work without partners or associates for mobility and autonomy reasons. Still, small firms and solo practitioners need to be pragmatic about workflow management by setting realistic timelines with clients, turning down new mandates or firing clients, and referring work out.

Setting realistic timelines with clients

Eager as they are to please clients or partners, young lawyers will often commit to unrealistic deadlines. They undertake to overdeliver on matters that rarely are as time-sensitive as they are made out to be. The result is exhaustion and burnout.

A better approach, which often comes after a few years of practice and perhaps lessons learned from exhaustion, is to establish realistic timelines through thoughtful communication with clients. The trap for some lawyers is that they approach deadlines as something to be unilaterally determined by the client. While sometimes true, more often than not clients do not see the full picture, and fail to consider many underlying steps involved in a particular matter.

Following a collaborative approach, it is better to devise deadlines after meaningful communication between lawyer and client. This can be challenging with some clients, and there may be some inherent risk if the client is not receptive, but usually clients appreciate the process. Working with clients to provide a realistic and feasible timeline demonstrates experience and leadership and allows small firms and solo practitioners to have more control over their workflow.

Turning away work and firing clients

When I established my firm in 2018, I could not even contemplate turning down new work or parting ways with an existing client. Four years later, I have learned that this is an excellent way to manage workflow and future conflicts, provided two basic principles are followed.

First, be selective with new clients and mandates, and second, do not fear terminating mandates with existing clients. Evaluating new opportunities to ensure they align with the firm’s overall vision is an essential strategic step in managing workflow and staying on point with the firm’s long-term goals. It may also be appropriate to turn away a prospect to avoid a conflict with a future client who can offer a more robust pipeline of work. Obviously, the line of sight to the future client should be credible, but a knee-jerk reaction to taking on a mandate may prove to be short-sighted.

It is also important to be pragmatic and proactive with existing clients, part ways with clients who are slow to pay, slow to respond and slow to show praise.

This is easier said than done because client relationships are complicated. They’re often part of a larger relationship, providing a “bridge” to other potential clients or industry. Clients are more valuable than the fees they generate. They offer connections, referrals, and name recognition, all of which are important. But poorly performing clients can take up too much bandwidth with little long-term return. In fact, firing a client can sometimes be part of recognizing the value of your firm. So, plan their exit strategy and phase them out of the practice. Avoid self-doubt about a dissipating workstream and focus on good work for good clients. This will generate a robust and recurring workflow.

Referrals will come around

It may sound counterintuitive to refer work that falls within your area of practice to another lawyer or firm, but it’s an excellent way to manage workflow. I have taken referrals and referred matters to other lawyers far more now as a sole practitioner than when I worked at larger law firms. I used to believe that referrals only helped lawyers receiving the file since they could generate revenue from clients referred to them. But there are several benefits for the referring lawyers, too.

Aside from helping ease the workload, it fosters a lawyer’s referral network, which will lead to tangible work opportunities. Nearly all the referrals that I have made have positively impacted my practice. Clients appreciate that you referred their matter to a capable colleague with the bandwidth to assist, as opposed to producing poor results due to limited capacity.