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True Growth: Why Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Heather Abissi Author : Heather Abissi | March 27, 2024

The internet is awash with articles telling lawyers how to “grow” their law firm. What does that mean anyway, growing a law firm? Is growing your law firm something you want? Is bigger always better? There is unlikely any solo practitioner or small firm, who hasn’t felt at least a twinge of marginalization with this common rhetoric. 

“Grow your firm,” implies that whatever size your firm is currently, is inadequate. As if those firms who don’t have 50 plus associates and 1M plus in revenue are abject failures. But that’s the biggest marketing sham of all, marketing companies need you to feel marginalized and inadequate so you are motivated to come out of pocket and spend money with their advertisement and marketing campaigns. 

People love to profit over making other people feel small. In fact, not only to these companies want you to feel small, they want you to feel dependent. Marketing company’s most important sale, is selling their customers on the idea that they cannot successfully market their services on their own. There isn’t anyway to drive that message home, while still allowing their customers to feel competent and adequate in that sphere. 

Marketing firms aren’t alone in peddling the message of inadequacy either. I remember being solicited to sell my firm, and when the purchaser, who apparently had been drawn in and impressed by my website, found out that I only had one associate, the call ended abruptly and I was told, “Call me when you’re a real firm.” My firm didn’t have value to this person because I was one of the little guys, not the big guys, but apparently my solo marketing was sufficient to reel in a fisherman in hunt of “big fish,” and I didn’t spend one cent on marketing.

The take away from the experience was the notion that because I was a small firm, I wasn’t a “real” firm. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who feel that way in the industry, and it is a problem. It is a problem because that false and baseless perception can be passed on to clients.

Thankfully, true-story-based movies show countless examples of small or solo firm attorneys who have changed peoples lives in everything from toxic tort cases, civil rights, or exposing fraud and corruption. Talent comes in all size packages, makes and models, and it is a disservice to convey any other message.

Firms are made on the backs of talented practitioners, not nameless minions, or hundreds of associates. When an attorney tries a case, it is them and their opponent in front of the jury, and every advocate has value, whether or not others want to admit it. The connection an attorney can make in the mind of a jury or judge, or in negotiating with opposing counsel, is what makes the difference. 

Big firms are perceived as having greater value. And indeed, perhaps if appraised the firm would have greater value as a business, but it doesn’t mean they are providing greater quality services. Certainly, big firms can attempt to exhaust the resources of smaller firms, with brute force and a larger supply of bodies to work in shifts, but such tactics, and methodologies are not always desired or desirable.

The truth is that army the big firm is marching into battle on your behalf, may be comprised entirely of brand-new associates with zero trial experience. Bright-eyed recent law school grads, with far off dreams of making partner one day, crippling fear of  failing to meet their billable hour quotas, and not even the most rudimentary understanding of your case. 

Such a circumstance often occurs due to horizontal tasking in big firms, where whomever is available is assigned rote tasks, rather than having one vertical associate who handles your case from beginning to end. By acclimating associates to stepping into any task in any case, the firm benefits because there is little impact if there is turn over, because associates just read the file notes, and fill in. 

The clients, however, suffer because the depth of analysis and development of a holistic theory of the case and strategy is just totally absent in this type of representations. A supervising attorney cannot make up for the questions that should have been asked in a deposition, or the demands that should have been made or followed up on. The holes in representation in horizontal case firms, are many. 

While your solo practice cannot handle 200 cases, a solo practice can give a level of attention to detail, and case theory centered and directed practice on behalf of their clients from beginning to end. Trial issues such as these are less important in more transactional or paper centered areas of the law, but personal attention is always a plus.

When you are planning your end of life wishes, and estate for your children, it is human nature to be more comfortable knowing that it is the name on the door who is handling your family’s future. When making decisions about how to move a firm forward, all decisions must be mindful and consistent with your vision for not only income, but the type of representation you wish to offer.

We aren’t sharks. Ceasing movement doesn’t kill lawyers, although I’m sure impatient clients sometimes wish it did. Everyone wants to grow and improve and be better than they were yesterday, that is healthy growth. The type of growth that feeds your mind, your soul, and makes you not only a better lawyer, but a better person. Investing in growing as a person, and as an attorney, is never a mistake.

Let’s get real though. Having time is a luxury, and life costs money. The expenses of overhead, staff, and keeping up with the Jones have driven many lawyers into the trap of over expansion, which causes them to work paralegals and associates to the bone driving billable hours above all else.

Anyone who has worked firm-side has felt the pain of that one lunch they actually took, which translates into staying as much as four hours late to recoup those missing billables. For the unindoctrinated, not every piece of work done on a case can be charged to the client. For example, if a case is assigned to a new associate, who must spend two hours getting up to speed on the basics of an area of law that is new for them, the client isn’t going to be charged for that new attorney’s inexperience (or at least they shouldn’t be charged). 

However, the law firm is going to still expect that attorney to bill at least 8 hours for that day (sometimes more). So often young attorneys find themselves having to work extra hours to make up for hours lost with unbillable work, or lost time due to lunch or errands. I never left my desk for lunch when I was firm side – subsiding on coffee and resentment alone for precisely this reason. Time is money, and no one understands that better than attorney who is responsible for producing billable hours.

Large firms have to keep this stressful pattern of work going because they are well aware of their bottom line. They feel the pinch every hour they need that isn’t billed, so the Partners let their associates work around the clock, the paralegals suffer the fall out, and they keep the machine going because they have no choice…permanently caught in the trap of overexpansion. 

I mention this as a “trap,” because yes, it is true, the more associates you have, the more work you can manage, and more clients you take, but it’s also that many more mouths to feed and health insurance premiums to pay. Once you go the route of staff, you can never go back.

The stress of my one associate practice was so high that I started to hate the practice of law. I was a-belly-full-of-hate at all times because I was forced to care about money in a way that interfered with the joy of legal practice and helping people. I was constantly worried about the bottom line because I was responsible for someone else. Letting myself down was one thing, but letting my employee down was not an option.

Partners in top 100 firms, may or may not feel the same level of commitment or connection to their employees, but 100 percent of managing partners feel a commitment to their standard of living. Once you buy the big house, or fancy car, there is no going back because those payments need to be made, and once you start making big firm money, you get caught in the hamster wheel of: More bills that have to be paid, means more money needs to be made. 

When you are being pressured to “grow your firm,” and pay thousands of dollars in marketing, it is important to remember the vantage point of the people saying it. Do they get more money per user, does their livelihood depend on you having more services to advertise, what’s the person’s angle? (Spoiler alert: It’s rarely altruism).

I remember speaking to an older attorney who had told me that a marketing firm had been hounding him for years and that he had finally given in and let them put together an entire multi-media campaign for him because business had been slow. I asked if he could share with me how much he spent, and he said he went with their smaller package, which was $5,000. 

I asked him, “Did it work?” “Did you get more business?” “Well I got a few more people in to handle their traffic tickets…” he answered. Knowing that for a traffic ticket in a rural community those would not be more than $500 - $1000 a piece, I asked the hard question, “Did you make back your $5000?” “No,” he glumly responded. And there is the fallacy of marketing in a nutshell. If you aren’t making more than the money you put into it, it’s a waste. 

And that waste is often a lot more than $5000. Some firms, who implement radio and TV ads are spending upwards of $10,000 per month, and are using computer software to track their employees’ coming and going – I remember one associate telling me how she had to be sure to log out and back into the “clock,” software so she could use the restroom. That’s what we’ve come to, professionals who have successfully completed both a Bachelor’s Degree, and Doctorate are treated like factory workers, who need to make up the five minutes spent in the bathroom, rather than be short five billable hours. 

What this type of large-scale campaign doesn’t account for is viewer fatigue. Yes people may remember your jingle after hearing it 20 times a day, but it’s often recalled with contempt, and doesn’t mean that is the attorney they will call. People ask people they know for recommendations first, and consult google and advertisements, only if personal referral comes up empty. 

However, if you “grow” your firm too fast, you lose the freedom to be choosy among clients and among the scale of your ads because your firm’s survival, and your employees’ salaries depend on adequate income coming in. You have to retain volume to keep it afloat, and it’s a very tough lesson to learn the hard way, as you sit up at night worrying about the bottom line.

Very quickly I realized that I cared more about doing quality work, at a reasonable price, for cases and causes I believed in. I also realized that this is a luxury that in many respects is only available to solo practitioners and small firms, who have chosen these sorts of ideals over massive growth. It’s a matter of personal priority and introspection, which way a firm should go, but it is important that whichever route, is chosen mindfully, and with eyes wide open to the consequences of the decision.

As I write to you from my modest home office, with my dog Lola snoring in the background, I realize that by starting a solo practice I really did grow my law firm. I gained peace of mind, the freedom to work only on projects that inspire me to be the very best attorney I can be, but most importantly my success is my own, and no one else’s. My growth model may not be anyone else’s “happy place,” but that’s the point – make your law firm unapologetically you. 

If Matrix style suites, a swanky office, and gate-keeper style assistant is your jam, run with it, just don’t become cash poor because your “marketing team,” has some great new Instagram campaign they want to charge you 10k a month for. Value added has to translate into actual dollars added, and any marketing campaign must include projections and benchmarks so success is measurable for bigger to actually be better. 


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