Building the 21st Century Law Firm

Ask Daliah: How can a solo find good contract help?

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Daliah Saper

Daliah Saper, founder of the Chicago law firm Saper Law Offices, is answering reader questions about building a 21st-century law firm. She can be reached at [email protected].

Dear Daliah: I have a “good” problem: too much work, and not nearly enough time. I have tried out two contract lawyers. One utterly failed, and the other is slow in producing. Do I keep going through the dozens of responses to my ad? What are some red flags I should be looking for? Any suggestions about how to grow without incurring substantial additional overhead?

Dana Leigh Cisneros

Dear Dana: Having too much work and not nearly enough time is indeed both a blessing and a curse.  In my first few years of operation I relied heavily on contractors with mixed success. Like you, I was just happy to find inexpensive help. Of course, “inexpensive” often led to overpayment for subpar work product that I needed to find a different contractor to finish.

Through trial and error, I found that the more specific I was about my expectations in my initial job postings, the better quality candidates I would attract. And even then, a good resumé didn’t necessarily translate to good work product. Before entrusting a contractor with a significant project, I would assign him or her a shorter task in order to assess their abilities. Some applicants were better at research, others at drafting pleadings. If I just needed a person to cover my court hearings, I would source a different set of skills. 

Over time, I developed a short list of “on call” contractors to help me handle my workload. I used a variety of sources to develop this list; other attorneys, local law schools, Listservs comprised of solos. I learned not to rely on any one contractor at any time.

Eventually, however, managing a constant stream of contractors became overwhelming.  My stress level only increased further after my daughter was born.

At a dinner outing with some fellow moms one night, I chuckled when one complained about how hard it was to find a reliable “date-night” babysitter that was good with their children. (I was dealing with the same issue on two fronts, constantly looking for help at work and at home).  After another mom at the table ranted about sifting through resumés, interviewing candidates and then feeling frustration when the babysitter didn’t show up, a third mom proclaimed that this was the exact reason she had invested in a full-time nanny. Mom number one interjected: that must be so expensive! How can you afford it?  She responded, I can’t afford not to.

Her words resonated with me. While I knew I did not need a full-time nanny, I suspected the time had come for me to hire my first full-time employee. I decided to study my balance sheet and income statement. I realized that I was spending as much on contractors as I would on an entry-level associate. I also factored in the number of billable hours I wasted posting ads, sifting through resumés and interviewing candidates. I factored more hours to compensate myself for the mental and emotional drain this recurring task cost me. I hired my first employee shortly thereafter.

If you have more work than you can comfortably handle, it may be time to abandon the repeated search for contractors and hire your first employee. Once you do, you will have more time to invest on client retention, business development, and that kickboxing class you never seem to be able to make it to.

Daliah Saper opened Saper Law Offices in Chicago in 2005. Saper is regularly interviewed on national TV, radio, and in several publications, including Fox News, CNN, CNBC, ABC News, 20/20, the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune. She is an adjunct professor of entertainment law at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.

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