Managing the Ebbs and Flows of Solo Practice

You’re a solo (or you feel like a solo since you’re basically practicing alone in your firm), and the workload is totally unpredictable.

One month it’s quiet, and you get caught up. You’ve got time for marketing, networking, blogging, sleeping, and returning client calls. In fact, the clients are thrilled when it’s slow because they get exceptional service. They get used to you calling them with updates instead of having to track you down when they need you.

Then something happens—a full moon maybe?—and things hit the fan. It’s a tsunami of new clients and new work. Suddenly, without warning, you’re drowning. It’s chaos.

Sure, you’ve got good systems in place—checklists, forms, templates, etc.—but when the big wave arrives, there’s little you can do to keep up. You’re on overload. It’s overwhelming and then…it gets worse.

Your happy clients, used to prompt return phone calls and quick turnaround on document drafting, are suddenly freaking out and calling you about their upset. You’ve managed your clients so well that they expect nearly instant action and response.

How are you to deal with the unpredictability of new business flowing in through the door? How can you keep your old clients happy, bring the new clients into the fold, and still find time for cooking dinner and walking the dog?

Here are my ideas:

1. Accept that the ebbs and flows are normal. To some extent, they’re predictable. Build these unexpected changes into the program. Don’t assume that because you’re on top of things today that you’ll be on top of things tomorrow. Part of managing this issue is managing your own expectations and not allowing yourself to stress when things get busy.

2. Be careful about being overly quick with your existing clients. Develop some service standards, inform your clients from the outset, and stick to them. For instance, inform clients that you’ll respond to emails within one business day. Don’t respond faster than that when you’re able so that you’ll be able to take advantage of the window when you need it. Set standards for phone call returns, advance notice for appointments, turnaround time on drafting documents, etc. Set reasonable expectations from the beginning and stick to them even when you could move faster.

3. Build delegation into your systems. Sure, you don’t want to carry a significant payroll during down times; that makes sense. Today, however, you can easily find external help that only costs you money when you have the work that justifies the expenditure. Virtual assistants and contract lawyers are everywhere you look, and you can train them and have them ready when the work floods in. I go weeks without talking to my virtual assistant and then we get busy and talk three times a day. Outsourcing work is a great way to handle the unexpected.

4. Adopt new efficiencies. During those down periods, go back to the drawing board on your systems. Many solos lack basic technology like document assembly. Most still maintain inefficient paper files. Use the free time to make the shift to updated technology so you’ll have another advantage in dealing with the rush of new work. Document assembly technology and paperless technology, just to name two examples, can save you dozens of hours per month after you make the shift.

5. Determine your priorities in advance. Some things are time critical; some things aren’t. For instance, when you get busy, it’s easy to push off the referral source lunches and civic club meetings. It’s much harder to push back a court deadline. Before you get busy, develop an action plan for shifting tasks around and be willing to execute on that plan immediately. Sure, you have a charitable organization board meeting you agreed to attend three months ago. You’ve got to be willing to skip it when push comes to shove. Making those decisions in advance makes it easier to act without agonizing over the decision. Write up a plan, assign it to your virtual assistant, and, when necessary, push the button and allow the low priority items to be deleted from your calendar.

Managing an overload of work is a good problem to have: it’s much better than the alternative. While an overload is hard to predict with specificity, it’s easy to know it’s coming. Being prepared and making the big decisions before it happens make dealing with it much more manageable.