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Operations challenging for smaller firms, solo practitioners

Law firms face the old “guns or butter” dilemma every day. They must juggle practicing law, which generates revenue, with running the practice, which pays, well, zilch, but is obviously essential if the office is to remain a going concern.

Even for large law firms with the resources to handle both sides of the practice, this can be a challenge. But for small law firms or solo practitioners with limited resources, this often can create a catch-22 that is a constant problem that at times can seem all consuming.

Paying the bills

Jim Young of the Jackson law firm Watkins & Young came from the large law firm environment. A Greenville native and Mississippi State University and Georgetown University Law Center graduate, Young said when he was in law school, he had plans to work for a large law firm, and thus did not pursue education on how to run a business. However, after working for two large Jackson-based firms, he, along with attorney W.

David Watkins and a paralegal Young had worked with at one of those larger firms, formed Watkins & Young, PLLC, in 2004 in the Union Station Railroad Depot on Capitol Street in downtown Jackson. (A third attorney, W. Jason Akers, is also associated with the firm.)

For Young, the switch has been an educational one. “My goal was to get on with a large law firm when I finished in law school, and I really admired my classmates who were going into solo practice,” Young said. “Because of my decision, I really didn’t see the need to gain an understanding of how to run a business.”

Young is learning that lesson now. When Watkins & Young was established, he asked for administrative responsibilities in order to gain the experience. An experience is what he has gotten.

“Like everything else, working with a small law firms has its pros and cons,” Young said. “My experience has been that the logistics of running a law office can seem overwhelming. The real eye-opener has been the volume of state and federal requirements that have to be met. They are onerous. It seems I spend a large part of my time making sure we meet state and federal mandates.”

For the solo practitioner, meeting the “non-billable” requirements of running a law practice can be even more burdensome. Resources are even more limited, and there is no other attorney to look at and say, “Tag. You’re it.”

Andy Taggart knows this all too well. A solo practitioner located in Madison, Taggart’s daily schedule is especially challenging since he also sits on the Madison County Board of Supervisors, and until recently was head of the Mississippi Technology Alliance.

Taggart is quick to point out that he could not practice without support, and he gets that support from Bessie Grant, his assistant.

“It wouldn’t be possible without Bessie Grant,” he said. “She handles my scheduling, knows when she has the authority to make a decision and what she needs to see me about first, does my books — everything.”

People power is also important at Watkins & Young. The firm currently employs a full-time staff of two. However, the firm is anticipating hiring a third full-time person in the near-future who would be responsible for administrative duties as well as billable and non-billable work.

Young said his firm also utilizes technology to handle the business crunch. He said Watkins & Young utilizes PC Law software, but said there are four or five others out there that are also good. And, the firm uses an accounting firm and a wealth management company as outsourced help with administrative duties such as payroll and pension plan management.

But, the challenges do not end there. Attorneys are often asked to be involved in marketing/PR efforts and community events. Meeting continuing education requirements is also a must.

So, why go into practice with a small law firm or as a solo practitioner? Both Young and Taggart answered the same — flexibility.

“I can call a partnership meeting in 30 seconds,” quipped Taggart, who also came from a large-firm background and has been practicing law for more than 20 years. “I get to choose the clients I want to work with, the types of cases I want to take and how much I want to charge. It offers a tremendous amount of freedom.”

Where’s the business education?

Young said, “When I was in law school, I don’t recall being offered the opportunity to take business courses. I think that’s really needed. If law schools are now offering business courses, I think it’s great.”

Law schools indeed do offer business classes for their students, though these offerings are limited. As Phillip McIntosh, associate dean of the Mississippi College (MC) School of Law, pointed out, if the business courses needed by prospective attorneys were added to the present curriculum, law students would be looking at a very long collegiate career. But MC does encourage its students to take undergraduate business courses, and the School of Law does offer law office management, taught by Jackson attorney Hal Miller which is focused on the business end of practicing law.

“There is an ongoing debate whether law school curricula should include more skills training, such as business skills,” McIntosh said. “Some feel that more mentoring with attorneys is an answer.”

McIntosh added that while MC does not offer a full array of business courses tailored specifically for law students, the law courses students take in such areas as business associations and federal income tax can “trickle down” when those students go to work.

“I tell my students all the time, ‘Pay attention to this. This could help you as much as your clients,’” he said. “A relatively small percentage of our students go on to work in large law firms. So, it is important for them to have a good understanding of how businesses are run.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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