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Balancing the practical with the practice

Every minute Christopher MacGillis spends on administrative work is time spent away from client files.

But setting aside his day-to-day marketing and management responsibilities also means setting aside the very things that keep the legal work rolling in.

“Billing and moving the clients’ files forward and getting a fair and just result, that’s why I practice law,” MacGillis said. “At the same time you have to work effectively as an administrator within your firm to ensure your firm’s brand and your firm’s message. So I spend a decent amount of my time, sometimes outside the office, working on that, working on the brand marketing.”

Like so many people who act as both the owner and operator of a law firm, MacGillis finds that filling both roles has forced him to put both more thought and determination into his work.

“I’m learning every day about how to run a firm,” said MacGillis, who helped found MacGillis Wiemer, a Wauwatosa-based personal-injury firm, in 2010.

He’s not alone.

After nearly 35 years, Dan McCormick said he’s learned a lot about the business of law. But he’s still working to balance the practice and the practical.

“In order to actually build a practice you do have to look at it as a business, which I didn’t do for many years,” acknowledged McCormick, owner of the Milwaukee-based McCormick Law Office, a personal-injury firm. “I just wanted to be concerned with practicing law. And you realize, at some point, it is a practice of law and it’s a noble profession. You’re helping people. But you also have to realize, if you don’t run it as a business you won’t be helping people for very long. You’ll be out of business.”

Wearing many hats

So, how can solos and small-firm practitioners manage both?

“Everyone’s work-life balance is different, and it’s important to find what suits your needs,” MacGillis said.

For MacGillis and his team of five attorneys, who are all younger than 40, it’s meant making room for family, as well as client and business responsibilities.

“What we’ve keyed in on is technology and team-building,” MacGillis said.

Technology allows business to continue outside the office — an important option for MacGillis, a father of three who started his firm when his oldest child was just 4 months old.

“Having the mobility with the technology — our billing, our files, documents for clients, everything is remote accessible — allows us to travel to our clients and use the technology to further the meeting, have a conversation, work from home,” MacGillis said.

The use of compatible equipment — MacGillis Wiemer runs a Mac-only office, which means iPhones, iPads and other devices made by Apple — also allows attorneys and staff members to share information easily, which increases efficiency.

It’s something McCormick couldn’t readily do when he started out. Now, though, he has a hard time seeing how he could cope without all those devices.

“You have to use technology, just don’t let it use you,” McCormick said.

For him, that means not only staying connected to colleagues and the legal community through listservs and other online networks, but also setting aside time every once in a while for breaks, especially from clients’ emails.

“That’s hard to do when you’re absolutely solo, but you have to have some off time,” McCormick said.

A little help

That’s why staff can be so important.

“You can’t do everything yourself. You have to come to that realization,” said McCormick, who practiced solo for nearly 20 years.

These days, McCormick shares his workload — which is made up of personal-injury and worker’s compensation cases — with two attorneys and three paralegals. The firm also has three law clerks.

With five attorneys as well as supporting staff, MacGillis Wiemer has a similar team structure, one they reinforce with monthly practice-group meetings, quarterly firm meetings and an emphasis on communication and personal responsibility. This arrangement, MacGillis said, helps reduce work duplications.

“To be successful in this field you really have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and work hard and work smart,” MacGillis said. “But if I can get a competent employee who can handle some of the administrative work, that frees me up to work on client and files. So, for us, trying to work smarter means working more efficiently and that team concept allows us to be really proactive in how we handle our files, as opposed to being reactive and putting out fires.”

Not that there won’t be a few “fires.”

“Starting your own firm is very stressful,” MacGillis said. “But there’s also something rewarding about starting something from nothing and making it successful. And that’s a big thing for us. Six years ago our firm didn’t exist, and now were up to five lawyers, six or seven staff. That’s a big sense of pride.”

There’s also a fair amount of pressure and uncertainty, which McCormick said can actually be good things.

“You have to be willing to take risks,” McCormick said. “If you don’t you’re never going to advance. You have to have a sense of urgency all the time; you can’t get complacent. And you have to get used to being uncomfortable. You have to get used to feeling overwhelmed because once you start to feel comfortable, you’re not advancing. Fear is something you just become comfortable with because fear is a motivating factor.”

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