In 2014, I started my own business as a family lawyer in Brisbane. For the previous approximately 18 years, I had worked in law firms and had been supported by a team of administration. Bookkeepers, accounts clerks, receptionists, marketing assistants and, most importantly, a personal assistant.
When I started my own business, like most start-ups, I needed to keep costs lean. I am a single Mum with 50% custody so there is no-one else to fall back on financially.
I set up a virtual office and did everything myself, working from home, only going into the office to see clients. Sure, there were secretarial services available through the virtual office, but I wasn’t prepared to shell out the hourly rate that they were asking when I could just as easily do it myself. Plus, it would have taken longer to explain it to the revolving door of staff than to do it myself.
The first six months or so I had a pretty good work-life balance. A few of my family law clients had come with me and I had a nice steady income stream and I was able to handle the admin side of it as well. Or so I thought! It then came time to do my second BAS. The first was only small as I was in the last month of the quarter when I started. It became clear very quickly that there was a significant amount of time involved in record keeping and entering receipts to do my BAS. At one stage I sweet talked my Mum into data processing all my receipts for me so that I could get my BAS in. That’s certainly stretching the relationship.
Fast forward a couple of years and my business had grown. I now saw my family law clients from a bricks and mortar office, still trying to work from home as much as possible, particularly on days when I had the care of my son. My ex and I separated when he was four so the whole time that I have been in business, it has been as a single parent with 50% custody. I am so grateful to have my Mum!
I found that as the client work increased, so did my stress levels (and my weight). Not from doing the work. I love family law and it’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years and I love helping people. The stress was coming from the growing administrative side of things. I had started using a typing service but even that wasn’t enough. What I needed was someone who could not just answer the phone and take a message or type up the occasional letter for me. I needed my old personal assistant back. The person who had been the face of the business to my clients, liaised with them, made appointments, made sure that all the letters went out and were perfect.
I thought wistfully of my former PA, Kristel, and her parting words when I left my job “I know you can’t afford to have a PA straight away but make sure you call me when you can.” That night, I sent Kristel a text message and asked her if we could have a chat. Within a week, she had agreed to come and work for me as my full-time personal assistant. I had to pay a market salary (of course) so there was some initial stress naturally around making such a commitment. I certainly did not want to be telling my treasured PA in a few months time that I would have to make her redundant if there wasn’t enough work!
Kristel started working for me as my personal assistant in June 2017, when I was overseas speaking at some international family law and dispute resolution conferences. She started in my absence and her presence was felt immediately. Suddenly, there was someone the clients could talk to when I was not there. Someone who understood what it’s like to be going through a family law matter and could empathise and meet their needs.
Since that time, it has reached the point where I often find myself saying to others (including Kristel) “I still can’t work out who did this work before I has an assistant!” And that’s the honest truth. Initially I was concerned that I might not have enough work for Kristel to do. The opposite is true. She is so efficient and so effective at her job that even if I don’t find things for her to do, she finds ways to improve our systems.
The clients love having a central contact person who can tell them what is happening on their matter. I love having a contact person that can assist clients in my absence. As for my concern that we might not have enough work? The fact that potential clients now speak with an actual person, rather than a telephone answering service, means that our conversion rate has gone through the roof. I have had to put on additional lawyers to service our clients. This, of course, means that having an assistant is even more important. She now has the diaries of three lawyers to manage and is undertaking tasks for all of us.
I now cannot imagine what it would be like to run my business without an assistant.
I now have more time to focus on client work, as well as my own health and wellbeing.
Whilst I still feel that it would have been a luxury to have an assistant when I first started my business, I wonder if it would have grown quicker if I had? I don’t look back and regret that I didn’t take her with me when I left (for starters, I had a restraint of trade so I couldn’t). What I do regret is not having a virtual assistant from the start to take care of all those bits and pieces. However, I am looking forward to a successful future for what started as a solo family law firm that’s getting bigger every week. I credit my decision to bite the bullet and get an assistant as a big part of that growth.
Jennifer Hetherington is an Accredited Family Law Specialist. She heads Hetherington Family Law, a Brisbane family law firm focussing on keeping clients out of court, their motto being ‘Conflict is not inevitable’. Jennifer is the winner of the 2017 Australian Law Awards Sole Practitioner of the Year Award and the 2017 Women in Law Sole Practitioner of the Year
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