This is the final post in a three-part series looking at law firms, productivity and changes needed due to the predicted long term effects of Brexit on our economy.
In Part 1, I looked at the astonishing gap between law firm’s growing income and their negligible profit increases, and identified three potential changes that could be made in the light of the almost unanimous economic forecasts of a long term economic slowdown ahead of us.
In Part 2, I looked at our fixated and profit killing relationship with three big overheads that we are reluctant to change, but need to.
Reviewing the Gazette’s insightful article Brexit and You: Solicitors have their say (11 July), it is clear that although managers are already taking action following the referendum result, many are also as unsure as the rest of us on the implications for their business, and what may come next.
In this post, I am looking at changes that could increase productivity and income, and will ensure our law firm remains competitive, whatever the economic and even more unpredictable political outcome.
Look at the average law firm, and they will be doing the same work as the next average law firm. This results in a lot of competition for the same work – conveyancing, family, commercial litigation, etc.
We might be missing out on a less well known area of work and we may have existing clients who want to pay us for this, and existing legal staff who want to develop their knowledge and practice in new areas. For example; insolvency, data protection, health and safety, tax, licencing, and environmental law.
Although some of these areas have been very influenced by EU law over the past few decades, there are no proposals I am aware of to repeal existing laws – so they will remain significant and potentially unaffected by Brexit.
We can find out more by asking our clients directly if they have advice needs that we are not meeting. Our lawyers may also know what work is being lost – they could be referring their clients to lawyers elsewhere for legal advice needs that are not provided in house.
Many of these lesser known areas of legal practice are provided by sole practitioners or niche legal practices, so if developing your own team’s expertise is not an option, it is worth exploring relationship options with these niche firms and practitioners.
Often we overlook our support staff, perhaps because their work is seen as non chargeable and therefore not contributing directly to income. As result, support staff can loose confidence in their ability to effect changes they need, and can become demotivated and less efficient in their work.
Increasing their productivity needs a long hard look at how they are managed, what they do, and how they do it. The best way to start this process could be to improve communication between management and support staff – ask all support staff (not just support staff managers) how they could improve their work and efficiency, make sure a representative attends management meetings and that you attend their meetings. They will have lots of ideas on how to improve their productivity.
And, as covered in Part 2,with the right encouragement and training, they may be able and willing to contribute with fee earning work .
Similar to support staff, we may not have asked our lawyers what they think could help them increase their productivity. Are they struggling with the Case Management or IT systems, and could improvements be made? Are they loosing out on work to the competition, and why do they think that is? Are we attending their meetings to find out more about the day to day issues that are affecting them? Do lawyers get the opportunity to provide input on strategic decisions about the business?
Too often meetings between management and lawyers are delivered with the aim of mainly one way communication to them, or are focused on legal training. If you haven’t done so recently, you could draft an agenda with open questions (“what legal services do our clients need that we are not providing?”, etc), and hold a dedicated business meeting with lawyers, with the aim of them delivering the talking and opinions.
Without our clients we would not have any productivity at all, so we can’t afford to miss out on their opinion. What are we doing right and wrong? Do our charges and competency levels meet their expectations? Are you brave enough to ask them if they may consider an alternative service elsewhere? If so, why?
Surveys can help with this process, but too many questions and boxes to tick may be off-putting and may not result in the most valuable information for us. We could learn more by asking an open question such as “how can we improve our service to you?” and avoiding a prescribed list of answers to tick. If written satisfaction surveys are not often returned by clients, consider alternatives such as telephone interviews, or personal visits.
Through the process of a good satisfaction survey or conversation with our clients, we can improve our understanding what our clients want from us and how they need to communicate with us. We may also find we are overwhelming them with the products of our more-hours culture; long emails, detailed legal analysis, etc.
Our clients may be prepared to pay more for less, e.g. more concise targeted communications, more face to face contact, or us spending more time getting to know their business and needs, and less time drafting complex correspondence.
You are most likely confident that lawyers need to give as much or more of their time to business development activities, but we still under-perform in BD when compared to other professions.
We could help our lawyers perform better by looking more closely at what activity amounts to simple reminders that we exist, and what generates the most business.
It may not be the non-chargeable time that generates the most work – for example specialist paid-for training delivered to commercial clients at their premises could be best received and generate the most work. And we often happy to pay as we assume that paid for services are more useful than free services.
Employee Profile and Policies
This isn’t just about equal opportunity – assessing who your employees are can help you understand who is attracted to working for you, and who isn’t. Given that nearly 50% of solicitors are women, if your senior lawyers are mainly male, you may be missing on senior women lawyers who are equally as productive, but need to work around family responsibilities. If they are not working for you, they could be working within business structures that allow them to work flexibly or at home. If you have a 9 to 5, no part timers policy + extra hours at the office culture, you may be missing out.
Too often, lawyers at all levels are left alone to manage their workload, and do not speak out about workload concerns because they do not want to peers to think they are unable to cope, or because they believe that a heavy workload comes with the job.
But more workload does not always mean increased productivity. Lawyers that are overloaded may not bill more – they might not be fully recording and billing the time they are spending on matters, and they can get behind with their financial management and billing responsibilities.
Looking at lawyer workloads requires commitment and innovation by managers and potentially a cultural change within a firm that can be difficult to effect, but it could have consequences in the long term with less occupational stress, more productivity and efficiency, and happier clients.
Very often we only get round to making overdue changes to our business when we receive a jolt; and as we’ve just received one which could knock us about for a good decade or more, it’s a good time to make changes which could prevent wholesale cost cutting measures over the next few years.
But to end this series much more positively: Who knows what the next few years could bring us? Perhaps Brexit is the motivation we need to make changes to our business that will set us up for benefits that will not just help us survive, but allow us to develop a much more profitable and skilled workplace for decades to come?