Legal Practice Managers: Where are we today?

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IMG_0305My name is Paul Wood and I am writing on Law Practice Manager by invitation from Ben. I have been a practice manager since 1999, and employed in the legal profession since 1978. Over this time I have seen many changes at law practices and to my role as practice manager. This post is about those changes and looks at where we are now.

Essentially the role of a legal practice manager enables a law practice to evolve, whilst guided by a person with business management skills and experience which solicitors may not have. Separating out the management role also allows solicitors to focus on fulfilling their prime objective of delivering professional legal advice to their clients.

Is the Practice Manager’s role and function today of vital strategic and functional importance to a law firm? If so, should it be equivalent in status and importance to a Partner/Director?

In answering these questions, I look at how the role has developed over recent decades, including (for a small group of students including me) a practice management qualification at MA level under the auspice of The Law Society.

Looking at these developments over the years has helped me to gain a greater understanding of the current role of a practice manager / director, and to think about how it might develop further to become an essential and better recognised role within a practice.

1970’s: Increasing involvement by non-lawyer professionals

From the late 1970’s, when I was a junior clerk, until the early 1980’s the UK was recovering from a period of financial uncertainty, high inflation and interest rates. In response to these threats, practices looked to employing senior professionally trained employees from a financial, banking and accountancy background to manage the financial aspects of their practice. Many of today’s senior practice managers will have come from this background and likely remain primarily finance management focused because of their professional skills and continued professional development throughout their career.

 1980’s: Development of IT transforms the law practice

Image of 1980s desk

The 1980’s saw the deployment of the first computer systems, IT technology, in-house networks being developed by larger practices and the use of IT on desktops by smaller practices, if only as word processing units. This new technology being introduced into a practice required internal knowledge and support. IT Administrators / managers, often self-taught, were employed and they established control and leverage over a practice because of their IT management skills though they were, as with the ITC support industry itself, learning as they moved forward.

In this early age if IT and ITC at the work place, we saw the IT managers as magicians who practised a “mysterious art”, however there was very little or no explanation or training given for us as the end users of the new technology.

As the systems developed and became more complex, much of the upgrades and problem solving was either managed remotely or when the office was closed, maintaining the mystery of IT for the end-user. Do we know any more these days?

1990’s: Business and compliance

The 1990’s saw a move to open-market professional indemnity insurance as the profession’s self-insuring mutual fund became unsustainable and unstable. Law practices with limited or no claims history questioned why they should be penalised by increased contributions to The Law Society mutual Solicitors Indemnity Fund when they were not directly responsible. And as practices became larger and international, within the SIF, smaller local practices were responsible for covering any major failure or claim by these larger practices. Following a consultation of its Members, The Law Society closed the SIF and practices moved to the open market as of 1st September 2000.

Compliance, risk and quality management became increasingly important as practices needed to secure a reasonable annual premium rate. In response, in 1993 The Law Society introduced its own quality standard, the Practice Management Standard which in 1997 was rebranded as Lexcel. The role of practice manager evolved into supporting partners in these new areas, and larger practices employed additional support who had, like me, a clerical understanding of these areas.

 The noughties: Compliance, Regulation, Marketing, Quality and Training

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As the Century turned, risk management and compliance ultimately became essential with the separation of the regulatory oversight from The Law Society to the new Solicitors Regulation Authority and more recently the Legal Ombudsman as the independent complaints authority for legal complaints against solicitors. Partners found themselves more and more responsible for the administration and business management with less and less time for conducting their chosen career of being a solicitor.

In practices, I, together with other practice managers were being trained in the specialist roles of ensuring that compliance requirements were being met, and that complaints were managed and monitored. Both the Law Society and the SRA ran training courses and provided written support and documentation to help the qualified and unqualified employees understand and monitor these areas of operation.

Law practices and marketing

While marketing does not sit well with a large section of the profession, it has been taken up as a key area where law practices need to be proactive to survive in an increasingly competitive market. Lawyers may have found themselves out of their comfort zone when dealing with the marketing consultants, but accepting of the advice and campaigns delivered. Their control over the marketing process, delivery and measurable outcome is often determined, in the main, by the marketing providers e.g. claims management companies.

The quality question

The term “quality” has been seized upon by marketing but remains a question unanswered in the context of the delivery of legal service. All too often quality is mistaken for compliance and risk management. Quality, which is a keen interest of mine, (my MA dissertation was “Developing a Law Firm using Lexcel 2004), has a strategic application and is a critical area of management for practices. While not fully understood or appreciated by practices in its own right it is arguably just as important as compliance, risk management and legal knowledge in supporting the culture, profitability and long term future of any practice as it impacts on every part of the practice.

A Qualification for Legal Practice Managers

There have been attempts to establish a formal qualification for the role of a Legal Practice Manager / Director, one of which was promoted under the auspice of The Law Society, Law Management Section, as the MA in Practice Management at the University of Wolverhampton. In 2003 I signed up to the three-year part residential course which was delivered by both the Law and Business Schools at the University.

Sadly it is believed that after the first cohort of my six colleagues and I graduating in 2006, the University closed the course due to insufficient numbers to enrol a subsequent cohort. I was very fortunate to take part on this course as the three years of study provided me with academic rigour and understanding to underpin my life experience of being a practice manager and importantly a professional qualification.

Where do Practice Managers fit in today?

While there are many well skilled and experienced individuals employed as practice manager / director, the job description for the role is often vague or does not exist at all.

I can count only three occasions during my career when I have attended an interview for a vacancy and a job specification has been produced – even some of those have been lifted off the internet and not detailed to the role on offer.

I can only think this has come about because of the ad hoc and responsive development of the role within a practice over time, as seen above.

The question is therefore left asking – what is the role of a practice manager / director?

At this time, it is at the absolute control, discretion and interpretation of individual practices, the Law Society and the SRA and other interest groups such as the LPMA. Can law practices continue to operate and respond to the ever changing legal services environment without the role of a practice manager / director being clearly defined and accepted as an integral and essential part of running a successful practice?

Developing a more definitive understanding of the role and responsibilities of the legal practice manager can allow law practices to understand and appreciate the very specific professional skills and value that we bring to a law practice, and may help practices be less reactive and more proactive when dealing with any future changes.

Should we continue to be micro managing multi tasks (in smaller practices that would be likely) or should we have an over view, CEO type role, based on knowledge, specific or more general, such as: risk, quality, change, marketing, finance, performance, compliance and business management? Would this help us to better inform and manage at a strategic level these critical areas of management?

In my view neither is wrong, it will come down to the individual practice based on, for example, size, affordability, future plans and the existing management committing to wanting support.

The process of sitting down and working out what we do is overwhelming, but after so much flux and development, we need to take a moment now to reflect on what we have done, what we are doing now, and where we are going. How can we achieve this, I would suggest is by saying what needs to be said, not what is wanted to be heard.

Author: Paul Wood, MA, Practice Manager / Director.

Date:   16 May 2016.

About the Author, Paul has over 38 years of experience and knowledge in private practice with the last 17 being a practice manager / director. He studied for his MA while in fulltime employment. As a freelance and independent practice manager and mentor Paul offers law practices his experience and expertise in legal practice management support.

Paul’s LinkedIn profile is:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/paul-wood-535b328b

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PaulW

PaulW

As a freelance practice manager I support law practices with their practice management tasks and strategic development. I have 30 years experience and the benefit of an MA in Practice Management.

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