A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

5 Essential strategies you need to action to ensure your team has confidence to face change

Monday, March 18, 2019

By Linda Murray, Speaker, Facilitator and Executive Coach, Athena Leadership Academy

As we all know the legal profession is undergoing its greatest period of transformation at present: the sands are literally shifting beneath your feet. As practice managers and leaders it’s often your role to not only stay on top of all the fast transformation within the industry, but also, to ensure that staff remain calm and retention remains steady. 
It’s no mean feat, even for those of you with years of experience in practice management. 
The traditional legal services model is not only under scrutiny for how it can become more efficient and accessible, it’s under threat from non-law firm service providers entering the market at a rapid rate, that are attempting to provide alternate methods of access to legal advice. There is an unprecedented level of multi-faceted change presently. 

Now, in the long term it remains to be seen how clients respond to these offerings (be it new remote working solutions for contracted independent lawyers, AI technology replacing existing lawyers or simply alternate models to the traditional law firms). What is certain is that in the interim, these new players, and what they offer are all certainly shaking up the way things have “always been done”. This tends to make lawyers nervous, very nervous.

Additionally, the role of both law firms themselves, and those that work within it, are changing with greater speed and more dynamically than ever before. Client expectations are changing towards more immediacy, and an expectation of greater technological applications to help them an a more integrated way. Add to this the nature of the industry as being somewhat slow to change as a whole.

All of this shake up can result in a nervousness in employees, whether they are concerned about their positions (legal and non-legal), and also the possibility they are exploring some of the alternate options themselves. 
In light of all this, what can you do to ensure attrition remains at natural rates, that your staff remain focused on the work at hand, and to ensure clients experience minimal disruption to their everyday expectations? 

Below are some of the strategies that we recommend at Athena Leadership Academy to keep your ship steady during turbulent times. They will help you to better understand your team’s perspective and give you the insight you need to help your team deal with change.
It is understood, but sadly underestimated, that changes in the workplace fail because leaders don’t adequately anticipate and minimise their team’s resistance to any disruption in the status quo.

Plan for resistance

As human beings, we so easily fall into habits and our brains see repetition and routines as “safe”. This is especially so in the legal industry, as of all the professional services industries, it is often the most reticent towards wholesale change. Given this general historical attitude, and the hierarchical partnership model, it’s only natural that your team will be reluctant to embrace change, even if it is something that will benefit them.

Great leaders anticipate and plan for push back against their ideas, innovations and upgrades. So, long before you introduce changes to your team, sit down and think of the reasons why your team may oppose the plan, at least initially. 
Think about why they might fear the planned changes. How might you reduce or counter their fears? Are their concerns well founded or grounded in historical attitudes? Are there some misconceptions to be cleared up so they can see the benefits of making a change? 
Could it be that there is a concern about the security of their roles if the change is of a more significant nature? Lawyers are by nature often conservative-minded to find a problem where there may not be one simply because that’s what they are trained to do. It’s the nature of those involved in professionally applying critical thinking and problem solving approaches. Therefore, addressing this concern early in a planned and measured way is a great first step. 

Creating a plan to address your team’s concerns will reduce their fear and anxiety. It will also make it easier for them to “pitch in” and do their part in implementing the change.

Build trust with open communication

Effective communication is key to introducing any sort of workplace change.

When implementing changes, be upfront and honest with your people. Let them know what you know about the upcoming disruption, and be transparent about how it will impact them to the extent that you know this information. Also, be open about what you don’t know.

Make yourself available to talk with your people both as a group, and one on one, and continue to give regular updates as you gain new information and as the initiative moves forward. As your team learns that they can trust you to look out for their interests, their resistance to the change will decrease.

Be specific with goals and expectations

One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is not communicating exactly what new behaviour is expected from their teams. They fail to tell them what specific actions they expect in the new way of working and how it will benefit them and the company. 
Be very clear about what you expect from your team. Set time-based goals where progress can be measured. Set benchmarks to let your people know the target that they are trying to reach. Give specific examples of what you want from your team moving forward so they know exactly what behaviours and actions are now expected of them and others in your organisation.

Now, this part is important.

Don’t just tell them what you want but tie the change to your organisation’s values and vision. Even better, how it will tie in with their goals. This way, they can not only see how the change helps the organisation achieve its mission, but also how it helps them achieve their own vision. This helps build their commitment to the change.

Use the power of the herd to your advantage

In every group, there are “early adopters,” quick to adopt new ideas and products. These people, specifically if they are at the more senior end of the partnership spectrum, are to be leveraged as much as possible. 

Next is the main body of the group, who may resist innovation in the beginning, until they can see the benefits of changing.
Finally, there are the “stragglers,” who will hold out against change for as long as possible.

One way to get more of your people to join in and support the changes is to use the power of “group think”, and identify leaders early on that are able to influence others to embrace the change more readily. 

Openly praise, recognise and reward those members of your team who first embrace the change initiative. As the number of supporters of the change grows, be certain to update your people on the progress of implementing the change. Gentle peer pressure will encourage others to join in and support the change. 
One word of caution: never underestimate the power of an influential person who is NOT on board with the businesses plan for change, specifically in traditionally minded industries like law. These people are critical to not only identify, but to as quickly as possible, shift their mindset. Just one or two of these people at a senior level can derail the success of any change implementation. Spend time bringing these people into the fold, listening and addressing any specific concerns. Help them recognise how the change will be a positive one, not something that will negatively impact their ability to do their jobs “their way”. It’s a real issue, and one if you address early, will make for much smoother progress. 

Involve your people in the process

If you want your people to support change in your organisation, make it easy for them to be a part of the process. Where possible, involve your people in the process of deciding what needs to be changed, and how it will be changed.

Allow them to brainstorm and come up with options of what processes, policies or procedures will be changed and specifically how they are to be changed and improved.

Involving your team throughout the process helps them to become invested in its success. When your team feels that they had a say in the decision-making process, they are more likely to accept and embrace the changes instead of resisting.

Change is hard for all of us to accept in the beginning. By using your people skills, you can open lines of communication with your team. This simple act grants you the insight that you need to answer questions, allay fears, and more deeply involve your team in the change process, increasing the likelihood of its long-term success.

About our Guest Blogger

Linda Murray is the Founder, Facilitator, Speaker and Executive Coach at Athena Leadership Academy; the professional development hub for high performing and high potential leaders. 

Linda ensures that your leaders and your teams are engaged, motivated and empowered to achieve the best results for your business.

Linda has run her own successful businesses since age 22, so understands what it takes to maximise the performance of yourself and those around you.

Connect with Linda on social media

LinkedIn - www.linkedin.com/in/lindamurrayathena/
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/AthenaCoaching
Twitter – https://twitter.com/athena_coaching
YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPZWA24o0iohBl1O0LQxEkw

Social media; an integral part of a law firm’s business development tool kit

Monday, February 25, 2019

By Nicole Shelley, Operations Manager, Pepper IT

In today’s business environment, social media should now be an integrated part of a law firm’s wider business development and marketing strategy.

Ask any legal practitioner what they hope to get out of ‘Business Development’ and you would hope to hear:

  • profile building;
  • relationship building;
  • communication channels and platforms;
  • thought leadership; and
  • ultimately generating new business.

What is the common theme in all of these goals – communication!

The great thing about social media is that it helps you communicate directly to your clients on mass - and consistently and regularly! And what’s more, it is a two way street that lets you communicate, engage, (and importantly engage WHEN your client is open and ready), learn and showcase yourself as thought leaders in a very client centric way.

Smart firms are leveraging social media as a highly valuable tool for client attraction, engagement and education.

Three ways active social media use can help your firm:

  1. It helps you monitor news and events in your industry. It can even help you monitor your competitors! This allows you to stay on top of the latest trends, highlight your thought leadership, and share interesting content relevant to your industry or target sectors and relevant to your clients or potential clients.
  2. It’s also a great way to keep on top of what your clients are doing, thinking, needing and then reacting appropriately in real time. By sharing relevant and useful information, whether that be an original firm article or sharing industry content that you have commented on and added to, highlights that you understand and anticipate your clients’ needs and challenges. This helps you stay top of mind as well as cementing your reputation as their trusted adviser.
  3. Finally, social media provides an opportunity to shape the personality and face of the firm by sharing stories, successes and values. But be careful not to fall into the me, me, me trap! Nothing will make your audience unfollow you quicker than content that is irrelevant or unappealing.

In a summary, put your ‘client-first’ hat on and for effective results, ensure you post a balance of content that is relevant, timely and interesting.

How do you leverage social media platforms effectively?

Most importantly, and just like any other business development initiative, start with a strategy and know your end goals and what you want to achieve.

Know your audience:

  • Who are your target audience(s) and where can you find them?
  • Which social platforms are they most prevalent on?
  • What groups, associations, industry bodies or communities do they engage with?

Once you have defined your audience you can determine the types of content relevant to them and when and where they are engaging.

When it comes to content you need to be strategic and think of how your audience targeting will shape the type of content you should be using. In simple terms, think about what you would want to be talking about to your various clients and, again importantly, what they want to be talking about! This then lets you develop a plan and content schedule to ensure you are engaging where, when and how your clients are engaging.

Be in it for the long haul

Remember, as we know in the non-digital world, trust and reputation can’t be built overnight. Dipping your toe into social for a week isn’t going to bring results. A longer-term strategy is needed of adding value and building a brand. Posting relevant and helpful content tailored to your client base that differentiates you, builds trust and engagement over time, will be a winning strategy. Only then will it lead to new business.

About our Guest Blogger

Nicole Shelley B.Com, CPA, CIMA  is Operations Manager at Pepper IT, a full service digital and social media agency with a particular expertise advising clients in the professional services sector. Nicole has a diverse and broad corporate background having held finance, practice management, operational management and strategic planning roles for leading professional services firms including top tier global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.

LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/nicolesomerville/

Web:  Pepper IT

New strategy for 2019? Read these five tips from successful firms in 2018

Monday, February 18, 2019

By Todd Keeler, Director, FilePro

In December 2018, Lawyers Weekly reported that law firms are experiencing a range of disruptive factors, “the most profound economically are those arising from technological shifts”.

While the article describes digitisation as “an incredible and little understood force”, at FilePro, we are starting to experience the opposite.

Namely: lawyers are now driving change, rather than being ‘disrupted’.

Rather than digital laggards, we’re working with firms who continue to evolve using technology as a core part of their long-term strategy – not make quick reactions to the buzzwords of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’.

So, as a technology provider keen to help more firms integrate technology with their core business strategy, here are five things I’ve learnt from firms who implemented successful strategies in 2018.

1. Technology and data aren’t afterthoughts

Now, we may be biased, but in our experience technology has to be integrated with your strategy, not be an afterthought.
Is your practice manager invited to your strategy sessions? How about someone from IT? If not, is there someone who will champion the use of technology, or at the very least has an understanding of the technology market?

For a number of the firms FilePro works with, technology is the enabler to deliver strategy and providers are more than just suppliers of their accounts team, they are a part of a mutually-beneficial relationship.

This has a secondary effect: firms that properly implement technology start to recognise data as a multiplier to increasing the value of a firm’s client experience and brand value. They start to plan and ask questions about how data is stored, used and shared.

2. They embrace the concept of continuous improvement

Rather than make radical changes to their firm’s technology, these law firms have learnt that introducing steady and consistent changes with adequate training and management is key.

There is such thing as too much change too quickly, and without proper education, introducing too many new processes and technologies will overwhelm your staff, and in the worst case, increase error and staff churn.

Instead, we advocate steady and continuous improvement.
To some, this may sound disruptive. But for your teams and clients, it’s the reality of today’s technology-led world. Clients want to walk into a law firm and see that lawyers are on the cutting edge of tech and doing things efficiently.

While technology is on the checklist of many clients, it also helps improve a number of processes – it enables fast and effective responses to changes in regulations, risks, processes, pricing, competition, client or staff needs.

Even better, technology-led change is no longer the exclusive domain of large or NewLaw firms. In fact, freeing up your staff from routine paperwork allows them to add extraordinary value through other avenues, such as stronger client relationships and networking. It also enables flexible work arrangements and, as a consequence, retention of quality staff.

3. Drive change from within the firm

If the introduction of technology is to be successful, then everybody needs to be on board.
All owners, partners and directors should lead the change by demonstrating the support and enthusiasm for the changes.

From the outset, your team should be involved – whether it’s planning a new process, installing a new system, or making any significant change to day-to-day work responsibilities. This may seem simple, but it’s surprising how often teams are first notified of a change after it has been made.

Begin by explaining the reasons for the change, then agree on:
  • The goals – ensure there are measurable targets and a timeframe
  • The mandatories of the project
  • Whether you have the competencies, tools and internal resourcing to create positive change
While it’s great to get everybody involved, delegation to internal champions is strongly advocated. As Fiona McLay states, ‘It is important to have one person with a mandate to implement change to be the driver and point of contact with the software provider.’

These champions will act as role models and gain the support of the entire team ­– enabling open and transparent communication throughout the entire process.

4. Accountability drives ongoing gains

Once they’ve set the goals noted above, successful law firms establish sustainable change by developing shared accountability between the firm and provider.

Agreeing on goals within your firm allows meaningful and open performance discussions – although this relies upon a transparent process to monitor progress. This will also create visible improvements in your client experience impact.

5. Lean on your technology provider

In my experience, technology providers often ‘set and forget’ their software. This isn’t the exception, but the rule.

Firm’s should not be left to figure out how to leverage their technology. This counterproductive practice takes lawyers away from working on their matters and clients.

Instead, we encourage law firms to lean on their providers to share their experience and technology – as an ongoing practice, not just at set up.

At FilePro, we work hard to do so. But if you’re engaging another provider, I would suggest you look for:
  • Onsite project management and training to all staff
  • Ability to customise prior to going live, e.g. report layouts, workflow and accounting
  • Their experience with mergers/restructures
  • How they help existing clients optimise software e.g. cleaning data and health checks
  • Which other firms they have dealt with, especially those of a similar size or location. Find out what they did that worked, and what they did that didn’t work.
Once systems are implemented, ask your provider to come back to visit in 3 or 6 months. Ask them what you’re doing well, and what you could be doing better. Discuss the results being seen, or not, based on agreed goals at the outset.

Overall, if you’re like many of the firms we’re working with, you’re more fearless in looking at change and should lean on your providers and work with them.

About our Guest Blogger

Todd Keeler is a Director of FilePro. With 20 years experience working with legal practice management software, he has a particular interest in bookkeeping and accounting, a key facet of FilePro’s fully integrated offering. Todd oversees a team working with over 450 law firms, in Australia and overseas. He works with firms of different sizes – from sole practitioners to FilePro’s biggest client, a multinational firm with 750 users.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/todd-keeler-a03a4b5a/

Web:  https://www.filepro.com.au/

The Key to Effective Communication

Monday, February 11, 2019

By Linda Murray, Executive Coach, Athena Coaching

Without question, the most important leadership skill to master is effective leadership communication. When done well, it’s inspiring, transformative and spurs employees to greatness. 

A study by Ken Blanchard's company indicates 43% of leaders believe that communication is their most important skill.  41% say their most significant mistakes as leaders arose as a result of miscommunication.

It’s clear then why impeccable communication skills ought to be at the heart of your business. Indeed on an individual level, for your leaders/partners and those in leadership roles, to experience a greater level of traction with all those who work for them, communication is the centrepiece for success.

If that did not already arouse a sense of challenge in you with respect to ensuring you and your firms’ leaders are communicating effectively, consider this. Law firms, and the legal system in its entirety, is by nature more conservative than many other professional services industries. They are steeped in tradition as you know and central to that is that the hierarchy can be very pronounced, often creating notoriously challenging environments for clear and effective communication.

Advocacy and advisory skills are not necessarily conducive to excellent communication in a business.

In my experience, while the desire for change is great in many law practices I have worked with, the ways of old can be difficult to shift quickly. Add to this that the more junior workforce, specifically up and coming lawyers, are typically, and indeed markedly, different in their needs for communication than those at partnership level. This can create a disparity that can feel difficult as practice managers to bridge.

Fear not. Although leadership communication is a key skill, and few truly master this subtle art, where there is a will, there is absolutely a way. The following three strategies can help you to improve your communication and increase your efficiency and effectiveness rapidly.

Communicating is not dictating

Many lawyers are exceptionally skilled in the oratory sense, they can craft a convincing argument about just about anything. Their advice and counsel is prized and highly valued. However, in my experience, they often fail at basic interpersonal communication for the very same reasons that they are so good at what they to.

This, coupled with a (at times) lawyers' natural disposition to be adversarial, given the nature of their work, can mean everyday communication can feel dictatorial and not an invitation for discussion, rather a one way discourse

Few other workplaces invite, nay celebrate, direct and lively debate in the way a law firm does. There is a high level of IQ that is expected or demanded and so with that  often comes ego. Overlay the natural hierarchy of a law firm, and you have a veritable powder keg for leadership communication to go awry. That "command and control" style of speech and robustness of discussion (again, essential for the legal profession), can be confronting and counterproductive in everyday office communication. It is often not helpful or welcoming for the creation of trust and safety, which is essential for a thriving communication culture. 

However, given the level of intelligence that is available to you, I also see an incredible potential for expedited change if this is brought to leadership as a group and explained simply and clearly as to what's not effective.

Change is inevitable, why not start with your partnership and leadership groups today?

Let's explore how this is enacted practically and simply from right now:

  1. We all know, communication is not just speaking “at” others, and delivering your message; it is a two-way street. To be an effective communicator, leaders must be engaged with others and must be as open to listening to others as they are to speaking.

  2.  Listening and creating safety by welcoming feedback and comments without the risk of sanction are as critical as what you are actually saying. Remember this is not an opening statement in the Supreme Court or an interrogation. It’s a dialogue, be mindful of treating it that way. 

  3. When someone does ask questions or gives you feedback, don’t assume that you know what they are going to say before they begin to speak. Don’t “jump ahead” in your mind and begin to prepare your response, but truly think about what the speaker is saying. Wait until the speaker has finished, and make certain that you understand their message before you begin to develop your response.

  4. It’s critical to establish a rapport with those engaging with you, reiterate or reframe what they have said, allow them a chance to confirm, and then engage with your response, while ensuring they are not diminished or made to feel small. 

Active listening 101: hint - it's not simply hearing someone

Lawyers are excellent listeners. However, active listening is a challenge for most people. It requires immense effort at first. In addition to the actual words that are used by those communicating with you, pay attention to the speaker’s body language, and other cues, to discern the true emotions and motivations behind the words that are spoken. These are markers for what they may not, due to lack of confidence or not having the words or even basic fear, be able to convey to you. Keep these same tips in reference to yourself. Be careful with the words that you choose, as well as the body language that you use, while speaking. Body language makes up over 50% of our overall communication. Show respect to yourself and others and make certain that your actions match your words and that you remain honest, authentic and genuine.

Clarity of messaging and staying true to your word

Effective communication doesn’t happen by accident. If you want your communications to be understood and well received, it takes care and effort. Clarity of messaging at a leadership level takes thought and time. Lawyers know and understand this, and will welcome the challenge to hone their oratory craft, you know this, so capitalise on it.

Choose your words and tone carefully; anticipate what you believe will be the thoughts, feelings and reactions of others and show empathy and concern for others as appropriate. Your message should be clear, and delivered with enthusiasm and passion; devoid of this it’s just a monotone monologue that cannot be received.

Actively seek the comments, questions and feedback of others to make certain that your message was received as you intended it to be.

Does your leadership communication measure up?

If you really want to improve leadership communication within your organisation and clear out the any blocks to mastering this art, it’s a good idea to periodically review the performance of your messages and other communications. Run anonymous 360 reviews. Take time to reflect on your conversations and on ways you could have improved your delivery, and acknowledge where you have transgressed into old behaviours.

If upon reflection, you find that your message was misunderstood, take action immediately to correct misimpressions. This is an especially important step to take if you find that you have misstated the facts or if you discover that your choice of words or delivery has caused miscommunication and led others to feel hurt or offended. Ownership of where you have made mistakes to those that are impacted is an incredibly powerful way of building trust and rapport and makes people feel truly heard and seen, both of which are fundamental human drivers.

Great leaders use leadership communication to build trust and mutual respect in their people and help them feel safe so that they are empowered to take risks and create things that are new and unique.

About our Guest Blogger

Linda Murray is the Founder, Facilitator, Speaker and Executive Coach at Athena Leadership Academy; the professional development hub for high performing and high potential leaders. 

Linda ensures that your leaders and your teams are engaged, motivated and empowered to achieve the best results for your business.

Linda has run her own successful businesses since age 22, so understands what it takes to maximise the performance of yourself and those around you.

Connect with Linda on social media

LinkedIn - www.linkedin.com/in/lindamurrayathena/
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/AthenaCoaching
Twitter – https://twitter.com/athena_coaching
YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPZWA24o0iohBl1O0LQxEkw

How to recognise and develop emerging leaders within your firm

Monday, January 14, 2019

By Linda Murray, Executive Coach, Athena Coaching

When you look at your current team, do you see one or two people that stand out? These are your leaders and future managers in the making. But how can you recognise the individuals who possess the characteristics and attributes to succeed at a senior level? How do you ascertain which ones will be amenable to future training to broaden their career options?

Here are three ways you can recognise emerging leaders within your firm.

Focus on the high achievers

Emerging leaders tend to be high-achievers. They go above and beyond what is necessary to fulfil their role. They have a warm approach to their team members and their work is always of a consistently high quality. More so, they are business savvy, have a good understanding of the firm and a genuine desire to keep up with the latest news and trends at all times.

You may also notice they have a proven track record of getting results. They are personally driven and comfortable with abstract thought processes. You will also find that emerging leaders want to be successful and see others succeed alongside their own efforts.

Keep an eye on the extroverts

Previous experience will show that emerging leaders are generally extroverts, although studies have shown that female emerging leaders are not as vocal as their male counterparts. Emerging leaders are known for their strong communication abilities and persuasion techniques. They can motivate others with ease, be the ones who initiate new ideas and often have a slight risk-taking edge to their personality. This is a helpful skill to incubate, particularly when businesses undergo change and remodelling. However, don’t be surprised if emerging leaders show resistance to change opting for more proven methods of success.

Track the team players

Sometimes team players can be overlooked, but a great leader must be able to work effectively with and alongside, their team. Emerging leaders don’t necessarily need to be liked, but they often are. They are also respected by their peers and partners and can seek input from others when necessary.

Allowing them to mentor junior level employees will help develop their leadership skills for the future. Giving them the opportunity to lead will allow them to shine and the wellbeing of their peers is always high on their priority list.

How to develop your emerging leaders

Emerging leaders will most certainly crave and benefit from ongoing development. This could take the form of a senior mentor and/or leadership development program.

Mentor your emerging leaders

If a mentoring program is put in place, mentoring sessions should take place through regular meetings and look at targeting the specific skills necessary to tackle future leadership roles within the firm. Mentoring is a skill, so it should not be assumed that anyone can be a quality mentor. Mentors should be suitably matched to the development needs of the emerging leader. In order to create a successful mentoring relationship, the expectations, format, duration and success measures of the relationship need to be articulated upfront. It is essential that mentoring conversations remain confidential and free of any possible conflicts of interest. For this reason, mentors external to your firm can also be worth considering.

Develop using hands on training

Hands on training should form a significant part of the development plan for emerging leaders. Involvement in challenging assignments or cases is a great way to build their talents and exposure within the firm. Many emerging leaders are aspirational and motivated by challenge, so set them stretch projects where they can develop new skills, innovate and add value to the firm.

Create a structured development program

Retaining critical employees is essential to your firms ongoing success. The best way to achieve this is to keep emerging leaders stimulated, challenged and growing. If your firm is not focused on developing and retaining emerging leaders, then it is time to make a change. A leadership talent management strategy should consist of a blended program which includes mentoring, coaching and workshops to develop competence and confidence in leadership, executive presence, courageous conversations, peak performance and more. The result - you can sit back and watch your emerging leaders blossom into the role before your very eyes.

If your firm needs support developing a mentoring, coaching and a leadership program to build and develop your leadership pipeline, then I'd love to hear from you.  Athena Leadership Academy thrives on tailoring programs to transform organisations, one leader at a time.  To find out more and to start a conversation, then get in touch.

About our Guest Blogger

Linda Murray is the Founder, Facilitator, Speaker and Executive Coach at Athena Leadership Academy; the professional development hub for high performing and high potential leaders. 

Linda ensures that your leaders and your teams are engaged, motivated and empowered to achieve the best results for your business.

Linda has run her own successful businesses since age 22, so understands what it takes to maximise the performance of yourself and those around you.

Connect with Linda on social media

LinkedIn - www.linkedin.com/in/lindamurrayathena/

Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/AthenaCoaching

Twitter – https://twitter.com/athena_coaching

YouTube - https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPZWA24o0iohBl1O0LQxEkw

Late for the Sky: Legal Tech and the Cloud

Monday, January 07, 2019

By Philip Scorgie, Technical Advisor, AdvoLogix

One of the many striking oddities of law as a business is that because lawyers bill by the hour, the entire legal industry is powered by a disincentive to be efficient. The longer something takes, the more money lawyers make. Imagine owning a vineyard and increasing your income when the harvest is late or profiting because your automotive assembly line can only manufacture a hundred vehicles a day instead of a thousand.

Welcome to the industry of law, where revenue is based on inputs rather than outputs. The industry’s cost-plus model guarantees a profit at the expense of clients. For decades, this model has worked while firms tinkered with technology around the edges, stuck to traditional methods and prospered. And clients paid for it all without question.

The last 10 years have demonstrated that for a lot of firms, this practice is definitely over. One place this is playing out is legal IT, where there is an enormous disconnect between what the market needs and what law firms have. Several patterns are emerging.

In the past, thanks to the efficiency disincentive, legal IT mostly focused on back-office processes. There are lots of software packages out there for filing, time recording, billing and HR processes like performance management. These technologies help reduce back-office costs, and firms, especially big ones, have jumped in with both feet.

Legal tech has not focused on providing the same efficiency to the actual practice of law, however. Firms have yet to invest much in legal process automation like case management. Some high-volume low-complexity practices such as conveyancing, leasing and debt recovery have improved with narrowly built automation software, but the complex and most profitable legal work has not benefited from automation. 

However, while law firms have been happily looking the other way when it comes to technology, their clients are paying attention. Pushed to the wall by ever-increasing hourly rates and pressure to decrease legal spend, they are demanding transparency, demonstrated efficiency and predictability. Firms struggle to deliver because their compensation models actively discourage it. Therefore, in-house counsel and corporate legal departments have been voting with their feet and exploring their own automation platforms.

Traditional legal software, designed for the law firms of the past, is almost always built on outdated but ubiquitous 1980s client/server technology. These elderly platforms have several major deficiencies: huge cost, enormous complexity and the need for an army of fickle IT specialists to run them.

The solution – whether attorneys are ready to embrace it or not – is in the cloud. We know, old habits die hard. In so many other industries, cloud solutions have become standard and especially for smaller businesses which cannot afford their own IT departments. A few years back the major legal tech vendors asked their law firm clients about their appetite for cloud solutions. The response from their biggest, most profitable legal customers was a resounding “no” because of concerns with security and control.

What the legal tech vendors should have done is dug a little deeper and asked, “Why not?” In other words, queried their customers along the lines of “What are the barriers to deploying new technologies?” Everyone would have answered “spinning up and maintaining servers and applying software upgrades.” The answer to these challenges, of course, is the cloud.

A handful of legal tech vendors had the foresight to develop solutions that were only ever meant to be cloud-based. There are platforms today – like Salesforce – that vendors are using to develop integrated apps to help law firms and legal departments finally apply automation to more complex legal work. And while Salesforce is traditionally known as a customer relationship management platform, its AppExchange includes thousands of applications built for specific processes and industries – like legal – that are cloud-based and come with the security Salesforce is known for.

Finally, few legal CIOs are saying no to the cloud today. The market is ripe for cloud-based case management technology that will deliver more cost-effective and higher-quality legal services. If law firms don’t invest in these emerging platforms, their clients will.

About our Guest Blogger

Philip Scorgie is a technical advisor for AdvoLogix. His 30-year professional services career includes senior leadership roles at Mayer Brown in Chicago, Deacons in Hong Kong and Norton Rose and Allens in Melbourne, where he currently resides. Philip possesses in-depth knowledge and experience in disruptive technologies and change management and holds advisory positions at application development companies specialising in artificial intelligence. Currently as a visionary and independent consultant, Philip assists firms select, deploy and leverage advanced technologies to increase efficiency, quality and profitability.    

LinkedIn:   linkedin.com/company/advologix-com

Web:   www.advologix.com    

Twitter: @AdvoLogix    

The 11 Habits of Highly Successful Small Law Firms

Monday, December 03, 2018

By Richard Hugo-Hamilton, Executive Chairman, LEAP

A habit is an acquired behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary; it is a result of repetition.

Over the past 25 years I have visited hundreds of small law firms throughout seven different countries. I have been fortunate enough to speak to the successful, the unsuccessful, the happy and the not so happy! This has seen me uniquely placed to understand what makes for a successful small law firm.

If you are frustrated at the situation in your firm, planning a start-up, or have an entrepreneurial instinct to improve your firm, I believe that implementing these 11 habits will see you succeed.

As is so often the case, it is likely that most of the habits on this list will seem like common sense. But that makes sense! Because these are the very things we tend to take for granted, rather than make our focus.

Included in this Whitepaper are checklists for each habit. Building a successful small law firm requires thought and planning, but above all it requires action. The Checklist is your tool for doing this.

A common lament, usually from non-lawyers but often from lawyers themselves, is that lawyers are poor business people. What is not sufficiently recognised is the entrepreneurial nature of almost every small law firm. To me ‘my firm’ and ‘legal entrepreneur’ are the same thing. The women and men who own and run small law firms don’t have anyone to assist them financially. Many of them start practice as solos or junior partners with very little. They rely entirely on their own skills and determination, not just for success, but for survival. They (that’s you!) are courageous entrepreneurs and in my opinion should be thought about as such.

Just like every other category of small business, a small percentage become large firms, a small percentage go broke, and the ma- jority earn a living out of their firm, usually for many years, but without building a valuable asset. These small law firms provide     the bedrock of small business in our societies. Apart from helping clients with the law, they are increasingly having to play the role of alternative dispute resolvers as the role of the church and its influence on values diminishes in our society. Small law firms are increasingly important to maintain the fabric of our civilisation.

It can also seem that regulators pick on small law firms and that small law firms are the firms that bring the profession into disrepute. Given that 89% of all law firms are small law firms (of 1-5 partners), it makes sense that this would be the case. Like all small businesses, they are under-resourced. Many lack training in business or even rudimentary bookkeeping skills. Despite these challenges, most small firm lawyers I have met are genuinely dedicated to the calling of their profession – to help people in need. These under-trained and under-resourced lawyers generally persevere and survive. I am offering these 11 Habits to help small law firms become more successful.

To succeed, you need to find the people in the firm keen on progress (they will be the ones who complain about poor equipment!). Get them on your side.

The evolution of software over the past 30 years has enabled those of us with an interest to develop solutions to help the owners of small law firms become better leaders and build more successful firms. Our software captures and systematises these management lessons so that you don’t have to learn them. Just the act of using the software properly will transform your business building capabilities and your firm.

Introducing change is hard. I think it unrealistic to expect that you could create all these habits in your firm overnight or even simultaneously. But if you make a start and keep working on them, using the 11 Habits Checklist, you will be amazed at how the fortunes of your firm will transform.

Habit One - They decide to be efficient

Large law firms, charging corporations and government by the hour, are rewarded for inefficiency. I once showed a partner in a large firm how document automation could dramatically reduce the amount of time taken to produce a standard commercial lease. His response was ‘why would I want to do that?’.

Successful small law firms, with extremely price sensitive private clients, understand that their very survival depends upon efficiency. Without efficiency it is possible to survive working every night and probably weekends too, but a competitive and impressive law firm needs to be efficient.

I have made a commitment to putting ‘efficiency’ as the number one habit. Despite the importance of the other ten habits, unless the Principal Lawyer in the firm makes a personal commitment to efficiency and is prepared to lead and cajole the others to follow, success cannot really occur. Only a few brilliant lawyers in specialised niches can charge day rates high enough to trump efficiency. This does not apply to the overwhelming majority.

Contrary to arguments that time is better spent lawyering for clients than worrying about efficiencies, from my observations it is impossible to ‘lawyer’ confidently and well in a disorganised and inefficient environment. You also have an inbuilt competitive disadvantage against all the firms who are efficient.

Technology provides tremendous - but often unharnessed - opportunities for you to create the most efficient and successful small law firm in your area.

Most lawyers seem to think that putting effort into compliance and bookkeeping is a good place to start. Consider this: bookkeeping is typically done by one, usually non-billable person in a small firm. Revenue is generated by lawyers. It therefore makes sense to make them as productive as possible and to give them the tools to provide wonderful client service. Start with the lawyers

  1. Brief your lawyers on your plan and goals
  2. Select the area where technology can instantly provide the biggest productivity boost for your lawyers
  3. Identify staff to help with the project (outside consultants will never get as good a result as your own people)
  4. Find the software needed to have maximum impact

Habit Two - They enjoy practising law

It is said so often that it barely merits repeating, but you can’t succeed doing what you don’t enjoy. The lawyers running and working in successful small law firms enjoy what they do. They have organised their firms and have made conscious choices about the work they want to do, the clients they enjoy working with and who they prefer to work with. They are not stressed.

From my observations there are five major causes of stress, each of which needs to be managed:
  • Practising law in areas outside their area of expertise;
  • Setting unrealistic prospects of success in litigious matters;
  • Generally disorganised office and client files;
  • Not making clear financial arrangements every time instructions are accepted;
  • Feeling like they are not building anything of value.
These problems are caused by a very commonly held view that 100% of time needs to be spent on client related billable work in order to succeed. This is nonsense. Time needs to be set aside to lead the firm, to manage firm affairs, to meet regularly with staff, to learn and to work on practice development. The leader probably needs to spend 20% of her/his time on this, otherwise the whole business will suffer.

I have also found that these successful small law firm managers recognise the important role small law plays in our communities and tend to be proud of the role they play in upholding the rule of law and helping people when in need. In short, they like the choice they made to go to law school and read law.

  1. Do law that interests you
  2. Set realistic expectations, particularly in civil litigation
  3. Organise your client matters with a good case management system
  4. Have clear Retainer and Cost Agreements for every matter
  5. Set aside at least 30 minutes per day to work on business development, people, systems, clients and potential clients

Habit Three - They employ smart people and treat them really well

Your staff will be your biggest single expense other than yourself. It just does not make sense to treat staff badly, and yet in so many firms staff are undervalued and often abused by stressed lawyers. The successful firms I visit all treat their staff well. By this I don’t just mean pay them well (although they frequently do because they are successful and can attract better people), they treat them well in their interactions. Their staff have good chairs, up-to-date equipment and clean work areas. Their staff are cheerful and what is important is the impression this makes because cheerful and motivated staff do better work, will attract new clients and will recommend you to their friends.

Finding the right people is crucial. Successful firms tend to be very discerning in their people choices and don’t hold on to staff out of misplaced loyalty or fear of dealing with underperformance. Unfortunately, sentiment must be put aside if you are building a business. It is obvious when it exists and it drags everyone else down. The leaders of these firms know that every staff member who doesn’t fit in or is underperforming is costing money and probably damaging the firm’s reputation as well.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the successful and unsuccessful is the attitude to staff training. A partner in a firm once said to me that he did not want to spend money on training staff because the investment would be lost once the staff member left. Unfortunately, this attitude is quite common. What a waste of people and their talents.

The more you train your staff the more they can do for you. Most people love being given more responsibility and clearly the more work you can delegate to lower cost lawyers or support staff, the more profitable your firm will be. So many small firms try to operate without trained bookkeeping help. Modern systems mean that very few firms need full time bookkeeping services, and most paralegals are perfectly capable of being trained in basic client accounting. Despite this, firms put their very existence in peril by not arranging even basic bookkeeping training for themselves or their staff.

Providing your staff with the very best tools for them to do their job will ensure they are happy and effective employees. This applies to both hardware and software technologies. You simply cannot attract or keep great young lawyers and other staff unless you provide them with the best tools. Imagine a construction company that still had their builders cut all their materials with hand saws. How successful do you think that construction company would be? Who would want to work for it?

Technology has become so cheap that any firm can afford the best systems. It is overcoming inertia and change that is hard. Your staff are itching to use the best systems because it will make them more valuable to you.

  1. Organise regular training for your staff
  2. Recruit the very best people you can find and afford
  3. Provide a comfortable chair for everyone
  4. Provide clean work areas
  5. Encourage staff to take on more responsibility
  6. Provide the best tools for them to do their job

Habit Four - They have selected the areas of law they like and focus on them

In small law, particularly if starting out, there is the temptation to do any work that walks in through the door. I understand the imperative of simple financial survival, but success requires choices. It is hard to build a reputation today as a generalist unless you perhaps have a monopoly in a region; the law is increasingly complex, it is risky; you want to provide great legal advice which requires some specialisation, and you also need to manage your risks.

A major cause of stress for lawyers is accepting instructions in areas of law in which they are unfamiliar. It probably also leads to lots of bad advice and bad outcomes for clients.

The successful firms:
  • Develop deep expertise in defined areas of law thereby supporting higher professional fees;
  • Select areas of law that sit together comfortably, e.g. residential property, estate planning and probate and family law;
  • Create a great reputation for that work thereby attracting more work;
  • Ensure their marketing is aligned with the services they provide;
  • Have research materials available to help in their specialisations;
  • Mentor young lawyers (and paralegals), constantly improving the skills of those around them.
It is of course possible to take a specialisation too far. One of the great advantages that the legal profession has, is that it is possible to build a very recession proof business. Relying too heavily on the property market is a classic case. In good times the temptation to just specialise is enormous. But even a slight slowdown in the property market can be devastating. Good firms don’t expose themselves in this way; these firms make sure they have multiple revenue streams to cushion them when the economy changes by practising in areas of law that will be counter-cyclical, or which are consistent irrespective of economic cycles.

The most successful firms during the economic downturn of 2008 were able to slightly change their business by continuing to work in their specialist areas, just in a different way. For example, if they practiced real estate, they focussed on foreclosure work. If they specialised in family law, they acknowledged the increase in divorce rates that comes with economic stress and changed their systems to be more efficient.

It is essential that you think strategically about these choices so that your firm will prosper and grow in both good times and bad. Once chosen, focus all your marketing and training on the selected areas of law. Your reputation will build, and the work will follow.

  1. Carefully select the areas of law in which you want to practice
  2. Combine areas of law that mutually support each other
  3. Cross-sell your services
  4. Invest in the software, content systems and research materials that enable your staff to do work for you reliably
  5. Train and delegate as much as possible to junior staff
  6. Strategize creative ways to insulate your business against a recession by continuing to practice your favourite areas of law

Habit Five - They dedicate time to building the firm as a business

The leaders of successful firms understand that building a firm takes time. It is the leader who must do this. In many small firms the principal is often the largest fee earner and the chief rainmaker. But from the observations I have made over the years, these leaders seem to get more done by delegating work effectively and setting time aside to work on their firms. Lawyers I have spoken to have suggested dedicating 20% of one’s time to building the business.

Firstly, it’s important to realize that relying on word of mouth to build a business is not a good strategy. It is essential that you build a reputation, but to build a business you need to take action. It is not enough to think you can get away with a bit of marketing, although you do have to do that. The leaders of successful small law firms all realize that they have to properly package and sell their services.

For many lawyers the word ‘sales’ is an anathema. But this issue must be confronted. You can’t sell anything without understanding sales. If you want more clients and matters, you need to sell your firm.

Successful firms ensure that there is constant alignment between the legal services offered, what their marketing material says, and what they and their staff say when they are actually selling the firm’s services.

It is this alignment and consistency of messaging that builds a powerful reputation. It also quickly makes it much easier for everyone to stay on message.

These firms treat their clients very well. Because they are empowered and happy, clients take notice and will prefer bringing work to your firm.

These leaders pay particular attention to:
  • A vision which they share with their staff and clients. There is an aphorism that if you don’t know where you are going then you aren’t guaranteed to get there! Successful firms have a clear vision for what they are building;
  • Employment Policies;
  • Staff skills and happiness;
  • Billing processes (from start to finish);
  • Client satisfaction with the quality of service;
  • Marketing.

They also ‘know their numbers’. They count everything. A good practice management system will help with this, of course, but it’s very much a habit. For example, they will track how many new clients they get per month and what the average client is worth, how many new matters they get per month and what the average matter is worth.

  1. Have a vision and share it for your firm and all your staff
  2. Adopt encouraging employment policies and practices
  3. Understand your cash flow and working capital requirements
  4. Provide quality service and listen in particular to disgruntled clients
  5. Have a coherent and consistent marketing plan 

Habit Six -They are early adopters of technology

Like it or not, if a firm does not keep up with technology, it will quickly become uncompetitive. Imagine for example a firm that perhaps stuck with typewriters. There is just no way that such a firm could be competitive – it would have too many people and be too slow. It would also not be able to attract great staff.

The technology shift to mobility and cloud computing is arguably as far reaching for small law firms as the shift to computers was 30 odd years ago.

Leaders of successful firms are always looking for ways to provide better quality of service more efficiently, and at a lower cost. In this way they stay ahead of their competitors and quickly gather clients from the firms that don’t adopt advanced technology.

These firms focus on:
  • Having a single database of information for their firm;
  • Having their productivity systems (practice and case management) and legal accounting and trust (client) accounting in one application. It is just too inefficient and expensive to try to bolt applications together from different suppliers;
  • Have libraries of highly automated legal forms, letters and agreements to maintain consistency and produce accurate documents quickly without needing special typing skills;
  • Record every activity as they go (whether they time record or not) so that they can bill accurately while complying with their legislated record keeping obligations;
  • Using a compliant trust (client) accounting system complete with all the features they need. Trust accounting is easy if you have a good system and your staff just use the system! Compliance then becomes a natural consequence of running a firm well;
  • Knowing their numbers.

By running their operations on a low-cost, cloud-based system, tech-savvy law firms can use Smartphones and Tablets for mobility and save thousands of dollars otherwise wasted on traditional IT infrastructure and expensive IT support.

In summary, firms that embrace technology early steal a lead from their competitors. Firms that don’t ever embrace technology tend to merge into firms that do - or worse, go broke. I have seen this repeatedly over the years.

Finally, the leaders of these firms don’t compromise with staff resistant to change. If partners, lawyers and staff don’t want to use technology, they replace them.
  1. Do you have a single database? i.e. one version of the truth?
  2. Do you have a great library of automated legal forms that you don’t need to keep up to date?
  3. Can you easily record every attendance with full descriptions on every device?
  4. Can you reliably bill as soon as you are entitled to, trusting the data you entered when you recorded the activity?
  5. Does your trust (client) accounting system enable you to comply with regulations and provide your clients with a reliable and safe accounting service?
  6. Are you running your firm with the best cloud-based mobile technology?

Habit Seven - They confront the challenges of getting paid and solve them

Despite the popular impression (and misconception) of fee-hungry lawyers, many lawyers find it very uncomfortable discussing money with clients. This may be due to a fear that the client will decide not to proceed if told the truth about costs.

Sadly, these lawyers usually condemn themselves to lives of stress.

The leaders of highly successful firms confront these money challenges head on. To do so:
  • They ensure that there is an appropriate Retainer or Engagement/Costs Agreement in place for every matter AND that it is signed. Good systems make this easy;
  • Whenever possible they get a deposit from the client, ideally sufficient to cover the next 30 days of work;
  • Where appropriate they set monthly payment arrangements from the start of a matter so that bills never get out of hand;
  • They make sure that the firm then does precisely what the Retainer Agreement says it will do regarding billing and payment, which may mean ceasing work beyond the scope of the Agreement;
  • They immediately provide a revised Retainer/Cost/Engagement Agreement when the scope of work changes;
  • They make sure that every activity of every lawyer is contemporaneously recorded into a system so that they can manage their matters properly, bill accurately and comply with their professional obligations. This needs mobility and discipline;
  • They bill regularly for small amounts, never letting the debt get out of hand;
  • They then make sure that every matter is billed as soon as the firm is legally entitled to bill, and request retainer top-ups if necessary;
  • They DON’T operate under the illusion that WIP is income - it needs to be billed. It is amazing how common this problem is, and a major cause of dissension amongst partners;
  • They make sure that the same rules apply to every lawyer in the firm, irrespective of seniority;
  • Most importantly, they stop work if the client stops paying without making alternative arrangements – for example, to pay by instalments.

The above list seems pretty obvious. Why then do lawyers find it so hard? I think it is because so many of them have poor systems, making the act of billing a personal rather than a necessary firm activity. With good time recording and billing systems, it becomes easier to explain and de-personalise the process, removing the idea of fee earner discretion – clients know that they need to pay, and should simply know how much and when.

There are some astonishing figures on the % of matters proceeding without a signed Retainer in place. With a good system this should be standard using automated templates for each Matter Type recognising all the subtleties of practice in the different areas of law.

These firms:
  • Charge more;
  • Get paid faster;
  • Have less stress; and
  • Have lower working capital requirements because of it.
If you choose to introduce just one habit to get started, make it this one. It will act as encouragement to do the rest.

  1. Put standard Retainer Agreement arrangements in place for all matters
  2. Update Retainer Agreements immediately upon any change in the scope of work
  3. Establish a regime where every task done is accurately recorded on the go
  4. Organise to bill regularly for small amounts in every matter
  5. Make sure you bill as soon as you are entitled to
  6. If you are not paid on time – stop work!

Habit Eight - They have standard processes and procedures in place for all matters

Unfortunately, so many small law firms are badly organised. I walk into their offices and there are physical files in piles on cabinets and frequently even littering the floor. They will say this shows how busy they are, but it really just displays how disorganised they are. Because the physical disorganisation has a massive negative impact.

Consider this simple scenario.

A client phones you.

Scenario 1

Your files are everywhere. The first thing you do is say “let me find your file”. The second thing you say is “I cannot find your file right now; can I call you back?” And the story of inefficient and poor service goes from there.

Scenario 2

You instantly locate the electronic matter in your computer system using the client name, matter name or file number. You have the financial status of the matter and all incoming and outgoing correspondence immediately available to you. Within 20 seconds, you can start usefully helping your client, doing the work you love – work the client wants to pay you for.

Unfortunately, Scenario 1 is far more common than Scenario 2.

In successful law firms Scenario 2 is standard. Anything less is a failure. And it is possible in or outside the office. These leaders understand that organisational chaos:
  • Is inherently inefficient;
  • Creates and elevates risk;
  • Creates unnecessary stress for lawyers;
  • Does NOT impress clients;
  • Results in a firm making less money.
So the leaders of these firms make sure that the systems and procedures needed for the administration of the office and the administration of every matter are implemented throughout the firm. They make sure that anyone can pick up a matter and understand it because the firm has a standard approach to everything - even the way information itself is stored in both paper and electronic files. The certainty that organisation brings to administrative processes then allows the lawyers to spend all their time doing law, not doing clerical work incredibly badly. This removes stress and allows them to enjoy the practice of law more. Their clients notice this and are inspired by the organisation and focus that they witness.

There are key things to be organised, some of which I have mentioned previously, but which are so important that they deserve greater attention because it is what successful small law firms do.
  1. There is only one database of client and matter information for every client and matter. You cannot be efficient if your starting point is always wondering if the data you are looking at is accurate and up to date. This requires a good software solution that combines time recording, document production and management, legal and trust accounting, and billing in one integrated application. If you do just one thing to get organised, do this.
  2. They have one way of opening a new client file and apply that method to every member of staff and every client file. There are no exceptions.
  3. All standard documents are electronically organised and easily available. This saves you from searching manila folders for the relevant information.
  4. All information about a matter can be accessed instantly.
  5. They can share matter information including documents with clients online.
  6. They use plain English in all communications, going to great pains to ensure communication is understood.
  7. They have standard billing procedures that are adhered to religiously.


  1. Figure out where in your firm negative client interactions are happening
  2. Fix these issues with good software and procedures
  3. Make sure your staff are trained, have access to and onboard with these procedures
  4. Watch the repeat and referral business roll in!

Habit Nine - They make compliance a natural consequence of running a firm well.

The leaders of successful small law firms implement systems with standard procedures, processes and checks and balances to ensure that compliance is a natural consequence of running a firm well.

There are professional rules relating to:
  • How a file is run;
  • How the lawyer conducts her/himself;
  • Client (trust) money.
In well-run firms someone is responsible for ensuring that the firm will comply with the rules as well as common sense.

These firms ensure that research material is available when needed and guidance (rancour-free mentorship) is available and provided when needed.

They also ensure that performance is routinely reviewed.

They have systems for managing client (trust money) that do not require any complicated bookkeeping knowledge. Just honesty.

In my opinion, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority in the United Kingdom has created a regime that combines discipline and common sense and might be a good model for other jurisdictions to adopt.

Every law firm is required to appoint:
  • A Compliance Officer Legal Practice (COLP); and
  • A Compliance Officer Financial Affairs.
In small firms these roles are often held by the same person. Responsibilities are clearly articulated and involve submission of an annual compliance report and to report any possible transgression between reports. Having a structure within which to operate makes it a lot easier for a leader to manage. Requirements are known. Behaviour is monitored.

Successful firms use modern systems and manage their firms diligently. They do not face stressful disciplinary proceedings for failing to comply with ethical or regulatory compliance.

By running the firm well, compliance becomes a natural consequence, not a burden.

  1. Make sure each staff member has access to research and guidance materials
  2. Put a staff member in charge of ensuring and reporting on compliance issues
  3. Conduct random file reviews
  4. Conduct random client (trust) account checks
  5. Review compliance reports as a team and take suggestions to improve compliance

Habit Ten - They become experts in customer service

I once walked into a law firm as a potential client and waited in the reception to meet my new lawyer. He collected me 15 minutes late. He did not shake my hand in greeting or introduce himself properly. He then walked in front of me into the conference room.

Before I sat down my decision had been made and I was on my way pretty quickly.

On another occasion I went to have a copy of my passport Notarially Certified. I was shepherded into a room and a lawyer (a partner) appeared, did not introduce herself, did not ask me why I was at her firm and the only positive thing she said to me was ‘that will be GBP20.’

You could not make this up!

Needless to say, the habits of successful small law firms are the opposite of these two experiences of mine. The bedrock of customer service is just one thing - communication.

The lawyers running successful small firms effectively embed obsessive customer service throughout the culture of the firm. They are specialists in communication. From the moment the clients walk through the door until the matter (no matter how big or small) is completed, they keep the client fully and repeatedly informed about the progress of the matter. By doing so, they consistently demonstrate how the firm values the client.

It is so well known that referrals from happy existing clients comprise a law firm’s primary referral source. Yet so many lawyers forget this, and overlook customer service. Successful lawyers don’t.

With modern technology it is so much easier to perform all these tasks with quality and frequency.

These lawyers also think about new ways of communicating with clients including self-service portals where clients can book appointments, pay bills and make deposits, view their matter and comment on documents, complete online onboarding forms and make instant recommendations for you.

  1. Show courtesy in every interaction
  2. Train the lawyers to be ‘nice’
  3. Keep in constant contact regarding matter updates
  4. Maintain constant contact with client newsletters
  5. Provide innovative ways to collaboratively work on matters online, and interact with the firm using self-service portals

Habit Eleven - They understand their finances

Most lawyers receive no training in financial management or even basic bookkeeping. Minor courses in Trust (Client) Money accounting do not equip a lawyer to run a business. This is not good.

The principals of successful small law firms are different. Without exception, they understand the finances of their firms. If they don’t have a natural aptitude with numbers, they have taken steps to remedy this. The result is that they:
  • Understand the economics of the firms; AND
  • Understand the economics of a matter.
Running a small firm is no different to running any business. To successfully grow a firm, understanding the sources of capital and effectively managing them is critical.

The most important source of working capital for a small firm is the revenue generated from legal work. With stable working capital you have choices. Without it you have stress and uncertainty about the future. The best firms don’t always charge the highest rates, though some may because of the quality of service they provide. Rather, what they do is:
  1. Ensure that they have a deposit in place to cover initial fees and disbursements whenever possible;
  2. Ensure that every activity (in and out of the office) is accurately and contemporaneously recorded eliminating guess work from the activity recording and billing process. A failure to accurately record billable work is the single biggest source of revenue loss in every law firm I have ever encountered);
  3. Ensure that bills are generated as soon as it is appropriate;
  4. Ensure that everyone in the firm (without exception, including principals and partners) generates bills using the same system;     
  5. Ensure that bills are actually sent! (Yes. I have seen many generated bills resting peacefully on desks and window sills in offices of lawyers);
  6. Make it easy for clients to pay using modern online payment methods;
  7. Follow up debt to ensure it is paid on time.
With a good understanding of revenue, these excellent firms also understand which matters are profitable. This also means they need to pursue profitable work or accept that unprofitable work is a marketing expense. Measuring matter profit is not easy. By keeping accurate time records for every matter (whether billable or not), they are able to measure the time spent against the amount charged, and then measure it against the base cost of the lawyer providing the legal advice. In this way they can adjust their charge rates as needed to achieve the desired profitability level.

Maintaining the firm’s charge rates requires a deep understanding of the value of the services being provided and the means of the client base being serviced.

Successful firms take the time to work this out.

It is true in business that no-one has ever saved their way to success, and these firms don’t. But they are obsessive about understanding and maintaining cost control. They are particularly careful about managing disbursements. These costs are so easily incurred, and yet, in the absence of discipline, so easily overlooked when billing. This can risk converting a client cost into a firm expense.

These firms have also moved away from only looking at their financials as historical ‘how did we do last month?’ documents. It is remarkable how many firms still try to run this way.

Successful firms monitor performance daily through automatically generated performance reports. Instead of being historians, they can immediately identify issues regarding lawyer performance and client delinquency as soon as a problem appears and do something about it early. This creates a well-run and financially efficient law firm.

  1. Understand the finances of the firm
  2. Understand the profitability of different matter types
  3. Ensure that every activity is recorded
  4. Don’t continue working if bills are unpaid
  5. Be proactive about managing revenue and costs, stop managing history

To summarise, these are the 11 habits of highly successful law firms.

  1. They are efficient
  2. They enjoy practising law
  3. They employ smart people and treat them really well
  4. They have selected areas of law they like and focus on them
  5. They dedicate time to building the firm as a business
  6. They are early adopters of technology
  7. They confront the challenges of getting paid and solve them
  8. They have standard processes and procedures in place for all matters
  9. They make compliance a natural consequence of running a firm well
  10. They become experts in customer service
  11. They understand their finances
Of course, there are so many other things that these successful firms do. These 11 habits reflect the essence of what I have observed across a broad cross section of firms doing different types of law in different jurisdictions.

The injunction though, which we have intentionally repeated throughout this paper, is that you must ACT! Do something. I would enjoy any correspondence on any of the topics raised and even suggestions for additional habits.

About our Guest Blogger

Richard Hugo-Hamman is the Executive Chairman of LEAP Legal Software, the #1 provider of software and integrated legal research materials to small law firms in the world.

LEAP has always been obsessive about garnering user feedback to inform its innovation path.  True to this approach Richard has personally visited hundreds of small law firms in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. This gives Richard a unique perspective on what makes a successful small law firm.

The 11 Habits of Successful Small Law Firms is a distillation of the insights he has gained from these client visits.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chairmanleaplegalsoftware/

Web: www.leaplegalsoftware.com

Leadership: live it, love it or leave it alone

Monday, November 26, 2018

By Ricky Nowak, CEO, Ricky Nowak & Associates

The age old question asks whether leaders are born or made. And somehow, we never get tired of asking it or seeking the answer. Truth is that perhaps both options are true. In my view most people in leadership positions can develop leadership skills like communication, presence, EQ etc but that won’t always make them leaders. 

In fact, some people may be a whole lot happier without the title or the stress.

As Shakespeare so aptly wrote in King Henry IV,

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

So instead of asking if leaders are born or made, ask yourself if you think you have what it takes to be a leader?

If you don’t truly own the leadership position or enjoy it for that matter, then my suggestion is to leave it alone; at least for now anyway or until such time as the role and what it means is clearer for you.

The leadership role is not for everyone. While many have the ability to lead, it is clear not everyone aspires to it but rather is nudged or pushed along by expectations or pressure of others.

However if things are in alignment in terms of your goals and you are afforded the opportunity to lead and want it, leadership becomes a way of thinking; a way of life and not just a role.  You live as a leader because it’s who you are. It’s part of your leadership DNA.

Of course it’s likely that there are gaps in everyone’s leadership skills even when they are at the top of their game. But good leaders relish the opportunity to learn, thrive and accelerate on the back of sometimes uncomfortable outcomes.  This is because they are not afraid to take their responsibility seriously and tap into their inner potential and polish it for the benefit of better outcomes.

If being an effective leader is really the direction you wish to head, you need to align your authentic intent, your style and your ability. Once you do that, you will be able to take the leadership role and immediately begin leading with real integrity.

If you have read this and feel that you aren’t cut out to be a leader, that’s great. No team is successful if everyone wants to lead. It needs supporters, workers, ideas people and more. Be proud that you’ve recognised your own capabilities.  Your contribution is just as important.

On the other hand, perhaps you’ve come to realise that there is no one set model of leadership, and that the picture you had in your head was of only one particular style. You might realise that you actually do have leadership potential, so do something about it – and that begins with having a good mentor, coach or outside thinking partner or confidante to rattle your thoughts and get you into action.

Being a genuine leader is for those with a true passion for the role, and who want to make a positive difference in their organisation. Whatever your style, successful leadership begins and ends with being true to whatever makes us the best we can be - to ourselves, to others and to the organisations we lead.

About our Guest Blogger

Ricky is a professional Facilitator, Keynote Speaker, and Executive Coach with over 30 years’ experience in executive and business training and development within Australasia. She has been successful in creating sustainable change and increased productivity for clients in diverse industries ranging from Engineering, Construction, Legal, Finance, Agribusiness, Urban Design, Technology, NFP, Government, Project Management, Mining, Medical and Mental Health, Transport and Logistics. Her unique style of presentation delivery and coaching has helped her diverse clients achieve outstanding commercial and professional results for themselves, their teams and their organisations.

She has trained, spoken or facilitated work over 3000 presentations to companies and individuals globally. She is a certified speaking professional, certified human resource professional, author of four business books, preferred Executive Coach for the Australian Institute of Company Directors and regular commentator on national radio and blogger for Australian Human Resource Institute.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rickynowak/     Web: www.rickynowak.com

'Hands up' if....

Friday, November 23, 2018

By Steve Sampson, Principal Consultant, Steve Sampson Consulting

The following article is adapted from material presented at a breakfast seminar held in Sydney on 22 November 2018. The speaker James G Perkins (Jim), COO of the San Diego-based firm, Procopio, is in the region presenting to several law firm conferences and took the opportunity to meet with some of our Sydney-based members to speak about the responsibilities of COO’s within the legal profession and what the future holds. Thanks go to Sue-Ella Prodonovich of Prodonovich Advisory  for introducing Jim to ALPMA.

‘Hands up’ if you’ve got one of these problems currently in your firm!

  • You have poorly performing or badly-behaved partners dragging the firm down, ‘ruining’ the culture and there is nothing you feel can be, or is being, done to deal with the issues.

  • The ‘wrong’ things are being recognised and remunerated in your firm.

  • Your firm is looking to grow and keeps hiring lateral partners, half of whom leave within two or three years or otherwise stay and exacerbate the other issues already in the firm.

  • Your office premises lease is up for renewal in the next 18 or so months.

If you put your ‘hand up’ for any of those four preconditions, then watch out! You and your firm have moved into that space that is driving most of the negative change that has beset the legal profession over the last five years or so.

The problems are not new!

The market for professional legal services is a mature one. Lots of articles have been written about the competitive pressures facing the profession and the changes that the profession has been undergoing over the last decade – and especially over the last three or four years.

These pressures have seen the legal landscape change markedly. Breakout groups from large firms have started boutiques. Smaller firms have merged to become larger ones. And there is an ever-growing number of firms in the middle that are today mere shadows of their former selves, if indeed, they still exist at all.

For all of the change underway in the profession, it is still plagued by issues that have been around for decades. Whilst the focus for some has been turned towards better servicing clients and adopting new technologies, it seems that, for many, the profession’s Achilles-heel remains.  And that is, issues centred around partner behaviours and partnership alignment.

What follows is a list of common (non-financial*) issues that face law firms and that lead to the discontinuities that often precipitate failure: [*Financial; issues are a whole other discussion!]

1.  An inability to deal with underperforming or badly-behaved partners – law firms - and especially partnerships -- are built around two main forces that maintain the status quo:

a. financial prosperity and a focus on financial performance

b. the strength and tenure of personal relationships between partners

So, what happens when one or both of these drivers comes into question? It is the firm’s ability (and often, its inability!) to deal with these matters that leads to internal disruption, high performing partner departures and sometimes (often?), failure.

We’ve all gotten together as partners at one Retreat or another and agreed that we value cultural alignment and good behaviour over, solely, financial results. And yet, every year there is discussion around what to do with the badly-behaved partner who carries a big book of business. These are, understandably, tough issues to deal with in most firms. But they must be dealt with!

And, believe it or not, some firms even struggle to address poor behaviours from partners who are abysmal financial performers. But not to worry! Those firms won’t be around for long enough for those issues to perpetuate.

So, what to do? Agree as a partnership on how you’d like to deal with these issues and then have the courage to take action. You will be surprised at the positive cultural impact and profitability that will come from being brave in this space

2. Compensation plans that drive behaviours which are inconsistent with the firm’s strategy or otherwise counter to ensuring that the partnership is fully aligned – if your stated firm strategy is to “reward and recognise strategic and behavioural contributions”, as well as financial performance, then don’t be surprised if all that anyone focuses on is ‘revenue generation’ if that is all that your compensation plan recognises.

Action: Agree on the things that are important to the overall long-term success of the firm and then be brave enough to objectively recognise and reward those things. Even the fluffy things such as behaviour can be measured through various assessment tools or staff surveys. If you truly want to see behavioural and cultural change, then roll those things into your Compensation Plan!

3. Poor lateral hiring decisions leading to an influx of poorly aligned new partners - in the pursuit of revenue growth, it is amazing how little due diligence is sometimes done when assessing new partners for entry into the business. It is this lack of intelligent assessment that is, in part, the reason for such a high failure rate amongst lateral hires. Just as important however, is when firms do not live up to the expectations of the new partners, the firm having been ‘over-sold’ during interviews or otherwise under-stated the issues relative to some of the current behaviours embedded in the firm (i.e. they lied to the interviewee!). Either way, this lack of alignment makes for unhappy outcomes.

For all of the firms that are struggling with these issues, there are others that are surviving, and in some cases, thriving. Those firms have adapted to this new highly competitive environment. They are dealing with these issues. They are using technology and engaging in modern management practices to better serve their clients and, in so doing, they are outmanoeuvring their competitors. In other words, they are dealing with their internal issues before one or more of those issues diminish their ability to do so!

And finally:

4. If you have a premises lease up for renewal any time soon, then I refer you to points 1 to 3 above. If you haven’t dealt with those aspects within your firm by the time that premises discussion is upon you, then ‘watch out’ because there is a very high likelihood that you will get to deal with those issues, likely, all at once and in less desirable circumstances.

About our Guest Blogger

Steve Sampson is an experienced change-agent in the professional services space having been CEO, COO, General Manager and now Consultant into the legal profession. Steve is a member of the NSW ALPMA Committee, has held roles as National President, National Treasurer and was recently recognised as a Life Member of the association. Steve holds a B.Ec., an MBA and is a Fellow of both CPA Australia and the Australian Institute of Company Directors. Steve can be contacted at Steve Sampson Consulting (sampsonsjs@outlook.com).

LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/steve-sampson-65a7b01/

Using Your Super to Support Transition to Retirement

Monday, November 19, 2018

By Andrew Proebstl, Chief Executive, legalsuper

People who are considering reducing their work hours in the leadup to retirement, but who are concerned about not having enough disposable income as a result can, through a superannuation transition to retirement (TTR) strategy, access part of their super to top up their income.

At the same time, a superannuation TTR strategy brings with it the opportunity to take advantage of unique and significant taxation benefits available only to members of super funds.

When can I start to access my super?

Many people assume that the only time they can access their super is once they fully retire. While this was the case when compulsory superannuation was first introduced in 1992, this has changed.

It changed in 2005 to reflect new approaches and attitudes to work - and retirement – with more people preferring to ‘ease’ into retirement via reduced work hours or consultancy work or other arrangements as opposed to the traditional approach of working full-time for one’s entire career, before going ‘full-time’ into retirement.

The determinant of when you can begin to access your super is not necessarily whether you are working full or part-time or occasionally. The determinant is your age, specifically what is called, in superannuation, your ‘preservation age’. Once you reach your preservation age you can begin to access your super.

For people born before 1 July 1960, their preservation age is 55 years. For those born between 1 July 1960 and 30 June 1961, it is 56 years. For those born between 1 July 1961 and 30 June 1962 it is 57 years. For those born between 1 July 1962 and 30 June 1963 it is 58 years. For those born between 1 July 1963 and 30 June 1964 it is 59 years and for those born on or after 1 July 1964 it is 60 years.

There are also limitedexceptional circumstances which allow people to access their super before their preservation age. These circumstances are mainly related to specific medical conditions or severe financial hardship.

If I can access my super, why don’t I just take it all?

Once you reach your preservation age, you can begin to access part of your super savings via a TTR strategy.

And when you turn 65, regardless of your work status, you have full access to your super savings.

For some people, the option of accessing some of their super savings may be attractive as they may choose to use funds to pay off debts such as mortgages.

The downside of such an approach is that your hard-earned superannuation account balance is meant to help fund the type of lifestyle you have been planning to live in retirement.

There may also be tax and loss of insurance consequences attached to such an approach compared to maintaining your super account and drawing an income via a TTR strategy. It is well worth discussing this issue in detail with your financial planner and super fund.

Also worth considering is the well documented risk that comes with sudden access to significant amounts of money; people may perhaps spend more of their financial savings than they had planned and find themselves short of funds a few years later.

TTR pension accounts

Assuming you have reached your preservation age, and would like to access part of your super, setting up a TTR super pension account is easily and quickly done. Your super fund will set up your TTR pension account into which you transfer some, but typically not all, of your super account balance.

You will often need to leave at least a small balance in your super account so that it remains open to receive ongoing employer super contributions and any voluntary contributions you choose to make.

It is well worthwhile discussing with your financial planner and super fund, how much of your super account balance should be transferred to your TTR pension account.

In terms of the investment earnings generated on your super savings, it is important to note that the funds you have in both your super account and your TTR pension account will continue to compound, and at the same rate.

Taxation advantages of TTR pension accounts

Successive Australian governments have committed to a range of tax advantages which are unique to superannuation. They have done so to encourage people to save for their future via contributing to their super. These tax advantages are part of the benefit people enjoy, the quid pro quo if you like, in return for their super contributions being locked away until they reach their preservation age.

When you set up a TTR pension account and continue to work (full or part-time), you can also continue to enjoy the unique super tax benefits that come from making voluntary contributions (eg, by salary-sacrificing) from your salary to your super.

TTR pension account members who are still working (full or part-time) can make concessional contributions (eg Superannuation Guarantee paid by an employer and salary sacrifice contributions) of up to $25,000 per financial year into their super. These contributions are taxed at the low rate of 15 per cent as compared to your marginal tax rate, which typically will be much higher.

In relation to the money you withdraw from your TTR pension account, these withdrawals are completely tax free for those aged 60 and over. If you are aged 55–59, you may pay tax on the TTR income, but you will receive a tax offset equal to 15 per cent of the taxable portion of the income.

For those super fund members wishing to do more reading to determine whether a TTR pension account strategy is the right move now, or in the next few years, the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) MoneySmart website contains excellent independentinformation on this subject,  including case studies on topics such as ‘Using a TTR pension to reduce work hours and ‘Using a TTR income stream to maintain work hours and save tax.

About our Guest Blogger

AndrewProebstl is Chief Executive of legalsuper, Australia’s super fund for the legal community.  Qualifying as a Chartered Accountant while working with Arthur Andersen, Andrew has broad experience across the superannuation industry with fund administrators, investment managers, custodians and other superannuation funds. 

Andrew is a member of the Policy Committee and Member Services Committee and former Director of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees. He is also a former member of the Victorian Executive of the Associations of Superannuation Funds of Australia.  He regularly presents at superannuation industry conferences and writes regular superannuation columns for law societies across Australia.

P:  03 9602 0101 

E:  aproebstl@legalsuper.com.au


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