A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

The Great Illusion That Is Communication

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

By Guest Blogger, John Chisholm, John Chisholm Consulting & ALPMA Victoria Committee Member


“The greatest enemy of communication is the illusion of it.” Pierre Martineau

Earlier this year, Jordan Furlong, a Canadian lawyer turned consultant, commented in a blog post that as lawyers, “we pay close attention to the nature and quality of the legal work we do, but we pay relatively little attention to how we deliver that work, how our services are received, and how the client feels about it.”

In an environment where the market for legal services per se is contracting, firms are cannibalising each other to get more work, our best people are regularly being poached by our competitors or other industries and new game changers are entering the market with ever increasing frequency, it seems odd that firms are still struggling with something as seemingly simple as communicating with their clients. It is also somewhat ironic is it not, given that lawyers pride themselves as being amongst the worlds great orators and wordsmiths, that most client complaints (and for lawyers the majority of costs disputes) are in reality "communication misunderstandings”, much more so than complaints of technical incompetence?

Particularly given (or some might argue because of?) the advances in technology and the variety of communication channels now available, theoretically there should be no reason (or excuses) for poor communication.

There is a general perception that some professionals, despite being technically brilliant, are sometimes "bad" communicators. I prefer to believe that our problem might be we are communicating ineffectively.  We do communicate, but sometimes it is out of necessity or in order to adhere to rules and process  (regulations of course govern how, when & what lawyers should communicate with their clients- presumerably because without such regulations we would not communicate at all ?) rather than because we have given consideration to the effect we wish to have or how our clients feel about a chosen communications approach.

Today more than ever before effective communication = effective service.

Of course, ‘effective’ will mean different things to different people, and below are a few examples suggested to us by clients of firms as to what they believe constitutes effective and ineffective communication by their lawyers.

1. "We want usable and relevant content - not something we have to decipher”

What might your client ultimately do with your advice?  You might enjoy drafting an 18 page advice, but if your client General Counsel needs your advice for a presentation or report to their Board or Executive, or to give a simple answer to their CEO, the last thing your client wants to do is spend their time or that of their team translating ‘legalese’ or 'accountonian' into some kind of usable format.

I know of one General Counsel who uses a particular external lawyer because they don’t use unnecessary legalese- instead they provide “user friendly” communication often including things such as charts, flow diagrams, decision trees and other visualisations.  

Another client recently told me they use a particular lawyer because they always use the phone to explain often complex advice-before asking whether he is required to send follow up written advice.

Another GC bemoaned the "lost art" of the phone conversation and pondered whether it is now replaced by emails, memos and lengthy advices because some external lawyers think they can charge more for those?

Good lawyers do not make assumptions but instead always ask a new client what mode of communication they prefer and how regularly they would like it.

2. “Please understand what we value - if you don’t know, ask us” 

Sorry, but all clients are not the same, do not have the same needs, values or requirements and as such- they should not be treated the same. 

We often make assumptions as to what clients want and need when really, the only way to understand what your clients actually value (what they see as important and what they don’t) is to have a conversation with them about it.

Whether you ask them or not, every client will have their own expectations in relation to non technical aspects of what you provide, such as:
  • turnaround times and milestones,
  • accessibility and  responsiveness (if and when you- or anyone-will return their call or email them),
  • resourcing (who will I be working with? who’s names on the bill?), and
  • the total fees (how much is this going to cost me- not how are you going to charge me?).
Our ability to understand and manage these types of clients expectations will be the biggest factor in determining whether or not they perceive value in what we do- and if your client doesn’t understand (or agree with) the value you provide - whose fault is that?

It is best to discuss those expectations before the work is done rather than during or after, is it not?

Use your initial conversations with your client to discuss (not tell) with them how you will work together, and how you will manage and meet their expectations.

3. “Talk with us about price, and be open and honest from the outset - we don’t want surprises”  

Clients are increasingly saying they want some certainty around fees, would like more options and that they want to be sure their law firms will deliver on whatever promises they make - within budget. Doesn't sound unreasonable - does it?

Unfortunately, time and time again, clients relate experiences with firms that routinely under quote or underestimate (or over-service) without a word of warning or explanation (until they’re asked for one), and many still refuse to provide any form of price certainty (because “we don’t know how long this will take”).

Rather than having open discussions about pricing up front and providing some certainty, many clients continue to suffer what professional firm consultant, Michelle Golden, calls the “bill and duck” approach. That is, firms invoice a client at the end of the month and then duck for cover hoping the client will pay it, or at least part of it.. eventually.

Clients increasingly prefer firms that scope the work, agree on prices (not estimates) and ensure they regularly communicate with them. If there is likely to be a change in scope, they want to know before the scope has changed-not afterwards.

Sure sometimes we like little surprises, but only if they are good surprises (like birthday parties, lottery wins, sporting results). No one likes bad surprises-especially if a cost is associated with it.

If you get the scope and price out of the way early on and then you can concentrate on solving your clients needs.Danny Ertel, of Vantage Partners, puts it well when he says, “When firm partners and their clients set out to problem-solve, rather than posture about the size of the discount, they actually come up with some fairly clever arrangements.”

Finally even if we do communicate effectively, whether we get engagement & connection from that communication is another topic altogether.

Editor's Note:

Interested in delving deeper into the subject of client requirements and expectations?   ALPMA Victoria ran an interactive panel discussion on "What Clients Really Want" earlier this year.  Read the ALPMA e-newsletter article summarising the outcomes by panel facilitator, Richard Hobson, CEO of Linchpin Legal Management Pty Ltd.

About our Guest Blogger

John Chisholm is  principal of John Chisholm Consulting and a former partner and Managing Partner of Maddocks and former CEO of Middletons.   He is recognised for his management, leadership and visionary skills, as well as his ability to think outside the square. His experience as both a professional and consultant includes assisting many firms and professionals with strategy and business planning, career management, governance structures, new business development, client relationship management, performance and pricing.  John is also a long-serving member of the ALPMA Victoria Committee.

What can we do to improve mental health in the legal profession?

Monday, November 12, 2012

By Guest Blogger, Margaret Jolly, Managing Director, Margaret Jolly Consulting

The incidence of mental illness in the general population is about one in five, but in the legal profession, one in three people will at some stage in their careers, suffer a mental illness.  Unfortunately for lawyers, it can often start while they are still students.

What is a mental illness?

A mental illness is a diagnosable illness which affects a person’s thinking, emotional state and behaviour, and disrupts the person’s ability to:

  • work, 
  • carry out daily activities; and 
  • engage in satisfying relationships.
The most common of these illnesses affecting the general population are depression (including bipolar disorder, and anxiety (which comes in many forms).

So what is it about the legal profession?

There are many reasons why lawyers are more prone to depression and anxiety – the very fact that lawyers tend to have to be pessimists, looking at the worst case scenario for their clients, impacts their thinking generally.  Lawyers can also tend to be high achieving perfectionists, and the impact of long working hours, time charging, competing demands, and deadlines cause an enormous amount of stress.  

Perfectionism also prevents these people from wanting to talk about their illness, fearing an impact on career progression, and being ‘exposed’ as not being ‘good enough’, while being blissfully unaware that a large number of their colleagues are also suffering in silence. While the focus tends to be on lawyers, we need to also remember that support staff in this high pressure environment is affected either directly or indirectly by the effects of stress and mental illness as well.

What can we as managers do about this?

1. Do away with the notion that mental illness is a taboo subject

Most importantly, start talking about it at work as a legitimate and potentially common issue that needs to be addressed.

2. Teach resilience strategies as part of an overall mental health awareness program

Resilience is both the way we, and our bodies prepare for adversity and challenges, and how we respond to adversity and challenges. How we respond to adversity, after the event,  is very important.  People who are resilient bounce back quickly, and learn from their experiences, good and bad.

3. Help your staff be mentally well prepared to deal with stress

There are no great secrets for being well prepared.  Get enough sleep, exercise, have a good diet, outside interests and hobbies and means of relaxation outside work, and a good work/life balance all help us be strong enough to cope with the vicissitudes of life in a demanding professional services environment.  As a manager, think about how well your working environment supports these fundamental basics – and whether your leadership models these kinds of behaviour – and then discuss what you could do to improve this. It doesn’t all require radical cultural change! You could, for example, introduce a company sponsored gym membership or conduct Weight Watchers meetings in-house.

However, given the prevalence of mental health in the legal profession, it is vital that firms are equipped with the necessary skills to deal with these issues, and to be able to provide staff with information about where to go for help and support. 

Editor's Note

Margaret is a co-presenter with Catherine Kenny, Executive Officer, College of Law at ALPMA’s next webinar “Maintaining Good Mental Health in the Legal Profession” on Thursday 15 November from 12.30 AEDT.  Register now to find out about resilience survival strategies that will help keep your workforce healthy,  how to start such a program and receive a useful list of intranet resources for managers and staff to access as a starting point.

About our Guest Blogger

Margaret Jolly, B.A, LL.B (Hons) is the Managing Director of specialist Human Resources consulting firm Margaret Jolly Consulting.  Margaret has worked in management in law firms for over 20 years, the majority of which in Human Resources, People Management and Training.  

Her view of People Management in professional services firms is that the business will succeed if its people, including partners, are engaged committed and have clear career paths. 
Her expertise includes career development, performance management, strategy, flexibility and diversity, conflict resolution, staff engagement and assisting people develop sustainable careers.  She is a qualified mental health first aid provider.  You can find her on Twitter - @MJollyConsult and on Linkedin - au.linkedin.com/pub/margaret-jolly/56/384/315.

Employee lawyers in private practice remain Award free

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

By Guest Blogger, Kriss Will, Director Kriss Will Consulting & ALPMA Life Member

As some of you would be aware, the Australian Services Union (ASU) made an application in March of this year to have employee lawyers working in private law firms included under the Legal Services Award.  They also made an application to have the Annualised Salary Clause removed.

On Thursday 25 October, Fair Work Australia dismissed the application by the ASU.  

This means that lawyers working in the private profession will remain Award free (noting there is Award coverage for law graduates) and the annualised salary clause remains part of the Legal Services Award.

The application by a group of law firm employers to insert into the Award a clause about when an employer can direct an employee to take annual leave will be heard early in 2013.

If you would like to read the information regarding this application, it can be found here.

Editor’s Note:

How the Legal Services Award operates, and in particular the annualised salary clause, will be addressed in ALPMA’s National HR Workshops in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide in March 2013.  This is a highly interactive forum where attendees learn how to effectively address the key HR challenges at their firm, get “tricky” HR questions answered by experts and share experiences and best practice with your peers. Kriss will be the facilitator at each of the HR Workshops, supported by a panel of HR practitioners and employment lawyers.  

About our Guest Blogger

Kriss Will is the Managing Director of Kriss Will Consulting Pty Ltd, a business which specialises in management consulting and training & development.    She has worked with professional service firms for over 20 years, holding in-house roles before establishing her management consultancy business in 1996. 

5 Ways To Minimise The Dangers of Mobile Devices

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

By Guest Blogger, Dennis Mills, CEO, Track Right Technology

These days your information often is your business, especially if you're a small business and even more so if you deal with sensitive legal information. Protecting that information with security systems, anti-virus software and backups is recognised as important by most practices, but what about all those mobile devices interacting with your carefully protected office systems?

Those laptops, smartphones and tablets pose a number of security risks that partners, practice owners and managers need to be aware of. Whilst the increasing trend towards Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) exacerbates these problems, the potential dangers affect all devices and arise mainly from three key areas:

Physical Security

The most obvious risk is probably physical security. The inherent portability of mobile devices means they are more prone to being stolen or lost, and whatever information they contain then potentially compromised.  Physical loss also poses the highest risk as all information on the device may be accessed given enough time. Are you aware what company information might be on these devices? Is sensitive information encrypted or otherwise protected? What steps can you take to protect this information once the device is out of your hands?

Social Media

Increasing but less obvious risks arise through things like social media sites who's business model relies on encouraging the sharing of as much information as possible. Can you be certain exactly what information your staff's devices might be unwittingly making available to others? BYOD increases the likelihood that the same device is being used for business and personal purposes, and thus increases the risk of information leakage from business to social media, but this can happen on business devices too without precautions.

Network Roaming

Your staff connecting their devices to other companies' networks - and conversely allowing non-company devices to connect to yours - is another area to consider. There could be inadvertent - or deliberate - transfer of information between these networks if appropriate precautions are not taken. If you and your competitors both interact with the networks of common clients or suppliers, this could seriously compromise your intellectual property or confidential client information.

5 Things You Can Do

  1. Put a policy in place, particularly in relation to BYOD, and have your IT systems enforce this where possible.
  2. Be aware of what information is or could be on mobile devices and assess the risk of its compromise.
  3. Have a plan to deal with loss or theft, such as centrally controlled erasing of all data on a device.
  4. Consider controlling access to information sharing applications or banning them completely from business-owned devices through application deployment policies and systems.
  5. Take precautions if sharing networks with clients or suppliers, such as limiting external devices to quarantined network segments or having highly restricted guest accounts.
Mobile devices can be a great productivity tool for your lawyers and staff, and to realise their potential it may often be necessary or desirable for sensitive information to reside on them. However it's important to recognise the risks that go along with the convenience that these devices offer, and to take appropriate steps to safeguard your practice's information.

About our Guest Blogger

Dennis Mills has over 27 years of experience in the high technology industry including a successful career in the highly respected CSIRO. Dennis possesses a strong understanding of the relationship between business imperatives and IT solutions, and demystifying technology for non-geeks has been a focus for his entire career.

 In 1997, along with Peter Court, he co-founded Track Right Technology which offers professional, tailored  IT management services to small and medium sized businesses,  particularly in the legal industry.

Emails Replace Conversations

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

by Guest Blogger, Trish Carroll, Galt Advisory

Emails are now our most common form of conversation.  If you communicate by email all day long you’d think you’d get very good at it.  Not so, if the alarming levels of email miscommunication is anything to go by.  Consider this advice when using email. 

The trouble with email

In our frantic world, emails get whipped off without enough care or planning. If you subscribe to the school of writing that says "how you write is who you are" and "good writing reflects good thinking" then an errors and omissions excepted (E&OE) approach is unacceptable.

If your emails don't elicit the actions you want all of the time then maybe you should re-read a selection of them from your sent box and see if you would respond to them.  Now there's a test!  

Emails are really good for:

  • asking for specific actions
  • sharing information at a high level
  • passing on detailed information with attachments 
  • keeping a team informed 
  • letting people know you're not around.

Emails are not good for

  • providing personal feedback
  • being substitutes for conversations
  • shaming other people via the cc function 
  • being disingenuous via the bcc function 
  • sharing bad news 
  • communicating to someone who sits near you when they're physically there. 

Some basic email etiquette:

As with all written communication you need to think about who is reading it and how you want them to think, feel or act as a result of your email.  So try:

  • using subject headings that are clear and say what you want up front - e.g. Action needed: budget approval
  • using subheadings throughout the email so people can see at a glance what you're on about 
  • keeping your email to one screen in length
  • only sending it to people who need to know 
  • error checking your emails as closely you would any other form of written communication.
We're all guilty of email crime from time to time but if you follow these simple rules you might find when people see your name in the "from" box they don't save it for later. Much later.

About our Guest Blogger

Trish Carroll founded Galt Advisory after leading the marketing and business development function of Minter Ellison Lawyers for 10 years to 2003. Galt Advisory primarily advises on marketing and business development strategy, brand issues, bid strategy and communication.

Trish has worked with lawyers for most of her working life. This means that she enjoys engaging in lively debate, loves logic, focuses on achieving results, takes the risks and gives the credit, puts her energy and effort into what counts most and believes passionately that humour is your best friend.   

A few years ago Trish decided to focus more attention on her three children instead of her resumé. This wisdom came later in life and Trish is now passionate about keeping life in perspective. Galt is an acronym for 'Get A Life Trish'. Trish still has trouble saying 'no' but she’s learning and when her skill has improved Galt’s meaning will change to 'Got A Life Trish'

10 Things you can do to improve the systems in your firm

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

By Guest Blogger, Paul TalkingtonVincents

There are obvious and compelling cost and quality benefits for having smoothly functioning systems at your firm that will:
  • ensure that staff understand how things work 
  • make it easier for your customer to work with you
  • eliminate duplication of effort
  • reduce the learning process for new staff
  • increase efficiency and eliminate wastage
  • make information readily accessible when it is required
  • engender an open and transparent workplace.
Typically, systems and processes evolve over time – and we rarely make the time to review how we are doing things and ask “Can we do it better?”.  I have put together my top 10 list of areas to tackle that will deliver quick returns to your firm, based on my experience working at and with professional services firms:
  1. Identify the top 10 undocumented activities that are occurring in your firm that cause the most frustration by staff, ask them what they are.

  2. Identify the top five areas of the firm you need staff to be multi-skilled, e.g. doing the banking, manning reception, reconciling  the trust account, do you have back up staff adequately trained who can do these tasks?

  3. Does your firm have written scripts on how your receptionist answers the phone, out of office message on voice mail, questions when calling clients to pay their overdue bills?

  4. Does your firm make policy and procedure changes 'on the run', by email sent by well meaning but not authorised staff without considering the wider implications?

  5. Do your written policy and procedures forms and manuals have footers with a creation date, version number, review date and author?

  6. Are staff required to save all firm-wide documents onto the network computer drive of the practice, or do they all reside un-backed up on the staff members hard drive or in their email system? 

  7. Is there a partner of the firm who has the final responsibility for systems operation and enforcement for the systems that the partners have agreed to operate the firm under?

  8. What are the sanctions for not correctly using the firms systems or following approved processes for staff, are the partners aware of non compliance,  are they also  the main offenders?

  9. How often do the partners review "What is best practice for a firm our size and client base?" How often do they speak to their software suppliers, trust account auditors, external advisors and peers about how to achieve this? 

  10. Have a three month trial, then seek feedback from stakeholders and review the outcomes good and bad at the end of this process when you are trying to make a change to a system. 

What is your best improvement tip?

This list is by no means definitive, so please feel free to share your best ideas and experiences with improving systems and processes in the Comments area below.

About our Guest Blogger 

Paul Talkington B.A.(Acc) / CA is the Director - Taxation & Business Solutions at Vincents. Paul looks after a range of medium sized private clients including law firms, heavy industries, retail and mining supplies businesses. He has significant involvement in business restructuring, cash flow management, business and personal income tax, finance applications and due diligence. He has a particular interest in implementing practical solutions in order to improve business gross margins and cash flows.

Paul joined Vincents in 2008 and became a director in 2011. He has an extensive background in both commerce and public practice. Paul has worked in various areas, including middle market advisory at Deloitte, chief financial officer of a national logistics group and general manager commercial for a mining supplies business.

11 Practical Tips to Build Your Resilience

Monday, October 08, 2012

by Guest Blogger, Stuart Taylor, The Resilience Institute

 It is Beyond Blue’s Mental Health Week this week – which makes it a particularly good time to start a conversation about better managing depression and anxiety at your firm.
The effects of depression and anxiety are well publicised at all levels of the legal profession. For those new to the profession, resilience failure and depression are at alarmingly high rates.  The Resilience Institute research into Australian (and New Zealand) law firms shows a consistent message.  
Our proprietary assessment instrument “Resilience Diagnostic”, compares an individual’s resilience assets to their resilience liabilities – a ratio called Resilience Ratio© . When viewed as an average, the Resilience Ratio for Law Firms is 1.3:1, well below that of other sectors such as Banking and Finance at 2.2:1 and an acceptable level for high performance teams of 2.5:1.

Why are legal professionals more susceptible to resilience failure and depression?

A productivity paradox exists in many firms.  The harder we are seen to be working, the better the results.
The intense personal environment experienced by legal professionals, with constant emphasis on billable hours, high utilisation rates, attention to detail, and aggressive deadlines, represent only the initial challenge to balance for both individuals and firms. Mental health impacts can also take their toll, especially if the firm and the individual fail to create integral daily practices to sustain human performance and quality of life.
Add to this the lawyer thinking styles that focus on worst case scenario, pessimistic views and hyper vigilance can often become pervasive character traits. Add to this a combination of perfectionism and competitiveness and one can witness a recipe for eroding the resilience of individuals and the firms they operate within.

What can you do to build your resilience?

 In fact, it is the value of regular renewal breaks, sleep, exercise and nutrition that serves individuals, firm and client with greater performance.  Here are 11 practical tips that will help improve your personal resilience: 

1. Breathe Deeply
Create 10 minutes morning and night to relax. Focus on a smooth slow breath using the diaphragm – 5 seconds inhale and 3 seconds exhale. Lower your body and mind into quietude.

2. Eliminate Confusion
 Be draconian in your discipline to delete, delegate and focus on key priorities.

3. Ritualise Renewal
Take regular breaks through the day. Work in ‘Ultradian Sprints’ of 90 minutes with time out to rest, refuel and reflect.

4. See the light
Enjoy a walk of 15-20 minutes in the sunshine of late afternoon. The walk will provide creative thinking space and oxygenate the body. Sunlight boosts Vitamin D3, lifting mood.

5. Lock in Your Wake Up Time
Rise at the same time each morning, 7 days a week and aim for no less than 7-8 hours sleep per night. You will set a consistent circadian rhythm to energise your body and maintain essential recovery processes. Sleep is often the first item we give up when trying to cram more into each day. Avoid such a practice.

6. Bedtime Cool Down
 Reduce the overactive mind and prepare for sleep with a brain ‘cool down’ 45 minutes before bed - a guided, audio deep relaxation is ideal. Prior to bedtime, Avoid laptop, TV, iPad, phone and electronic screens, as these stimulate our mind into wakefulness.

7. Avoid caffeine in any form after 3pm 
This includes coffee, tea, cola, chocolate and energy drinks! Sugary stimulants will spike your blood sugar for a short term ‘hit’, but quickly subside, leading to irritability; poor sleep less productivity and focus. Caffeine after 3pm will ruin quality sleep and recovery.

8.  Snack Wisely 
Reduce temptation of sugar and snack cravings by eating a healthy, low GI breakfast with whole grains and/or protein (eggs). Choose nuts, fruit or low fat yogurt instead of processed chips, sugary snacks.

9.  Get Moving
Cardiovascular exercise of 20 minutes for 3-5 times per week can contribute to reducing depression, boosting heart health and mental sharpness. Aim for something you enjoy, whether it’s running, cycling and swimming. Boost the benefits by challenging a friend to join you for added motivation and social connection.

10.  Witness Your Thoughts
Most depression is a thinking disease. We talk our way down the spiral to depression. Monitor your thinking to observe when your thinking is optimist or pessimistic. Resilient people think with realistic, optimistic thoughts.

11.  Appreciate
 Make a conscious effort to list two or three positive things you did or experienced during the day. Boost positivity and realistic optimism by reflecting on two things that went well, rather than ruminating over the one thing that didn’t go according to plan.

Resilient Leaders

The implementation of the resilience life practices and resilient leadership styles must extend to all partners and leaders. The critical mass of leaders operating with resilient life practices fosters a calm, healthy, and sustainable high performance culture rather than one characterised by overload, perfectionism and fear. The benefit is significant with more effective decision making, greater positivity, creativity, reduced absenteeism and presenteeism and retention of talent.

Editor’s Note

This post is an extract from “Building Firm &Personal Resilience” By Stuart Taylor & Robert Hart of The Resilience Institute, published in the ALPMA March 2012 e-newsletter.

About our Guest Blogger

Stuart Taylor is the Managing Partner, Australia for The Resilience Institute In 2002, while climbing the ladder to corporate executive, Stuart was diagnosed with Brain Cancer; prognosis 2.5 years. Far from accept the prognosis; Stuart embarked on a journey back to physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual health. 

Part of this journey included creating The Resilience Institute in Australia to share his experience and philosophy with Australian organisations. Stuart has recently celebrated his 10 year milestone and is going from strength to strength.  You can read more about his personal journey in "A Story of Four Hats" - Part 1 & Part 2.

Prior to joining The Resilience Institute, Stuart was an Associate Director with KPMG and then worked as a senior manager in a global corporation. Stuart has worked with leading Australasian organisations such as GE Money, NAB, Citigroup and Vodafone and is regular presenter at ALPMA events. 

Partner Performance Measurement: Why Most Firms Have it Wrong

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

By Guest Blogger, Peter C Ross, Senior Consultant, William Thyme & Prophet

Recently I sat in on a discussion about measuring and rewarding fee earners in professional service firms, specifically legal at the ALPMA National Summit. I was very surprised to hear that there was a blurry line (almost no line) between fee earners and partners in terms of real measurement metric and methodologies. It’s prompted me to write this little article outlining my (quite different apparently) views on the topic.

It seems that the majority of firms still base the lion's share of partner performance measurement on personal fees created or billed, and quite frankly I’m shocked and disappointed that this is still the case. I was so shocked I wrote a three slide presentation and immediately displayed it on our stand.  The first slide simply said:

I’ve typically held the view that a Partner (or senior manager) in a professional service firm is primarily a business unit manager, project manager and marketer. Not to mention a mentor, quality control officer and a human resources manager within that business unit. I want to make the partner responsible for a lot of things which have nothing whatsoever to do with their personal billable fees (well very little), but I do want them to be productive. 

Those things include:-

  • Attract, nurture and retain great professional and support staff
  • Promote the firm's reputation and credibility
  • Support and focus on client needs
  • Build relationships internally and externally which make a difference
  • Control the quality of output of people in their team and the firm generally
  • Be available as the ‘trusted advisor’ role for key clients
I’m guessing that most of you reading this are nodding away saying ‘yes that’s what I want partners to do as well’, and yet so much of their performance measurement seems to be focused on personal fees, which encourages them to actively AVOID doing most of these things. Some simple examples In times of limited work flowing into the firm or team, (most firms have seen this in the past two years or so), I want Partners to work on changing that amount of work and increase the overall activity levels in the firm. Ideally in advance of, but certainly during these periods, Partners
should be innovating, marketing to clients and potentials, and doing everything they can to keep everyone in their teams busy. When, and only when, the team is screaming ‘enough !’ should the partners be getting involved in the more routine production aspects of the business. Up to that point they’ll be pretty fully occupied with account management, mentoring, quality control and marketing.

By contrast, what these traditional personal measurement approaches encourage partners to do is hoard whatever residual work exists, in order to keep their personal chargeable hours and production high, at the expense of their talented and dependent resources. Of course when the work returns (assuming it does), these talented resources have already become disenfranchised and are looking about for new roles in what is now becoming a talent
poor competitive market place. The net result is that we’ve kept these expensive talented resources and starved them of work and development during the lean times (and hence not got much production out of them) and now poised to capitalise on the talent we have as demand increases, we’ve actively encouraged them to leave.

So what to do?

Well having decided that just measuring billable hours isn’t smart, what should we be doing to manage Partners and Senior managers of our legal services business units. I accept that some of this is radical, but then as Einstein said ‘ Insanity is doing the same thing expecting a different result’. He seems to have been universally accepted as being quite bright,so it’s perhaps worth thinking about a different approach:-.

  1. Give partners a MAXIMUM chargeable hours per day budget. I’m thinking 3-4 hours.
  2. Tell the teams that Partners are not the production engines, they are, and Partners have a different role (per the above suggestions).
  3. Set other time budgets for Partners to fill their days with stuff we want them to do
  4. Now, get radical, and come up with a completely new set of measurement metrics for Partners, including:- 
4.1. Team average billable hours per day (including partners)
4.2. Team Revenue
4.3. Team Profitability
4.4. Talent acquisition and retention metrics
4.5. Client outcome and satisfaction metrics
4.6. Working capital management metrics
4.7. New matters acquired fee estimates (see later re referral commissions)
4.8. New Matters commissions earned (see later re commissions)
4.9. NO measurement, whatsoever, of partner production
4.10.Penalties for exceeding billable hour budgets at the expense of the other non billable
time budgets.

On the basis of what gets measured gets done, this should push some changes which I think are worth having.

But how?

Using techniques various described as balanced scorecards or composite metrics, we recommend developing an automated measurement environment which works from practice management systems and other relevant sources to automate these metrics and combine them into overall scores which Partners (and others) can see and monitor every day.

In my view, these measurements must not only be spoken about, they should be obvious, available, and they should have teeth. That is to say the overall measurement should be linked to rewards, or indeed the removal of non-compliant partners. Sounds harsh, but done well, the measurement allows for partner differences, and builds the overall scores to fairly assess them.


One of the things we often hear when we’re building measurement reporting systems in firms, is that multiple people like to lay claim for the credit of the same bucket of fees, under different guises, e.g.
  • Responsible Partner
  • Acting Fee Earner
  • Person introducing (client)
  • Person introducing (matter)
  • Person responsible for area of law
  • Various others.
So in true lawyer style, the rules are re-interpreted to suit the facts. Nothing surprising there, but if we’re rewarding, financially or otherwise, more than one person for the same $1 of revenue (or profit) we’re going to quickly run out of cash or credibility or both. I’ve long held the view that there are different types of partners in professional services firms,
and that a successful firm can nurture and encourage an appropriate mix of these partner types.

There’s also partner types we don’t want, but the measurement system should sort that out. One of the key differences often talked about is rainmakers vs technicians, all partners have some mixture of these skills, but I think we’d all agree, its rare to find two partners the same or indeed those even rarer individuals that excel at both.

Some partners are very very good at bringing in new work, managing client relationships and expanding them, and ensuring that the firm sees work types from the client which exceed the relevant partners core skill set. Some people call this cross-selling which I think is probably wrong, but for the sake of clarity of terminology, we’ll leave it at that for now.  

Some partners are really not great at talking themselves or the firm up, but they’re definitely the gals and guys clients want on their side when they have a challenge inside the domain of expertise of these excellent technicians. And still others are great at innovation, developing new product services and designing ways of delivering them and marketing them to widen the firms offerings and overall revenue base, making the firm more agile and adaptive to regulatory and other changes. And one of my favourite groups, are the gals and guys who just get on with it and get the work done, managing efficient and large teams that plough through the work as efficiently as possible, keeping clients happy via delivery of value packed services, often of a relatively straightforward but important nature.

It seems very clear to me that we can’t treat, measure and reward all these people on a single set of fixed metrics, yet we need them all, and in most firms they respect each others talents and try to make the most of them across the firm.

So what steps can we take?

I have long held the view that use of introducing commissions is a valid and sensible way to manage some of the challenges that these various skill sets and results present. So here’s what I think can, and probably should, happen.
When a matter (not a client) is created on your PMS system, it’s source of business should be clearly identified and recorded. That might be:-
  • Firm reputation - a walk in:  [Marketing Dept]
  • Partner contacts: [responsible partner] 
  • Introducing Partner - internal referral: [Introducing Partner]
  • Introducing non Partner - internal staff referral: [Introducing Staff member]
  • Introducing client/contact - external referral: [Contacts liaison in firm]
In all these cases, I would charge the responsible partner a commission (via their P&L or a fee credit reallocation) to the square bracketed entities above, whom should recognise that commission as revenue in their own P&Ls. As to the value of the commission, I think that’s a matter for each firm, but I’d suggest between 5% and 10% of fees on the matter or related matters for a fixed period from the initial point of introduction. I’m firmly against these commissions going on for very long on the basis that “I introduced the client’ because once introduced and the majority of the first matter dealt with, it is the skill and relationships of the receiving partner which have kept the client.

Even in the case of non fee earning (admin) staff I disagree with cash bonuses to individuals, preferring that the relevant team or dept is simply credited with that revenue. In the case of a fee earner it should be seen as fee income of the individual earned from the expense of the matter recipient (i.e. No P&L or cash effect for the firm overall).

Obviously there’s not much benefit to fee earners teaming up and cross referring, as someone has to pay (unusual in most firms where the system is just all credits). In my view it is the responsibility of the referring party to ensure that the data is recorded to support their commission claim, but this needs to be made simple and transparent to work well. The easy way is simply publish (via an emailed PDF or an intranet page) details of every matter opened and the referral credits associated with it. Allow 48 hours for people to claim missing referrals after which that matter is locked away for this purpose.

OK, so that’s commissions, now what?

What we now have to do is work out the methodology of scoring in order to properly value each partner and their contribution. As stated previously, my strong view is that the partner should be assessed on the revenue and profitability of their team (i.e. The small unit they control), rather than personal productivity. Below is an example (not a recommendation) of how this might work.
  • Fees of the team                         $ 1,000,000
  • Commissions earned                  $ 100,000
  • Commissions paid                       $ (70,000)
  • Measurable Revenue                  $1,030,000
  • Multiplied by score factor (say .625 - see below )= $643,750
This is the value of the partners fee impact for appraisal purposes.

But what is this score factor of which I speak? How is that determined? The factor is an overall metric which represents the ‘balanced’ or ‘weighted’ scoring of the soft factors in performance of the partner and the team general, it might look like the following:-


Raw Score (out of 1)



Process compliance




Talent attraction




Customer Satisfaction  0.8 30 30/100*.8=.24

So what we see here is that the (current) highest weighting is afforded to talent retention where this department scores the lowest of it’s scores. It’s punished accordingly in the final score. 


It’s not sensible to encourage partners to behave in one way, yet reward them for different (and contrary) behaviour. The measurement system, in my opinion, has to match the encouraged behaviours, and it also needs to:-
  1. Be simple to understand
  2. Be Agile when the firms priorities change over time (due to market conditions etc)
  3. Be beyond argument in terms of measurement and application
On the other hand (and possibly the subject for a different paper), if you want partners to be technicians delivering high end technical services and advice, but not manage their teams and workload, that’s ok too, but you need to take a very different and radical approach to that idea. The premise of my thinking here is that you can’t have both because the drivers are in conflict and that’s why it’s traditionally been so hard to manage partners.

So in essence, decide what the house you want to live in looks like, and build it. Don’t just follow fashion and tradition, you need to think it through, and you might need help to get it right.

About Our Guest Blogger

Peter C. Ross  Peter C. Ross CA. is senior consultant with William Thyme & Prophet, a consultancy specialising in Legal Firm Practice Management, and with Report Factory, a management reporting, systems and process design consultancy.

Peter has a Bachelor of Business, with a major in Commercial Law and  25+ years expertise in the provision of solutions design across multiple industries and solution types, with a strong focus and specialisation in ideas and solutions for professional services environments.

Why traditional marketing plans don’t work in law firms

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

By Guest Blogger Sally King, ALPMA NSW Chair & Director - Strategic Communications & Business Development at Carroll & O'Dea Lawyers 

Confession time.  I don’t write one master marketing plan for our firm.  I find that traditional marketing plans just don’t work in law firms.  The danger of creating one big plan is that no-one personally takes ownership of it.  The plan just sits in a folder not meaning much, and is certainly not acted upon. 

Rather than creating one massive beautiful glossy plan,  take the relevant information and present it succinctly.  Write small plans that work and people respond to.

"The primary function of the marketing plan is to ensure that you have the resources and the wherewithal to do what it takes to make your product work."  
Jay Levinson, author of Guerilla Marketing

Start with Research

Start by undertaking research on the market.  Do the research, know your market but think creatively and break free of the stereotypical approach to writing marketing plans. 

Lawyers value action. They are results focussed and tend to glaze over when you start offering up information about your latest PESTL research.  Don’t bog your plans down with too much of this information.  

I’ve seen some marketing plans that are really well researched, they’re beautiful, but they can verge on being ‘show off’ pieces.   Don’t fall into this trap  - if you have a solid strategic plan and business plan to follow your major marketing strategies should fall out of this work. 

Create Mini-Marketing Plans for Partners

Instead of one big plan, I write small targeted marketing plans with the partners within my firm.  
A series of little plans  works well if you include some marketing fundamentals in the summary of each such as:
  • Business overview – brief (a line or two)
  • Competitor Analysis – highlights only (3 bullet points will do)
  • Targets – anchored in reality and based on consultation with team
These individual plans should include:
  • Action Steps – who will do what by when
  • Review Dates – including a score card for achievements 
  • Business Development – number these 1,2, 3 or 4
  • Seminars – 1,2,3,4 
  • Events – 1,2,3,4
  • Communications 
Some of the summary information may be repeated across the plans because it is relevant to more than one partner. Where you have a number of partners in a practice area you may want to create a practice plan. A practice plan may run to 4 pages because of the number of partners in the group. 

Whatever situation you face, the idea is to create marketing plans that are short, targeted, measurable and engage.

Your little double-sided plans should be be dog eared, stained with coffee and breathing life into the firm.  The partners can handle a front and back. They can’t handle a 32 page dossier. 

Involve the Team

Help Partners  involve their team in marketing planning by setting tasks for their solicitors (things you know they can do) and add it to the plan.  Then monitor progress.

Regularly Review Progress

My advice is to show some discipline and regularly review progress and issue a score card.  Lawyers like to do well. Create some friendly competition by scoring their achievements. You can choose who you show this to, but it can give you some fodder for discussions with the “I hate marketing” types. This is a good way to measure commitment and progress year on year.  

You do the driving work about checking in with people against progress, and providing support.   At review time, make a fuss over those who have achieved what they set out to do.  Push for these people to be recognised – lunch with the managing partner or whatever rings their bell. This will encourage this behaviour to be repeated.

Don’t be ashamed to change!

Change your approach to writing marketing plans and see how successful your plans can be in terms of actually achieving the desired results.  Don’t be ashamed to dump the traditional approach to writing marketing plans– it’s a badge of courage, not shame.

About our Guest Blogger

Sally KingSally King is Director Strategic Communications & Business Development at Carroll & O'Dea Lawyers, where she is responsible for strategic communications internally and externally and driving business via marketing opportunities. Sally works closely with the leadership team to achieve marketing and business development goals at both group and individual levels and leads a growing team. Sally is also the Chairperson of  ALPMA’s NSW Branch Committee and is an ALPMA National Board member.

What are your bad habits costing you?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

By Guest Blogger, Deborah Scott, Director, Clear Knowledge Consulting

I wonder how many law firm managers recognise these scenarios:

A lawyer in their firm has a bit of a reputation for not saving transaction documents in an orderly way.  While the documents are accessible for right now, they then disappear into the computer or document management system, and many fruitless hours are then be spent having ‘one more look’ to find them. 

Managers and members of service teams don't have an orderly process for saving important internal documents (such as training material or cvs);  or they have an orderly process - but then allow documents to become obsolete.  

These scenarios illustrate common law firm habits that otherwise very effective lawyers and managers fall into, due perhaps to lack of structure in the organisation, lack of training, or a perception that it is all too hard.

What are your bad habits costing you?

Breaking these habits can save time and money, improve the firm’s risk profile and improve performance in pitches and tenders.   And reflect on this - a single hour a week dealing with the fallout from these habits equates to about one week per year not spent working in your practice!  How many managers and lawyers have that time to spare?  

Fortunately the cure is simple - the introduction of robust document storage and naming conventions to help ensure that future searches uncover the required document or something like it, assuming it has been properly saved.   To ensure internal documents are work-ready when you need them, set up a regular process of review and update.

The benefits are clear:
  • time saving in document search and preparation at time critical points 
  • the productive work of creating a new document can start with confidence 
  • related useful documents, which may be missed in a less well-organised environment, will be revealed on search.  

Effective Document Storage & Retrieval

The great news is that an effective process for storing and retrieving documents can usually be developed within existing document storage and management systems, including
  • details of the most up to date version of a document
  • date it was last updated/used how recently it was updated should be available on search
  • any other information you want to add-types of parties, details of interesting clauses, negotiation issues and how they were resolved.
The financial cost of the lost time devoted to these habits is obvious, but nowhere near the whole story.  Given the professional risk issues associated with using obsolete documents, or failing to properly train or manage staff, the true cost could far exceed time lost.  Lost business due to inadequate tendering practices is an avoidable business risk, and is particularly damaging in a competitive market.  

So, how will you spend your time and money?  Reinforcing those bad habits, or beginning to do things differently?

The hardest step is coming to terms with having to revisit yesterday's problem, or guess at tomorrow's, when today's is demanding attention. These problems don’t arise overnight and a good solution will take several months of guidance and work.  

What is clear is that some time and resources devoted to resolving these issues will save time in your daily work and help limit the professional and business risks of not having robust and effective structures in place.

About our Guest Blogger

Deborah Scott (BA/LLB, GAICD) started Clear Knowledge Consulting after six years as a Senior Associate in the knowledge management team at a leading international law firm, where she worked with other lawyers and knowledge professionals to devise practical and effective knowledge solutions across a range of practice areas. During that time, she developed and presented training programs on varied topics including knowledge management, project management, current awareness and compliance. She has an interest in compliance work, having held compliance roles at her most recent firm and another major firm.  

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