Back to Basics — a Business Briefing for Lawyers: Managing

Welcome to the latest edition of Back to Basics — a Business Briefing for Lawyers. This month the focus is on Managing. Each edition of Back to Basics addresses a single management item and on this occasion I felt that it would be sensible to consider some of the processes that go into managing. It’s made up of many, many components and we can only scratch the surface in the limited space we have available in this publication—but we’ll touch on some of the essential elements you need to consider. Effective management is something you need to work hard to achieve—and you need to use a very wide range of skills and tools. It can take years to develop as an effective manager and you have to start somewhere—and where better than with the basics! If you need any help in creating systems or tools to assist you in your management efforts please get in touch with me—I’d be delighted to help.

Brian O’Neill LL.B MBA
Business Consultant
40c Drakemyre
Dalry
North Ayrshire
KA24 5JE
t. 07855 838395

e.   brian@drakemyre.co.uk

Managing

Running your own business can be a bit like fitting together a jigsaw puzzle— you know all of the pieces are there, but it’s not always easy to find the right pieces in the right order and fitting them together. Management in a legal firm has always been viewed as something you learn on the job—or not, as the case may be. This leads to many, many difficulties, not least of which is having to make decisions without enough information to support them. Ad hoc management decisions inevitably produce results that are unexpected and generally poor. These lead to further ad hoc decisions being made which simply compound the problems. I’m not suggesting for a minute that management is an easy thing to do or that it is a panacea for everything that goes on in a legal firm.

If management is simply a case of “doing it by the numbers” then everyone could do it and become a success. There are, however, some fundamentals that need to be put in place for the smooth operation of any firm. There should be a clear purpose—where is the firm going? There should be some sort of “plan” to get there—and a written plan with specific objectives or milestones is critical. This is an essential tool to help you assess how you are performing. You need to ensure that your financial information is current and that you can see how your monthly results impact on your overall annual projections—and what that will mean to you in cash terms. You also need to make sure that you let your clients and the public know what you can do for them. These are just some of the pieces of the puzzle and your challenge is to fit them together in the right way to create a business that is effective and successful.

A view from the High Street

I’m delighted to welcome Austin Lafferty as my guest contributor in this edition. In his firm, Austin has developed his managing role over the years and now operates a distributed practice across 3 branches. In addition to managing his firm, Austin is Vice-president elect of The Law Society of Scotland and takes up office at the end of this month.

Here’s what Austin has to say on the subject:

Like so many solicitors with a relatively small firm, I started out with little idea of management, and, frankly/sadly, something not much more than contempt for that function, which was regarded as a minor function that sat in a backroom role around the edges of running a law practice. In other words, it was assumed that clients would come in, the solicitor and staff would do the work, get paid, and move on to the next case/transaction. I learned over a few years that if this philosophy had any traction, it would have been many years ago in a different world. The reality was and is that structured, planned management can either increase your profits while reducing your risks, or, in rough times, can secure your survival. I remember watching an episode of LA Law (it dates me, I know) and the story was that the managing partner (Douglas Brackman – bald but handsome…) was ridiculed by the glamorous litigators and real estate whizzkids for creating no fees and being a boring and almost worthless functionary who was only holding them back from bigger and better things. He went on strike. Within 3 days the whole firm ground to a fractious halt with mayhem and loss everywhere. Message received. No lawyer is an island.

It was the rise of computers that really got me into a full appreciation of management values. From the early 80’s I was involved in media work, and although this was the birth of commercial IT for law firms, I had to learn to type and use a PC (or Amstrad) to write scripts for TV and radio shows, and for newspaper columns. Having worked in these environments, I could quickly see how the techniques could be adapted to a small law practice. As I began to apply them, that led to other ideas, rationalizations, developments, changes. And as these played through, it became apparent to me through chatting to clients, friends, colleagues in other professions and trades that what I thought of as innovation was either standard procedure or even best practice in the wider business world. And that realization was the tin lid on it – management is not a lesser exercise or something that happens to other people, it is a universal tool of organization, and in effect essential to the profitable and safe practice of the law.

It is a sad fact that still, well into the second decade of the 21st century that so many law firms don’t yet appreciate this. I was involved in a number of seminars and conferences in my Law Society of Scotland role, aimed at helping the high street general practice division of the solicitor profession in Scotland in the light of the general economic downturn. Although I used as much of my ability, experience and understanding of management to suggest a wealth of ideas for firms to use to help themselves (not my personal ideas, just general tactics known to be useful). Some listeners got it, but a fair few looked blank, and some, even in the questionnaires completed by attendees, treated the ideas with naked contempt (makes you wonder what they were doing there). Let me leave you with this thought. Management is a never-ending story. You cannot rest on your laurels, there is always a better mousetrap, a new challenge to face, a risk or an opportunity arising. It is never enough to be a good lawyer. You need to have a business brain, and treat your practice as an organic enterprise that is capable of being grown, harvested and pruned when necessary. Profit is the crop, and the fertilizer? Constant vigilance and hard work – with always an open mind.

Simon says…..

There is a great deal written about this subject. A Google search for the specific term ‘law firm management’ will list millions of hits (over 43 million – I checked!). A lot of people appear to know a lot about it! So why is it something that features so little in many Scottish law firms? I know this is generally true from personal experience. I do think you have to be of a certain size before ‘management’ becomes a definable aspect, which can probably be summarised as the point at which it regularly encroaches too much on client work time. Then it becomes time to get an Office Manager and the problem goes away. Ironically it is at this point that Management disappears and get replaced by Containment, when Management gets associated with Staff and this ‘problem’ is delegated to the new Office Manager or promoted secretary.

The issue I have with this is that Staff is the single most important resource any firm has and if responsibility is delegated to someone with no interest in how effectively this resource is utilised then it won’t develop, it won’t improve – it will be contained. Yes, I know! – lots of ‘management speak’ in that statement. You’ll know if this has happened in your firm as you will have heard this phrase – ‘We have always done it this way’ – numerous times. This is not to say that Staff is Management. Management is a multi-disciplinary facet. There are 4 areas in a law firm that should be constantly changing and evolving and thus require managing:-

1. Case Load Performance 3. Business Development
2. Financial Performance 4. Staff Development

And these need to be proactively managed by setting a target, actioning a plan and reviewing the results.

Simply reviewing performance is not Management, anyone can review performance. Managers set targets and think about how to achieve them. I personally describe this level of activity as tactical because there is always something going on with each of these, a bit like plate spinning, and each contributes to the overall success of the firm. As I’ve just hinted, each of these has a supporting role in something bigger and more overarching – Strategy. A firm of any size should have a Strategic Plan, encompassing the 2 vital ingredients that all successful law firms have – Vision and Direction. Ask yourself two questions – Where are we going? [Jot the answers down]. And then – How can we get there? [Jot the answers down]. Now you have started your Strategic Plan; keep at it!

Prioritisation

Deciding what is or is not important is a key part of the management function— whether it relates to managing your cases or managing your business. By creating a grid like this you will be able to separate out and prioritise your tasks. Write down all the tasks you need to do on a separate piece of paper. Once you’ve done that, think about them in terms of importance and urgency and then list them in the quadrant that best matches the priority of that item—the most urgent and most important go into the top right hand quadrant and the least urgent and least important go into the bottom left hand quadrant. You should then work your way through the most urgent and important before anything else—then move to important, but not urgent. You then need to consider whether things that are in the bottom half of the grid—the urgent but not important—or non urgent and unimportant items need to be done at all. You must always remember that if you don’t manage your work—and that includes all the various management tasks—your work will manage you. You must make it your priority to ensure that it’s the former and not the latter methodology that you practice!

Contact us

Brian O’Neill LL.B MBA, Business Consultant, t. 01294 833220, m. 07855 838395, e. brian@drakemyre.co.uk

Simon Greig is Sales Manager of LawWare Limited, Edinburgh. Contact Simon on simon@lawware.co.uk

Back to basics – a Business Briefing for Lawyers: Managing Performance

Welcome to the latest edition of Back to Basics — a Business Briefing for Lawyers. This month the focus is on Managing Performance. It is essential that every firm has a range of Performance Management tools—not only of a financial nature (although those are very important) – but more wide ranging.

Armed with these tools, firms will be able to make decisions based on factual foundations rather than on “gut feelings” or “instinct” which, sadly, can prove disastrous. We will touch on just some of those tools in this month’s Briefing. You should not only check your performance for the current month but also over a period of time to help you gain an understanding of the way your business is working and what trends there are that are affecting it. If you need any help in creating systems or tools to assess your performance, please get in touch with me—I’d be delighted to help.

Performance Managing

You see them vying for victory every week during the F1 season – trying to improve their performance week on week. They try things to see if they work, and if they do, they keep them and if they don’t they discard them and try something different. The whole team knows what it’s trying to achieve and they all have a part to play. They measure everything that goes on because they know that by doing that they will find ways of improving that will help them win the race. In your business, there is no difference between what they do in Formula 1 to what you need to do.

Every business needs to have a range of Performance Measurements against which it can test its progress. There are the obvious financial measurements in the form on budgets and projections which you can compare to actual results. You can measure the number of new cases that you opened this week, month or year against the same period last year. You can count the number of new clients that you’ve taken on— and where they came from. Are your Sources of Business continuing to perform as you expected them to? You must identify the information that is important to you and once you to that you must check your progress against that. Are you going to make the effort to improve week on week or are you just in the race to make up the numbers?

If you can’t measure it you can’t manage it!

It’s well known in the world of management that you can’t manage something if you can’t see it—and if you don’t set any performance measurements then there’s nothing to see. It is an essential element of running any business to set performance measurements. Without these you will have no accurate idea of how your business is doing. Simply relying on the bottom line in your bank balance will not give you a very good idea of which parts of your business are performing well and which are performing badly. To do this you need to introduce a range of performance measurements. There need not be a huge range of measurements—but you do need some. As I mentioned earlier, it is prudent to have a range of financial measurements. You really should set out a budget for your financial year (and if you’re part of the way through the financial year and haven’t set a budget—set one for the remainder of the year). Every month you should compare how you’ve done against your budget. You should look at which areas performed well and which areas performed badly—and, in each case, work out why. You should also benchmark your results against the Cost of Time Survey conducted by The Law Society. You will find a range of Financial Ratios in that Report against which you can test your own results.

If you are intent on growing your business profitably, you will be interested in where your new clients are coming from and to compare how many new cases are created by new clients against the number of new cases generated by existing clients. A monthly Source of Business report is a good barometer as to whether you have solid connections that supply you with new cases month after month—and whether a once successful Source of Business is now in decline.

Reading rows and rows of numbers can be difficult and don’t necessarily help you to spot trends. Try putting the resulting into a Chart to compare your projections against your actual results or, in the case of Source of Business Reports consider establishing trends over a period of time to see if there is an improvement or decline from your various sources of business. As can be seen from this chart, existing clients and client referrals are performing well, referrals from the firm’s Web site are increasing month on month, Yellow Pages produces a very small number of cases and might not be worth the money and there is a declining trend in IFA Referral work. This assists you in making decision about which areas you should focus on for growth.

Simon says…..

If I was a budding Olympian (I wish!) then the term performance management would be an oft used phrase. If I was CEO of an FTSE company it would be part of the furniture. So is it something only associated with participants that are at the peak of their chosen field, or, is it something to do with how you attain the heights of capability. The above have teams of dedicated people to measure, analyse and report, which of course isn’t the case for your average law firm in Scotland. Having said that, I reckon you only need the teams of experts if you are trying to win a medal or keep investors happy. The average law firm in Scotland can be informed about its performance much more easily – simply use modern Practice Management software that takes a holistic approach to the firm rather than just the Cashroom.

The most common tool to measure a law firm’s performance is probably the cash accounting system. Unfortunately far too many cash accounting systems were designed for cashiers to use, which means they pander to the needs of the few rather than the needs of the many. Compliance isn’t difficult to achieve and it’s certainly not an aspect to be feared or shrouded in ignorance. Any decent Practice Management System (PMS) will make Compliance transparent to all and automatically alert Partners as to how Anti –Money Laundering and Cash is performing – and, it will show you how your Fees Rendered and Fees Recovered are performing – although don’t be one of those people that think Fees Rendered is the goal; it isn’t – only Fees Recovered (i.e. cash in your bank account) is of practical use to today’s law firms. A good PMS will reveal how quickly you fee (by Work Type, by Partner, by Department) and how quickly you get paid; by revealing the number of days it takes to be paid – then starts you thinking about how you can reduce it. It will also show you any clients with a £500+ credit balance — and show you any clients with a Credit Balance and Fees Outstanding if your Terms of Business says you can take a fee if sufficient client’s funds are available, then call client and let them know you are taking it. If your Terms of Business doesn’t say this – change it. If you are currently using the Bank Statement as your primary performance management tool, then have a look at a modern Practice Management System; you will get a very pleasant surprise if you do. You may be one of those that waits for the accountant to tell you what’s what after the financial year end. The difficulty with this is that by the time you find out there’s a problem; it’s too late to do anything to improve things in the relevant financial year.

Many firms are trading on an overdraft, in which case the bank has probably taken a proactive role as far as reporting is concerned – in many cases this was because the firm itself wasn’t proactive. However, don’t simply be feeding the bank with what it wants to know; understand how good your business development is – report on new clients introduced and new instructions received as these are the things that will feed through into your cash figures in due course. Understand the dynamics of your business: what number of cases lead to what level of income, what are the overheads and expenses that underpin which levels of work type; How are they performing? Is a good question. How can they perform better? I would suggest is the goal.

Fee Earner Performance

Because of the nature of legal firms, it is very important that Fee Earners have their performance measured. In many instances Solicitors are not only the owners and managers of the business, they are also the prime producers of the firm’s income through the work they carry out to generate fee revenue. You should consider measuring the number of cases a fee earner is dealing with at any given time, when it is likely that these cases will generate an income—and how much. You will be interested in the number of fees the Fee Earner renders each month and, most importantly, the number of fees the Fee Earner recovers each month. You can look at the averages of both the number of fees raised each month as well as the average value of fees rendered and recovered and by doing do make a reasonable projection of how much a Fee Earner is likely to generate over a future period.

You can also test what the effect would be of either increasing the average number of fees raised or the average value per fee (or both) or, more worrying, what the impact of a decrease in either of these figures would lead to. To follow this process to its logical conclusion, you will be able to set costs against the Fee Earner—not just the Fee Earner’s salary but also Employers NI and the share or overhead that is attached to the Fee Earner for use of the office space and systems –and the cost of any secretarial or administrative support. By doing this exercise you will be able to calculate Fee Earner profitability. This is a very useful measurement to help you with your decision making. It may seem from taking a “top line” approach based on the value of Fees Rendered that a particular area of work is valuable to the firm but when you analyse out the cost of that work you may well discover that when the cost of carrying out the work is applied that the profitability is simply not there. This may help you to determine how that can be dealt with or whether the firm should continue to do that particular type of work.

Brian O’Neill LL.B MBA, Business Consultant, t. 01294 833220, m. 07855 838395, e. brian@drakemyre.co.uk

Simon Greig is Sales Manager of LawWare Limited, Edinburgh. Contact Simon on simon@lawware.co.uk

Back to Basics — a Business Briefing for Lawyers: Managing Change

Welcome to the latest edition of Back to Basics — a Business Briefing for Lawyers.

This month the focus is on Change and Change Management. What a topic to try to cover in a couple of pages! There’s a school of thought that says all the best companies are in a constant state of change—and that’s not wrong. I should make clear, though, that it’s not always wholesale change. Incremental change can be extremely effective. Be careful to make sure that you can justify the reasons for change—there’s no point in introducing change for change’s sake. Make changes that will support your objectives, improve your services and increase your profitability— that’s what you’re in business for, after all. If you need any assistance to introduce and/or manage change, please get in touch with me—I’d be delighted to help.

Brian O’Neill LL.B MBA
Business Consultant
40c Drakemyre
Dalry
North Ayrshire
KA24 5JE
t. 07855 838395

e.   brian@drakemyre.co.uk

If it’s so hard to change—why bother?

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “but this is how we’ve always done ……”. (add your own ending). There is no doubt that many people in most businesses are change resistant—they would rather do anything other than change the way they do things. They are emotionally attached to internal processes that can be shown to be outdated, obsolete, time consuming and no longer fit for purpose—but suggest that they change the way they do something and many people behave as if you’ve just suggested that they should jump off a very high cliff! I’ve mentioned this before in this Briefing, and I believe it’s worth repeating. If you want to change the results you’re getting then you need to do things in a different way—or to put it in a much less charitable way—the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Change is a challenge and many employers shy away from that challenge, sometimes because they fear change themselves! In the last few years change has been forced on many legal firms. External pressure caused by the recession meant firms had no choice but to review the ways that they structure their staffing requirements and be selective in the work they do.

Some firms moved away from doing what they believe to be unprofitable work whilst others diversified into areas where, in the past, they did not provide services. These changes have been forced on the profession by external circumstances and it is clear that there has been a great deal of pain. Change forced by external pressures will inevitably result in unpalatable decisions being made and changes implemented that would not be the first choice of the partners in the firm—I know many partners who had to make the very painful decision to make staff redundant or put people on short time in order to cut the cost base just so the firm would survive. It will come as no surprise, then, to learn that change driven from within and implemented through choice can have a much more significant impact on the future of the firm. This is change that’s introduced not for survival but for a positive purpose. Finally, there must be a reason for change—and what better reason than to achieve the objectives that the firm has set –Oh!, you did set those back in January when we discussed them…….didn’t you?

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