Back to Basics — a Business Briefing for Lawyers: Productivity

Welcome to the latest edition of Back to Basics — a Business Briefing for Lawyers. This month the focus is on Productivity. The Oxford Dictionary defines Productivity as “the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input:” and in this month’s Briefing we will look at getting more out from the effort you’re putting in. Much of this means working with the resources you have and applying them properly to make sure that you can improve the productivity of the firm. If you’re not getting the best out of your resources then you are harming the productivity and, inevitably, the profitability of your firm. Take some time out to consider how you work on a daily basis and whether there are some things you might think about doing differently that will give you a productivity boost. If you need any help in creating systems or tools to assist you in your productivity 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

Productivity

Every business must be conscious of the need to continuously improve its productivity and to apply its resources as effectively as it possibly can. Unfortunately, due to established working practices and inertia, many businesses fail to take advantage of the tools available to them and instigate the changes needed to achieve those aims. The resources of any business are precious, not least in the legal profession, where fee earner time is probably the most valuable resource. There are only 24 hours in every day—and, despite what the more young and energetic amongst us might think, we still need to sleep. After that, we’re left with somewhere between 16—18 hours every day to carry out a whole host of activities—washing, eating, drinking, getting dressed, relaxing—oh, and working!

To get the best out of the time you spend working it is absolutely essential that you are organised. You need to consider the other resources at your disposal—money is usually pretty high on the agenda as are the people who work with you. As with time, it’s highly likely that your money resource is not limitless. In the course of the last few years, money has been very “tight” for many, many legal practices and this has resulted in redundancies and short time working. As the recovery, such as it is, continues, it is important to consider all options to aid productivity rather than simply engaging more people. You are likely to have some form of office that you use—even if it’s a home office—and tools with which to do your work—a PC will probably feature in the mix somewhere as will, potentially, a Practice Manager system. Do you use these resources wisely…. properly…. at all? Finally you need to look at the processes you employ to carry out your day to day work. People say it’s hard to change and think about doing things differently.

If time is your most valuable resource and if you don’t use it properly you will lose it then it makes perfect sense to look at the ways you and those in your firms do things and work out the ways you could do things differently to employ your resources more effectively and improve not only your personal productivity but that of the firm as a whole. Improved productivity inevitably leads to improved profitability—after all, that’s what being in business is all about —isn’t it?

What are you going to do today?

In a previous issue of Back to Basics we looked at Objective Setting—and the need to write down your clearly defined objectives. This helps you to keep focused on what’s important to you and what you want to achieve in your business. Last month we looked at the Importance/Urgency Matrix that you can use to help you decide what parts of your work are top priority and which parts are unimportant. Another tool that many successful people employ is the To Do List—and not simply a list of all the things you need to do, but a To Do List that’s prioritised. To start off you need to list everything that you have to do—yes, everything. Then assign a priority to each item on the list, starting with A items and ending with F items. A items are the most impactful on your business and should be the things that will do most to help you achieve the objectives you’ve set. They might not always be the most urgent (but many are) but they will certainly be the most important to you. B items are not as important as A items but tend to support them whilst being more important than C Items. C Items are the third priority items which are less critical than A or B items. When it comes to D items, you really need to consider whether you should be doing these items at all.

By prioritising your A, B and C items you’re deciding that only you can do these things—and if, when reviewing your list you feel that there are some things on it that might be best dealt with by others, then demote them to Ds and delegate it to others. The E and F items on your list tend to be the “like to do” items and you need to consider whether you need to do these things at all! Once you’ve assigned each item a category you should then group all your A items together and prioritise the most important item in that group as A1. Decide on the next most important and assign it A2. You go thought your A list and assign a priority to each item. Then start to work on your highest priority item—your A1 item—and you don’t move on to any other item till your A1 item has been completed. Then move on to your A2 item and do the same thing. If something comes in during the day that you need to deal with (as it inevitably will), add it to your To Do List and determine its priority rather than just starting the task without thinking about it. Try to avoid distractions—particularly email distractions.

People tend to work with Outlook open, with prompts telling them a new email message has arrived. This is probably one of the biggest “attention thieves” that you are likely to come across. You should ring-fence some time each day to deal with email—and close down Outlook outwith those times—and if you can’t bear to be without Outlook being open, at least turn off the new message prompt! Solicitors work hard—it’s just sometimes they don’t work smart. Have a go at creating and using your very own Prioritised To Do List. Do this every day and watch your productivity soar!

Simon says…..

‘Performance’ is one of those often thought about aspects of running a law firm but one that is rarely attributed to any individual’s job description. Which is odd really because it can be easily measured, compared, analysed and then improved or worsened; by just a single decision. When I meet Partners of law firms to talk about IT, we often stray into other areas and a favourite question of mine is this – ‘in order to improve efficiency would you foresee doing more tasks yourself or delegating more tasks to others?’ By the way, there is no right or wrong answer – all 3 possible answers are perfectly acceptable (the 4th one involving not changing is obviously not acceptable). There are some common aspects of achieving an increase in the performance of all law firm staff. The quality of your Style Template Library is a vital component. I don’t mean simply having one. I mean having it in electronic form, having it available immediately to anyone that needs it, having all the common fields in-filled automatically from your client and case file information, storing the resultant letter or form automatically and distributing it electronically to the recipient – this would seem to me to be a utopia of performance. I rarely find it.

Even if you fell short in the final stage it would still be a tremendous leap up the performance ladder for the vast majority of law firms. A common failing of some Partners is the failure to agree on common styles for the firm itself to use, preferring instead to adopt individualistic forms of standard correspondence that fails to grasp any form of economy of scale that a basic Document Management system can provide. Some firms will be unwilling to invest any time or effort to produce a style library – fortunately there is an organisation called The Styles Bank that can supply ready-to-run Style Libraries that are kept up to date for you. I strongly suggest that you check them out. As I have suggested above having an automatic store of electronic documents – often referred to as a case management system – can make it easier for colleagues to retrieve files when you are out of the office and they are trying to cover for you.

This is doubly useful if you have also filed your emails in it as well (both Sent and Received). This means that there is a phenomenal reduction in staff time spent printing and filing (always a challenge in itself) and then locating the appropriate file (a lost file is a real daytime nightmare). These simple gains in productivity will convert directly into improved performance – and clients will notice. No Fee Earner is an island – there is always a team. People are change resistant, so there is often a proving stage to be negotiated, but if your improvement programme is sound, implemented well and people can see the benefits, they never want to go back afterwards. Your role is to keep them moving forward and to praise them when they achieve good results. By the way the 3 possible answers are:- 1 – Doing more myself. 2 – Delegating more. 3 – Both.

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

Get organised

Keep your workspace clear, clean and tidy and try as hard as you can to have only 1 file on your desk at any one time. This will help you to focus on the matter at hand. Keep other files that you intend to work on nearby on a shelf or table so you can move on to them after you’ve dealt with your current file. When you deal with a case, do everything that can possibly be done at the one sitting—don’t do a little bit and then ask for the file back to do another little bit and then repeat the process. Do as much as you can in one sitting—”single-hand” everything you possibly can. Put a reminder in your Diary or Task List or, better still, your Practice Management system, and after that put the file back in the filing cabinet—then, at least, you’ll have half a chance of finding it when you need it.

Do you know that you can spend up to 30% of your working time looking for something that has been misplaced in some way? That’s a huge waste of one of your key resources and should not be viewed lightly. It can get worse, of course, when you engage the assistance of others to help you find the file. Just think of all of the productive things that you and they could be doing instead of trying to put your hand on a missing file—and if everything you do is in your Practice Management system, you might not need the file at all! It pays to be organised—don’t let that thought ever leave your mind.

Review your processes

We all take the way we do things for granted. Stop for a minute and think about all of the things that are done in your firm on a daily basis and why they’re done in that way. Is this just because “that’s the way it’s always been done” or has someone actually determined that it’s the most efficient and effective way to do the task? Make sure that the right person is assigned to do the right task—don’t have high cost people doing low cost work! Think very carefully about every process in your office. If you find any that are inefficient or ineffective—change them.

Lawyers love documents!

I’ll bet every lawyer who receives this Briefing generates several hundred letters and documents every week. Unfortunately, many of these documents are created from scratch when they don’t need to be—with the same thing being dictated over and over again. That means something that could easily be incorporated into a standard Work Template taking a few seconds to produce takes minutes to dictate or type (or have a secretary type). All of these minutes add up to weeks of wasted time. Do yourself a favour, consider having as many of your documents as possible created using Word Templates that can be easily accessed. It will take less time to produce your documents and letters and give you half a chance of enhancing your risk management processes.

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: Checking out the Competition

Welcome to the July edition of Back to Basics — a Business Briefing for Lawyers.  This month the focus is on checking out the competition—in management speak it’s called Competitor Analysis.

It’s not often that I dedicate a large part of the briefing to a graphic, but if you have any aspirations to compete it’s essential that you know how to check out the competition and what you may find when you do.

Michael Porter’s 5 Forces Analysis is an ideal tool to help you think about your competitors—and not just those who are in the same business.

There are competitive forces coming at you from all angles and to be aware of these is the first step towards shaping your offering to address the ever-changing competitive world.

Again, I need to be brief—Michael Porter dedicated a whole book to Competitive Strategy and this model appears in the first chapter— but I hope to cover the essentials

If you need any help in carrying out your analysis of the competition or using Porter’s 5 Forces Model 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

 

Existing Competitors

Like it or not, you are continuously in competition with other legal firms that do the same things as you, are in the same locality as you and trying to attract and service the same client base as you. This has been the traditional position of the legal profession in Scotland for years (although that is beginning to change). There are two aspects to this part of the analysis– the first part is to establish your own competitive strategy (and we looked at strategy in Back to Basics in July 2011) and once you’ve done that be aware of what other firms are doing to win and keep their clients. You need to consider whether your competitors are competing with you on price—and if they are and you don’t want to compete on price, then you might need to think about trying to attract a client base that is not as price sensitive as your competitors. Are your competitors’ differentiation strategies suitably robust that there is a clear difference in what they provide when compared to your services—or are yours suitably different from theirs? If not, then what can you do to change that? Please take some time to consider how you challenge to win and keep your clients and what other firms do to try to win them from you—and develop your strategy to meet that challenge.

Client Power

Clients are not, in the main, silly people. They are getting more and more savvy as time goes on and have realised for some time that their business is something that they can bargain with. This means that they  can choose to “sell” their business to whoever will provide a service for the lowest cost. Yes, I hear you say, this has been going on for years—remember the “any conveyance for £250” of the early 1990s?

We’re in a double dip recession. Inflation is coming back to the expected levels after a bit of a high where wages were pegged back. People (your clients—be they individuals or businesses) are cost conscious and, as a result, many will want to know exactly what you will charge and, if the figures don’t suit them, may take their business elsewhere.

So, you need to consider what value you can provide to the client—your own reputational value will not be sufficient unless it is backed up by excellent service to the client at a price that the client is prepared to pay. Remember, a client will tell 10 people about a bad experience he or she has had but may not tell anyone about a good experience—and the same goes for the service you provide.

The threat of substitutes

The final threat you need to consider is what alternatives are out there that can do what you do? These exist already. A simple example of this is the Link2Law offering that is available to the public at large—essentially a document assembly web application that allows you, through a series of questions to create a range of documents that might otherwise traditionally be provided by a solicitor—but without a solicitor being involved (and this web offering is owned and operated by a large firm of solicitors in the north east of Scotland). This is the tip of a very large iceberg and over time we will see more “self service” web offerings without any solicitor being involved in the delivery.

Supplier Power

We’ve already seen lenders flex their muscles. They’ve thrown solicitors off their panels, restricted their panels to a very small number of solicitors and then suggest that the purchaser of property should use that small panel of solicitors to act on their behalf in the purchase transaction. I think this type of behaviour is anti-competitive and could be subject to challenge. Just think, you have a client who wants you to act but is told by their lender that it would be cheaper if they used the lender’s panel solicitor to deal with the purchase than their own solicitor. This is a very simple example of a supplier of services influencing the marketplace and introducing practices which put pressure on your clients to switch to a new solicitor—and once they’re gone, they might never come back.

Do you have other suppliers of business to your firm who are beginning to dictate the fee levels you can charge if you want to be passed business by them?

Do some of these suppliers actually provide part of the service you would normally provide and only leave you with a much smaller involvement—for which you can only charge a small fee?

Review your relationships with your suppliers and find out where the pressure points are—or where and when they are likely to come.

New Entrants

Yes, we’re back to that old chestnut—ABS, something that’s caused a lot of trouble within the legal profession in the course of the last couple of years and which is coming ever closer to reality. An ABS organisation will be part owned by non-solicitors and we have already seen a raft of licenses granted by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority in England to organisations ranging from the Co-op to Eddie Stobart (yes, that’s right, the haulage company). If you don’t believe me, have a look at this. Don’t be so naïve to think that the 51% ownership by qualified solicitors will be here to stay for ever—remember there is provision in the legislation for approved professionals being allowed to own that 51% share (in other words, the whole organisation) without there being the requirement for a solicitor to be involved in the ownership. We’ve already seen that Chartered Accountants being granted that status and it will not be too long before others follow. It’s not only ABS organisations that solicitors should worry about—the Legal Services (Scotland) Act  2010 also makes provision for the introduction of Registered Will Writers and Confirmation Practitioners who, along with ABS organisations, will be challenging for your business. Remember too that there are organisations that are looking at introducing services in non-reserved areas and these too will be competing with you for your clients. Prior to being authorised as a provider of legal services by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority in England, the Co-op last year turned over THIRTY MILLION POUNDS in revenue generated from the provision of legal services in non-regulated areas of business—and lest you think that you have time to spare before they get up to speed, I can tell you that I’ve already had a mailshot from the Co-op offering their funeral planning service coupled with their Wills and Executry services.

Think about it this way—you have many, many clients that you should be in touch with on a regular basis. The Co-op has many, many members that it is in touch with on a regular basis. Now, if the Co-op is in touch with its members who are also your clients and is offering them the kind of services that you provide and you haven’t been in touch with your clients to offer them these services then you will certainly be challenged to retain those clients for very much longer.

Simon says…..

What are you saying?

I’ve said it before – it’s an interesting time to be a law firm.

I think most lawyers have now realised that the recession has ended. It actually ended shortly after it began, there is no sign of any further recovery therefore it is safe to assume that this is it. So where are we? We find ourselves competing in a market that is smaller than it used to be and the results of firm’s not adapting to this are very evident. However, the question remains – how can you attract more of the active clients that are out there (than your competitors can)?

I am amazed that some firms still rely on a singular source of business particularly if its ‘word of mouth’! I can’t really count listing type adverts in Yellow Pages – if you are simply in a list with loads of other solicitors then I don’t see the point. Unless your advert really stands out; has a powerful message and strong call to action.

And there’s the first point of my piece – what is your message to your market place? How are you getting that message through? Is it working? Once you start doing that then your competitors have something to worry about. Until then, they don’t.

You will need to keep an eye on what they are doing. Those firms that are more focussed on winning new business will be easy to find – that’s the point. They have sorted out what they want to say and who they want to say it to.

Put yourselves in the shoes of different types of buyer – and imagine how they would go about finding you. There are different types of active clients and you may find your competitors are targeting particular types e.g. the cost conscious, the distraught, the elderly, the young, family owned businesses, sole proprietors, plc.’s, etc, etc. Notice that I haven’t said what type of work is involved – that is because I am targeting a type of person or type of business. This is how marketing works.

is my second point. Promoting yourself is a very necessary and vital aspect of business nowadays. You have survived the recession – congratulations; many firms haven’t. Now is the time to build your business. It’s up to you but if you should assume that your competitors are because everyone is in the same boat and those that take proactive steps will have a better chance of progressing into the future than those that stand still. That’s what promoting yourself does – it improves your chances. It is a competitive world for the majority of law firms and it’s only going to get worse. Whilst the number of mid and large firms contract, the number of small firms emerging is growing and then we will have new entrants coming next year. And there will be new entrants. The competition is increasing and will increase further despite the smaller number of active clients! They must be confident that they can attract a decent share.

Now is the time to position yourself in your market place.

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

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

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