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 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?

Cloud computing: A bright light for business

One of the most successful business people of our time, Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs, was one of the first to recognise the benefits of the “cloud”, which put simply is a term used to describe a model of computing which enables on-demand network access to a shared pool of resource. When Jobs rejoined Apple in 1996, one of his first acts was to move all of the company’s data – including fiercely protected information about the business’s future plans – to Apple’s servers, rather than entrusting that valuable information to individual computers.

Andy Burton, chairman of the Cloud Industry Forum, an industry group, cites the case of LawWare, based in Edinburgh, which writes software for legal practices (LawCloud): it wanted to speed up implementation, and so turned to cloud providers so it could rapidly develop projects for customers. “The time taken to implement a new system went from weeks to hours,” says Burton.

He says that the problem with the word “cloud” is that many people find it ambiguous: is it about flexibility, or speed, or cost? He argues that “it makes you a more competitive organisation” and that the key question to ask is which of those three is the most important to improve, and focus on how cloud systems can help.

In June 2009, just after Michael Jackson’s death, Twitter saw traffic peak at 456 tweets a second but, by August 2011, following news of Beyoncé’s pregnancy, it was generating 8,868 tweets a second. Flexible cloud-based servers meant that Twitter could handle that explosive growth – few companies could forecast and manage such expansion on internal systems.

The idea that cloud services will make a big difference to businesses has been a recurrent theme of technology discussions for the past 10 years or so. Certainly, UK businesses have indicated that they are ready to adopt cloud computing. A study in the first half of 2011, which polled IT and business decision-makers across the private and public sectors, found that almost half already use cloud services. The private sector leads the way, with those employing more than 20 people ahead of smaller businesses in adoption (52% v 38%) – even though the latter could gain more because of the lower capital spending cloud computing requires. The driver for adoption is overwhelmingly cited as flexibility, with only 16% citing cost savings, though that figure rockets up to 69% among those already using cloud services.

It’s not just going to be about Hotmail any more. The cloud is coming, and the only question soon might be why your business isn’t on board.

Read the full article in The Guardian Newspaper, in the Cloud technology supplement, printed on 17th October 2011 or see their Cloud technology news section at Guardian Cloud News

A commercial attitude

Evolving technologies and the swift development of the way they are used might leave your head spinning. But as Warren Wander explains, not only is the new IT revolution nothing to be scared of, those who embrace it will see a real improvement in the success of their business.

I was in Manchester last weekend for my Uncle Len’s 100th birthday celebration and what an event that was. To reach 100 is a great achievement and an inspiration to us all. What amazed me though was that alongside his birthday card from Her Majesty taking pride of place and his immaculately gift boxed original Times Newspaper copy from the day he was born on 30th June 1911… was his laptop.

He’s a regular emailer and is fascinated by the possibilities that new technology brings. I showed him my iPad a few weeks earlier &
the engaging look of amazement in those century old eyes was almost tearful. Seeing his trembling hands grasp the device & pinch and zoom a photo of my Dad, my brother & I in India with such simplicity was ever so re-assuring.

His attitude proves that technology needn’t be daunting, complicated or overly expensive to buy and maintain in this day and age. Things have moved on and nowadays, simplicity is the key. The painful experience of expensive mistakes should be demoted to a thing of the past.

The reality is that if your technology isn’t working for you then either change your technology or change your attitude towards it. If you can find a good trusted advisor then there’s plenty of great technology out there that has the possibility of completely evolutionise your working practices. Technology really can help you and your team to be more efficient, productive and competitive and never has this been so vital for law firms as today.

My first caution though is to beware of the scaremongers who preach about changing times and who are really just trying to make a buck (and how you won’t survive unless)… Whilst there may be some truth in this for some, it is amazing what can be achieved if you remain focused, educated and motivated.

If you need to change your attitude to how you run your business then now is the time to do so. It is clearly obvious to everyone (clients especially) when a business is run by someone with passion and enthusiasm and when it is not. I always try to lead by example. If the man at the top has the attitude that technology (and change) are “new fangled” and “best left to the youngsters” then I would suggest that this is an old fashioned approach that is counter productive. Such a negative attitude will not inspire nor will be demonstrative of a leader who has their finger on the pulse.

Make it your business to find out what other law firms are doing with technology and keep up to date with changes in the professional and technological world. If you are not already, then become interested now, even better, befriend a trusted advisor who can help you on your learning mission. Understand what it is you are trying to achieve, write down your business goals both short and long term and try to match the technology that you find out about to meet these objectives. Have a clear plan with realistic and definable goals. Don’t expect the world, manage your expectations well and keep things realistic. Technology can
only do so much and staff who have been used to working one way for a long time, will need nurturing into any planned cultural change.

Remember, as well as being a learning curve for yourself, it’s an exciting and new time for your team. Rome wasn’t built in a day,
introduce any of the changes that you decide on, one step at a time, and break large tasks down into small bite sized chunks. If you can introduce measures and KPI’s at the same time, you will be able to monitor your success and fine tune as you go along.

I have formed many great technology partnerships and business relationships with lawyers and their firms over the years and I hope this success speaks for itself.

Warren Wander is the Managing Director of LawWare Ltd

See the original featured article at http://www.firmmagazine.com/features/982/A_commercial_attitude.html

Business Continuity, Lawyers and the Cloud

With our official LawCloud website due to launch very soon in mid-January and LawCloud itself launching officially on 2 February 2010 at Microsoft’s office in Edinburgh, we thought it may be appropriate to share a rather poetic introduction to the subject of cloud computing in the UK legal market with a focus on business continuity. This piece is shared as a guest article by Paul Humphreys, Technical Director of The Law-Writer Partnership Oxford UK. We hope you enjoy it.

“BC for Lawyers: it’s like Alice in Wonderland but without the Mad Hatter

“Backup onsite offsite. Backup onsite offsite. Remember to backup onsite offsite,” the Hatter dashed to tell us at every tea party until we all submitted. Time was forever stuck at 6:00 and the Queen of Hearts awaited every opportunity to decapitate us if we broke the law.

And then arose The Cloud. The Mad Hatter momentarily fell silent as he stared up at the sky. Time moved, the clock ticked, The Red Queen seemed to have disappeared. In an instant we were all going to live happily ever after. But the moment passed and the Mad Hatter quickly started up again. “Backup offsite onsite. Backup offsite onsite. Remember to backup offsite onsite,” he exclaimed.

Now, back down to earth, the question is whether or not we should trust entirely to The Cloud to be always present with its applications and our data. Yes, we agree that it’s all in the hands of experts; and yes, we can get at it from anywhere while the going’s good. Indeed we can copy back our own data whenever we like. But we can’t always copy back the application that runs our data, yet our data is not fully alive without the application that gives life to it. Cloud-based software described as multitenant is highly complex software, by no means is this software simple or standalone which you can run equally on your own PC. Yes, we can have our data back, but, unless we also have a means to run the same data identically as we have processed it within The Cloud, we remain potentially snookered should we become disconnected, however caused, from the parent application.

So, on the face of it, it might seem ideal if we could grow a kind of software that primarily processed our data while it was hosted in The Cloud; but, at the same time, software that would enable the same application to run locally if we could not get to it online, or perhaps did not need to get to it online. So we envisage a twinned system that is both Tweedledum and Tweedledee. In our mind’s eye we construct a network that is simultaneously on the outside and on the inside at the same time. Is such an arrangement possible outside of Wonderland? What further benefits might flow in addition to those obvious for Business Continuity? We know that the cost of local storage of data is, probably, at least one order of magnitude less that the cost of the same volume of data stored in The Cloud.

Let’s apply this idea for concurrent offsite and onsite data to a real-life example. A typical High-Street law firm might have accumulated, say, two thousand clients in and around its local neighbourhood in its home town. All case-data must of course be retained, and let us suppose that up to half a dozen individuals, lawyers and administrators, could possibly be involved in the progress of any one case for any one client. So a Cloud-based application appears to offer an ideal platform in a world where expert opinion and administrative action might be required from a number of different geographic locations at different times. We could then further extend this image by taking into account some limited yet helpful access to some designate client-data by lawyers from the other side. This scenario provides for consideration of many of the major elements of Cloud concern including client-confidentiality, risk exposure of private data, logging and monitoring and availability of access tempered with permissions that should govern all online activity, and so on.

The legal system is often considered by its consumers to be ‘slow’. But if your own Solicitor – let’s call her Alice – is about to complete the conveyance of your new house while you are parked outside the Estate Agent’s office waiting to collect the key, but with heavy snow piling deeper about you, and with your hungry, tired, children jumping around on the back seat of your car, then time really does crawl down to near Mad Hatter time: the hands of your watch seem not to move at all, and your own hands are freezing cold. Alice has just lost her connection to The Cloud because of a local BT fault affecting the ADSL line to her office, but your legal data remains very safely protected in The Cloud. Alice knows that she could easily get to your document using her Internet connection at her home, but the snow is very much worse today than it was yesterday, and it would take her hours even to get out of the car park. Tweedledum is simply not available to Alice. So Alice surfs instead to Tweedledee sited within the four walls of her office. Tweedledee has been updated automatically by Tweedledum while the ADSL connection was present. Alice then telephone’s your Agent with the vital reference she needed to get from your file, and you get the key.

The above is one client in two thousand. But Alice’s Cloud need only hold her current cases. Closed cases need not remain in The Cloud so are off-lined and stored locally on Tweedledee but can be moved back onto Tweedledum for resurrection online if needed. Let us say that Alice and her colleagues at her firm manage 20 cases concurrent at any one time; this implies a case-to-client activity ratio of 20:2000 which translates to 1:100 in terms of necessary online data storage space to hold current work. The model lends itself to Business Continuity, low cost of online data storage through better consideration and management of data, and the advantage of having identically replicated applications with their data held in tune both offsite and onsite. So: offsite is used for daily routine primary access; onsite is there for data archive and application backup accessible offline.

Given the emergence of The Cloud, if such a computing model were available it would seem to hold out multiple advantages, made even more attractive at very low cost by utilizing old (Windows) lamps as new (Linux) lamps to meet the changed onsite requirement. In the end, it seems there is no single place outside of Wonderland where we can entrust the whole of our systems for all of the time, not even to the security of The Cloud. From wherever we routinely work we should be able to continue operating on a copy of our applications and our data: always on standby, ever-present, at hand, held safe for us in a familiar place, friendly and warm, right there in front of us in local view through the looking glass at the office.

Paul Humphreys is Technical Director of The Law-Writer Partnership Oxford UK.
Paul can be contacted via www.law-writer.com.

LawCloud: Cloud for Lawyers UK