There are basically three types of work in keeping a legal practice going, but who is best qualified for each, and can people move between them? The author believes many firms should take a fresh look

Most of you will probably be too young to remember the Two Ronnies’ 1966 “Class system” sketch with John Cleese, on The Frost Report. Revisited, it’s still funny and shows a Britain very different from today. There existed lines between the classes, and indeed the genders, far from the meritocracy that we strive for today.

It did start me thinking of one of my early lessons in a law office, when told by a senior partner that the profession was divided into “finders, minders and grinders” (i.e. business developers, managers and workers), and like the class system, the rewards were divided along those lines. Many practitioners today encompass all three of these roles, an issue and a challenge in itself. In this piece I’ll to consider how these roles tend to be divided within firms, how our staff are developed within them, and whether it is possible for everyone within a firm to progress within these divisions.

Class barrier?

There is, of course, no such thing as a typical legal firm. They differ in size, areas of work and geography as well as in attitude and culture. One constant though is that people remain our biggest assets, and often our biggest single cost. Empowering them should be one of the most important tasks for practitioners. Likewise, retaining and attracting staff is becoming an ever larger issue, and progression and development can often be as important as salary.

When I talk about staff, I’m referring to everyone from office junior to senior partner. Some may argue that only those with a law degree can ever achieve “upper class” status, but I tend to disagree. There are few areas of law where the solicitor monopoly applies, and in many practices today, high level legal work is carried out by non-qualified staff and more areas could be. This does not detract from the “brand” that is a Scottish solicitor, but serves to underline that development up to the highest level in certain areas of law is possible even within our current system of regulated practices. In my experience, law is very much a profession learned on the job. It’s the repetition of tasks and our colleagues’ guidance which creates our expertise and experience, far more than our degree-based learning. Indeed, there are many great practitioners who developed their practical skills with a firm before obtaining their law degree.

Minding the grinding

Most high street practitioners today arguably remain finders, minders and grinders. In quieter times it’s their responsibility to find work, and in busier times they put in the extra hours, often many, to ensure that the “grinding” of day-to-day practice is completed. The minding or management is often neglected, crushed between the other two, or focused only on essential regulatory issues that require attention. It can be a vicious cycle, either worrying about future fees or working ridiculous hours, both at the expense of the minding. If some of that burden could be shifted, could the cycle be broken? I believe so.

Grinding is one area where we have seen great development across the profession. Case management systems abound, allowing less-qualified staff to undertake greater volumes of work. These are often underutilised, with firms failing to spend sufficient time or resources on training to ensure that the benefits of these systems are maximised. Firms also constantly look to develop staff, traditionally taking on junior members who in time progress to more key areas of the firm. This is often driven by the firm’s short term needs rather than the individual’s underlying skillsets and interests.

Great salespeople seldom make great managers, and while many of us are great practitioners, it does not necessarily follow that we are great teachers. Is the training given sufficient to ensure that staff can excel in their new roles, or would we better buying these skills in? At the moment, for example, there are grants available for some training to be carried out by external qualified providers at no cost to the firm.

For some, “grinding” is about delegating work to more junior staff. Perhaps in the past this was seen as a necessary rite of passage to better quality work. Today, boring repetitive tasks, involving limited input with no sense of the final goal or outcome, will only lead to the loss of staff members.

In summary, increasing our ability to grind out work is not a quick or easy process, and requires real “minding” input to ensure that available resources match current and future workflow needs. We require to constantly develop new people in anticipation of the growth of a successful business, and/or invest in and develop systems that are scalable to allow us to cope.

Find the best finders

“Finding”, or business development (BD), was traditionally the role of partners and aspiring partners, though strangely not a skill taught at university. In the bygone days of scale fees, doing great work and networking on the golf course were sufficient to build a business, but these days are, I suspect, long gone. Today, knowledge of the internet, marketing, providing exceptional service and following up are at the core of growing a firm.

Not all are skills that even experienced practitioners possess, but they often exist in abundance in our staff. Why then is there reluctance in many practices to delegate this BD role? I suspect it’s in the nature of traditional thinking that BD equates to partnership/progression, and it is from clients that practitioners derive, in part, their status and authority. The traditional legal business model very much puts the solicitor at the centre of it all. Many believe it is solicitor-client loyalty that secures their position within a firm.

I believe that thinking is flawed. BD is just one aspect of a well-functioning firm. Its role, while important, is no more so than the “grinding” which is required to ensure that the client’s needs and expectations are actually met. Good BD promotes the firm, not the individual, ensuring that the client’s connection is with the brand and not limited to one individual within it. From my own experience, having sold a practice in 2008, I am amazed at how many of my past clients returned to that firm, long after I was gone.

To give a practical example, several firms that I’ve spoken with recently have flagged up that converting incoming enquiries into actual clients is becoming increasingly challenging. Solicitors, while prepared to pick up on calls or emails, often lack the time or commitment to follow up. Following up is a basic skill of good BD people, as is progressing potential clients to the next step, usually a commitment to a meeting with a solicitor. These skills can all be taught, are simple to master and can be carried out by more junior members of staff with an aptitude for this work. “Too salesy, not ethical,” I imagine some of you muttering. I think not. BD staff, properly trained with guidelines and a basic working knowledge of the profession, should be able to take over much of the legwork with initial enquiries and referrals.

Make space for minding

That leaves us with the minding or management of the practice. This area has exploded in recent years, and many practitioners are feeling the strain. Compliance takes up more and more time, often at the cost of important but less pressing general management issues. Firms, though, appear to be developing a number of strategies in these areas that assist.

Outsourcing is one, and there are many providers that offer solutions for everything from cashroom and AML services to reception and mailroom. Even legal work can on occasion be outsourced through networks like HM Connect. Others have looked to bring in office managers to relieve partners of some or all of the minding tasks. This has the additional benefit of unblocking the command chain, ensuring that certain issues are dealt with rather than awaiting partners’ approval. One of my favourite examples is a partner whose staff carry out initial interviews for new staff, as they are better at identifying whether applicants are the right “fit” for the firm, leaving him a shortlist for second interviews.

It’s in this management area where the greatest benefits to firms can be gained. Modern firms require great management and indeed great leadership. That’s not something that can be dealt with only as and when the pressures of finding and grinding allow, but needs to be dealt with on a day-to-day basis. It’s seldom the big decisions that are the issue in business; it’s the small ones that need to be addressed constantly to ensure the business is progressing as it should and that bigger issues don’t develop.

I was once told, “You should build a business to make yourself redundant as quickly as possible.” That very much goes against the traditional legal model, which is why many high street practitioners suffer from high degrees of stress. They have put themselves at the centre of the process, and when strains arise, it is on them that the burden falls, no matter which of our three categories it falls within. I suspect, though, that if more of us embraced that advice, our businesses and our lives might be very different.

Ten top tips
  1. Build your firm to make yourself redundant as quickly as possible. Don’t worry, there will always be other areas to develop.
  2. Concentrate on areas of your work that you love. You’ll only ever be great at what you enjoy.
  3. Discover what staff are passionate about. Tip 2 applies to them as well.
  4. Let the trainers train and the managers manage. If these are not your passions, let others get on with it.
  5. Constantly be developing and progressing your staff. Business will ebb and flow, but good firms are always busy and good staff are always hard to find.
  6. Develop your systems and processes to empower your people. Ask them what they need and where the problem areas are.
  7. Attracting and retaining clients is a job for everyone in the practice.
  8. BD and selling = helping. Thinking of it that way often assists.
  9. Follow up, follow up, follow up. Silence isn’t no. Showing that their business is important to you might make the difference.
  10. Monitor each and every change that you make. If it is working, do more; if it isn’t, try something else.
The Author

Stephen Vallance works with HM Connect, the referral and support network operated by Harper Macleod

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