THE FUTURE STRATEGIES FOR YOUR LAW FIRM

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1 THE FUTURE STRATEGIES FOR YOUR LAW FIRM Practice Management The Legal Services Board ( LSB ) has opened the current market of legal practice to other regulated professions including Accountants, Surveyors, Legal Executives, Immigration Practitioners, Notaries, etc. This change will see multi-disciplinary practices. The LSA allows non-lawyers to own law firms, subject to the conditions set out in the Act. Part 5 of the Act deals exclusively with alternative business structures ( ABS ). This is the biggest change ever, as it allows the likes of Tesco, Boots, the Co-op and Insurance companies to set up in the high street or as a centralised provider of legal services. How does an existing law firm survive the change? CHANGE.! How.. Close down and pay the PI run-off cover; or 1

2 Merge with another firm and they take on your work and risk. (You then have the option to retire or work as a Consultant or Employee). or Change your law firm without closing or merging. Closing Down: Check your current PI Cover. Do you have PI Run-Off Cover at a reasonable premium? Read the small print to ensure there is no comeback. In addition check. Building Lease; Can you terminate the lease? will there be an obligation for dilapidations and schedule of repair? Staff Contracts of employment; Staff redundancies and how much to pay? Where are the archived files kept? Inform the SRA of how to request/obtain them. Merge: This is a very popular method. Not just the small and medium size law firms merge, but the large firms too. Pros: No run-off cover for you to pay. The new Firm takes over your cases and your claims history. Cons: You no longer ruin your law firm Less freedom as an employee/salaried partner. If you liked your name/ego as a law firm name, this will disappear! 2

3 Beware: If you are the one who is expanding and taking over another firm, then make sure you do due diligence of the other firm thoroughly, especially as to its PI Claims history and also potential claims. It may be that if the firm you have just taken over has a bad claims history or the solicitors have a bad claims record, and therefore the following year you may face a sharp rise in the PI Insurance or even be refused PI Cover! The same applies to a law firm when recruiting solicitors. Make sure your firm is insurable the following year. Re-organise your law firm to accept/embrace change: You have to first of all separate the management of your firm from the actual legal work you do. Assuming you are a small firm, you may have been involved in both management and fee earning or you may have asked your spouse/partner or someone else to do the book keeping, banking, staff matters, payroll, client account bank reconciliations, dealing with the printing of stationery etc. Are you/your spouse or that someone else in the firm qualified and trained to do the job? The main emphasis of the Act, as well as the ABS, is to have firms which are properly organised and run to a pre-identified structure. For example, a Tesco supermarket will not close down for a day due to staff sickness nor will they say no milk due to Milk Delivery Driver falling ill or getting married..! Tesco will ensure there is milk for sale, as there is a formal structure to deal with the running of its business, and there are self-imposed customer standards. So how do we adapt to the changes proposed in the Legal Services Act 2007 (LSA)? Firstly you must recognise that with the LSA, your law firm is no longer a professional practice; it is in fact a professional business. Quite simply, a 3

4 business that employs professionals to deliver legal services to high standards in a competitive market. You must therefore be adaptable to change of mind set in order to succeed. Having changed your mind to accept/make the change within your law firm, you need to: Restructure and Diversify your law firm. Remember, you need to do both not just one or the other, but before you can do both, you will need to prepare a business plan. The business plan should ideally be a five year plan (minimum) and once implemented, you must assess your performance/targets achieved at the end of every year against the plan. Just to repeat, not only do you have a business plan on paper, but you will also be checking the actual achievements with what you had planned for. This is very similar to annual financial budgets being compared with quarterly and annual actual financial results. Those who have had Lexcel or Investor-in-People accreditation will have already done rolling three year business plans. Of course the business plan for the future of your law firm will have two major items, that is re-structuring and diversification. Of course before you get to re-structuring, you must know what you have been doing so far! So please make a note of what you have been doing as a firm to date. Ask yourself the following questions and you may have further questions to ask yourself: What are the areas of law you have been offering to your clients? Who are the people in your firm who work in these areas? What have you been doing? (managing or fee earning or both?) 4

5 Is this what you want to do or should be doing? Are you an asset or a liability to the firm? (The same questions apply to all your staff). How much income and profit are you making in the areas of the law you are involved in? Is there an actual profit or is it merely cash flow? If you are a sole practitioner or partnership, do you need to change to a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) or a Limited Liability Company (LTD)? Who are your customers/clients? What is their profile? (are they local or do they come to your firm based upon contacts/recommendations?) Is my law firm in the right location? Does it provide the right image.? (and what image do you want to portray?) Where do you (personally) want to be in, say 5 years time? i.e. still in practice or retire? Will the current team (staff) work with you in changing your law firm? If not, who else will be involved? If you have to recruit new staff, buy new equipment etc, do you have the finances to do so? (Savings, bank loans.funding from a nonlawyer investor will need you to become an ABS) Once you have made that decision to change, you must identify the areas of law, who does what, who will do what in the future and at what cost/hourly rates/fixed fees etc? Having carried out an assessment of your areas of work and income/cash flow, you must embark upon the proposed change. Believe me, the will to change your current habits and working practices will be very difficult, and requires a lot of will power/determination! To start with, if you are experiencing a down turn in fees in a particular area of work, you may wish to lay off some of your staff. 5

6 If you have more than one office today, identify the ones that are losing money the most. Identify why you are losing money? Beware, it could be that your office is in the right location, but you have staff who are not customer focussed!! So closing that office down will be a wrong decision. Selection for redundancy must be fair and those selected, provided the employees have more than two years of continuous employment, will be entitled to statutory redundancy payments. If you pay a little more in return for a compromise agreement that would hopefully eliminate subsequent risks of a claim before an employment tribunal. Office closures are not just redundancies but also property related issues, especially if you are on a long term lease. Remember, re-letting/assigning the lease in today s climate will be difficult. Alternatively, your market assessment may reveal that you need to hire new expertise to deal with existing areas of law or diversify into a new area. Should they be all qualified lawyers or experienced fee earners? Do remember that most big firms have one Partner for up to 6 solicitor staff (although the recommended number is 4 solicitors) and these solicitors in turn could have 4 assistants (qualified or non-qualified). This is called staff gearing, and more work is carried out by those in the bottom, and if you charge a fixed/uniform/blended hourly rate, your profit per partner ratio would dramatically increase! Equally, if repetitive work (mainly in non-contentious areas such as will writing, conveyancing, lasting powers of attorney) can be done by properly trained, un-admitted staff/fee earners, then that can generate a good net return. If you consider wills, lasting powers of attorney, work permits etc as not so good profit centres, then you are wrong. (If you are not convinced, ask yourself how Will Writing companies, Conveyancers make profit? ) 6

7 Are you/your staff trained to cross-sell? What is cross selling? This is where for example at the end of a Conveyancing transaction (i.e. home purchase/sale) you should be able to convince your client to make a will or mirror wills and also a lasting power of attorney. If they also own a business, have you told them that your firm also does business work or work permits/immigration etc. They may honestly not know what else your firm does. They may genuinely think you are, for example, a conveyancing only firm. If they are happy with your service, for sure they will recommend you to friends or colleagues at work. This is all free advertising for you. Word of mouth advertising/marketing is far more profitable and satisfying than placing regular advertisements in the local newspapers etc. MULTI-DISCIPLINARY LEGAL PRACTICE Expansion of the Law Firm as a multi-disciplinary practice. This means having the core area as Business and/or Private Client work, but also providing ancillary services to both private and business clients. Business Clients: Core-areas: All aspects of work from businesses/companies to include commercial agreements, employment law, business immigration (work permits), commercial litigation and commercial conveyancing etc. Private Clients: Core-areas: Conveyancing (purchase and sale of homes, buyto-lets, re-mortgages), Family (divorce, children and property settlements); Wills and Probate, Lasting Powers of Attorney etc. Ancillary Services: Estate Agency (lettings/sales/management of properties), Company Secretarial, Book Keeping/Payroll/Accounting, Insolvency/Debt Management (IVA s and CVA s); Will and document storage, Recruitment, Human Resources Consultancy etc. STATUS OF YOUR LAW FIRM Talk to your Accountant for advise. 7

8 Does the current sole practitioner or partnered law firm still suitable for the 21 st century? Alternatives are a Limited Liability Partnership ( LLP ) or a Limited Liability Company ( Ltd ). Or else become an Alternative Business Structure ( ABS ). Both the LLP and Ltd will limit the partner/director s liability to what is limited by the deed of partnership or the memorandum of the company. Of course, the professional indemnity insurance will start at 3million, as opposed to 2million for sole practitioners/partnerships. On the other hand, you could pay yourself a modest salary and have the rest in dividends which are taxed at a lower rate and the company taxation levels are lower than individual taxation. As stated before, you will need to take advice from a qualified accountant. OTHER FACTORS: A. Recruiting, Training and Developing Staff (i.e. the human capital of your business). You must be able to identify the staff who are good and compatible to you/your firm. Your staff must not only know the law, but they must be capable of getting on with your clients. It is a to way relationship, and gone are the days when the lawyer did the lawyering and was not bothered what the client thought about the manner in which the service was provided. B. Client satisfaction/retention. Needless to say this is an important area, but you will need to profile your clients as well. This means identifying your clients as credit worthy/not so or good risk/bad etc. Be aware though, the wrong assessment on file may well be subject to disclosure under the Data Protection laws, which might land you in real trouble! C. Putting in place Risk Management procedures and implementing them. What is risk management? Money Laundering, Client Selection, 8

9 Client Care, cash flow management (see item E below), handling complaints and professional indemnity insurance. D. A good IT system. Have you thought of out-sourcing some of the work or even in-source such as Cost Drafting and get more work from other firms? E. Cash flow/working capital. (With the opening up of ownership in law firms to non-lawyers, it will be possible to have capital from investors in return for a share in the profits. Until then, reliance will be on own savings, bank loans, bank overdraft facilities). Cash collection form clients who owe you money is very important. Review the unpaid bills on a monthly basis, assign responsibility to collect debt to a named person in your firm. Not only set up monthly billing targets but also set up monthly collection targets. Check current files to see if clients owe you money. It may be that you have forgotten to collect moneys and have carried out further work without the prospect of getting paid. F. Marketing the law firm This is an area where many firms fall behind/simply forget. Fee earners forget they are also part of the marketing department. Word of mouth recommendations are the best, then marketing within the current client base, and then target group advertising, newspapers etc in diminishing order. Have you thought about advertising at the local railway station? Ultimately, the aim of all the changes you make is to either keep the law firm going, thus generating income for you and your staff and at some stage for you to be able to exit the business with a profit. It is important that you have the passion and the commitment to make the change. If you do not have it, and you still want to make the change, then you must either recruit a suitable member of staff or get change management consultants to help you make the change. 9

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