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What Law Firms Should Focus on in 2021

Over the years, I’ve had the honour of being invited into many law firms to examine and make recommendations on their strategy, structure, practice areas, compensation, management, leadership, and marketing.

My initial advice is always the same: start with a strategic plan so you understand your long-term goals before you attempt any short-term implementation. But aside from this, my advice tends to move quickly to ensuring the right people are doing the right things. This might require some process or structural re-organization within the firm but the end of the day it all boils down to one thing: establish and stick to core competencies. This is the fastest way to greater efficiency and ultimately, greater profitability. Yet it can be one of the most difficult things for a firm to do for reasons that will be explained below. So, it has become my #1 recommendation for law firms moving into 2021. Here’s how to do it…

Clarify Everyone’s Role:

You may think the roles below are obvious. But without absolute clarity, it’s amazing how many of these lines are at best blurred and at worst, taken for suggestions rather than baselines. So here goes:

Lawyers: The primary responsibility of lawyers in a law firm is not to be a Partner or try to manage or lead the firm, but rather to make money. (We’ll talk about leadership in a moment). That means the focus should be on four areas:

  1. Legal Skills: Lawyers should aim to become the best lawyer they can be. That means that every year, they should develop a plan that details where and how they want to improve their skills or experience, and they should concentrate on accomplishing those goals.
  2. Billing: In order to make money, you need to bill. No excuses.
  3. Client Service: To ensure they can keep billing; lawyers need to keep their clients happy. Just doing the legal work is no longer sufficient client service. Set your standards higher, then think about how you are going to consistently meet those standards.
  4. Business Development: Partners and senior Associates are responsible for bringing new work into a law firm. By year five, Associates should be starting to develop their own book of business. By Partner status, the lawyer should be bringing in work for themselves and others. After year three, BD should be part of every lawyer’s role.

Assistants: For an assistant to do their job well, the lawyer should have thought about how best to use an assistant. And not from an “I don’t like to do this so they will” perspective; but from a more holistic “how will my practice run most effectively and productively” perspective. To do this, the lawyer should step back and look at the values through which they will conduct their practice. Once those have been established (and by this, I mean written down and fully committed to), the lawyer should consider how those values will be employed in the way they develop business, provide client service, and conduct their legal services. Only at that point can the lawyer look at all of those points of action and determine who should do what. What will the lawyer do, what will more junior lawyers do, what will the assistant do? At that point it’s a good idea to share that plan with the assistant, and ask their opinion about the division of labour. Afterall, you want them to buy into and feel completely committed to the work strategy. From there, the lawyer and assistant can create a job description for the assistant against which subsequent job performance can be measured.

Firm Leadership: Serving as a Partner is secondary to serving as a billing lawyer. But Partnership is important, too. Partners should uphold the values and standards of the firm, and demonstrate what commitment, collegiality and productivity look like to the rest of the firm. Partners also make policy and firm strategy decisions. Most law firms elect or appoint specific leaders charged with more of the day-to-day leadership and business decision-making required in a law firm. If so, these decisions should not go to Partnership vote each time. Determine what decisions are to be made by leadership, and what requires a Partnership vote. Then stick with that process. Partners should not be back-seat drivers – allow your leadership to do their role. N.B. While all lawyers are primarily responsible for billing – no excuses – the exception might be anyone in a time-consuming firm leadership position (like a Managing Partner). These Partners may need to be given consideration in their projected revenue for the time required to lead the firm.

Management: It’s much easier for Partners to let go of day-to-day firm management (and for selected leaders to efficiently lead) when the firm has a good management team. By this I would include a General Manager, an Accounting Manager, an HR Manager, a Marketing Manager, and possibly smaller management roles such as Head of Corporate Services. The need really depends on the size of firm. Determine the management team you need, put them into place and let them do their jobs. Make them plan, and be accountable for the results.

Learn Required Skills:

Documenting everyone’s role doesn’t automatically guarantee they have the skills and experience needed to do those roles well. Create an assessment process, then allow the firm and the individual to jointly determine ongoing development needs, and create a plan for pursuing those needs.

Lawyers: They require constant progress in legal knowledge and practice skills, marketing, and practice management (which includes such things as client interaction, work delegation, account management, oversight of staff). Faced with this realization, many lawyers will believe that without any goal-setting or planning, they will naturally evolve. This is possible, but extremely slow. Lawyers do far better to go through the task of setting goals, and creating action items to work toward those goals. For this reason, many firms have learned to ask for a written plan.

Leaders: I think it’s fair to say that the majority of leaders in a law firm are chosen not for their leadership skills, but for their legal skills. For example, the head of litigation will often be the most experienced and respected litigator…even if their leadership skills are wanting. This is understandable, as a leader must firstly be someone others are willing to follow – which usually (but not always) means they are someone who is looked up to in their area of law. Firms more experienced with a high-functioning leadership model tend to select leaders who are certainly proficient in their area of legal expertise, but are also good leaders. Law firm leaders need to become experts in planning and strategy, keeping people accountable, keeping people motivated, and developing a strong vision for the firm. These aren’t taught in law school, and they don’t tend to come naturally to most lawyers. But lawyers can be excellent students. These skills can be taught through trial and error, or through coaching.

Staff: It is a mistake for a firm to underestimate the value of maintaining well-trained support staff. At the very least, staff should be provided with regular reminders on how to maximize use of existing software. New legislation or new legal processes must also be learned. Technology is always being upgraded, or shifted to a new platform. Aside from improving their logistical support, providing regular training and information-sharing sessions for staff can also help with cohesiveness and moral.

Listen to Your Marketing Manager:

I’ve included this as it’s an area of firm leadership that experiences the most challenges in terms of commitment and respect for core competencies.

When it comes to marketing, most lawyers can be divided into three camps: those who don’t really believe/like marketing, aren’t good at it and don’t want to do it: those who understand the need for marketing but think they know how to do it best and don’t need an expert to guide them; and those who understand the importance of marketing and are open for guidance and assistance with it. The first two camps can be painful and frustrating for a professional marketer to work with. And let’s face it: given the choice, where do you spend your time? With someone works against you, or with someone who gets it and appreciates you?

Marketing is a critical area of law, especially given that most lawyers don’t know how to do it well. Recognize that marketing is not a core competency of lawyers. Take the time to hire and strong marketer for your firm. Then don’t micro-manage them. They will create and implement a strong institutional marketing program for the firm, teach your lawyers how to create personal marketing plans, and help them to implement well.

Imagine a canoe filled with individuals who each choose to row to their own rhythm. It’s active, for sure. But it doesn’t go anywhere very quickly. Imagine a hockey team where the players don’t understand their roles. They might have some fun playing (or not), but they probably aren’t going to win any games. A strong firm is an incredibly well-run team. Everyone has a job to do: they know what it is and they learn to do it really well. Then they learn how to work well together, each with their particular contribution. You want the firm to be more profitable? Build everyone’s core competencies and then keep them in their own lane, all working together as part of a team.

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