Some of the firms we have visited as part of our Risk Assistance Program have been around for 20 to 30 years. They often have a sole principal and have grown over the years to have five to eight lawyers and multiple support and administrative staff. The principal works long hours and spends a large proportion of their time doing client legal work as well as trying to manage the firm and bring in new clients.

While the firms’ growth is an indication of success, it is not surprising that some of these firms end up having a string of claims. The principal and the legal staff are all competent lawyers but growth of the firm and the focus on doing legal work has meant there are not enough systems, processes and structures in place to support the size of the firm and the volume of work they are doing.

If you find yourself heading in this direction here are some things to think about.

What is your strategy? Have you clearly defined what work you will and won’t do, documented and shared it so everyone in the firm knows what it is?

Does everyone have a job description? It might sound obvious but clearly defining what is expected of everyone is important for a well-run organisation.

Do you have clearly written policies, procedures and processes? It might seem like it takes too much time to develop these, but it saves time, and possibly a claim, in the long run. It was alright to operate on everyone ‘just knowing’ what to do when there was only three of you in the office, but as the office grows it is important to formalise what is expected and how to do it for everyone’s benefit. See LPLC’s list of policies for what other firms use.

Do you have an electronic practice management system? As the firm grows there should be a single place where files are managed. This helps develop good systems and processes and allows for management oversight as most systems provide a range of reports to keep track of financial and risk issues. It is important that everyone uses the system consistently which means you need regular training and review. There are a range of systems available now for law firms that will suit a range of practice and budgetary needs. See a comparison of practice management systems on Next Legal’s website.

Do you supervise and train your staff? Supervision is not simply an ‘open door’. As you put on more staff you need to invest more time in supervising, training and reviewing work, rather than producing it yourself. Hiring more staff is not a ‘set and forget’ solution. See LPLC’s Tips for effective supervision and Delegation/supervision instruction sheet.

As your firm grows your role changes from lawyer to leader and manager. The larger the firm the more time you need to spend on leading the firm and its people and managing how the firm works. Some of the management can be delegated and at a certain size you will could consider employing an office manager, but the ultimate oversight will still rest with you as the principal.

Don’t be the victim of your own success, as your law firm grows stop to think about how you need to be doing things differently. In the words of Marshall Goldsmith: What got you here won’t get you there.

Working on practice management basics gives you a solid platform to provide legal services.

Knowledge of the law is fundamental, but not the only ingredient when providing high quality legal services to your clients. LPLC sees claims against practitioners who know the law, but for a variety of reasons fail to discharge their duty of care to the client. Solid practice management basics help you get the package right, discharge your duty to the client and avoid problems. The required practice management basics consist of a few simple steps.

Define areas of work

The practice of law is complex and constantly changing. Lawyers are not expected to know all the law in all areas of practice, but they are expected to know the law in areas in which they take instructions. Defining your work areas gives you boundaries and specific areas of practice to focus on. The more areas of work you take on, the more law you must learn and keep up to date with. Define and narrow your practice and learn the law required to do that work well.

Dabbling in work outside your knowledge and experience is high risk and avoiding or rejecting this work is basic risk management. With defined boundaries you have a pre-determined position to say no to work that is outside your areas of practice.

Develop the tools to do the job

Practitioners regularly tell LPLC they are time poor and struggling to keep up with the volume of work and tight time frames. Claims arise when practitioners miss a court date, send out the wrong version of a document or fail to register a document after settlement. Every practitioner needs the tools and systems to gather the required information, identify issues, record critical dates, produce documents and communicate effectively with clients. Checklists, prompts, shared calendars, precedent letters and pro forma documents are basic tools for all legal work. Develop the basic tools into a workflow system to accurately and efficiently complete every matter you take on. A clear process from start to finish with prompts, checklists and reminders helps avoid basic mistakes but also helps you stand out as an efficient, high quality service provider.

Bring your A game

Even when you are doing work in your defined areas of practice with systems and tools in place to avoid mistakes, you still need to bring your A game to every job. Every matter for every client carries a duty of care and you must continuously work to high standards to avoid problems. You must be disciplined to do the required work at the required time and not cut corners or compromise your role as an independent professional adviser. All practitioners need to think about their personal performance. Be aware of times and things that affect your performance. We see claims when things in a practitioner’s personal life or other external circumstances affect their work. It is important to invest time to look after yourself and learn how to say no if circumstances, often out of your control, prevent you from bringing your best to the task.

Allocate time and plan for success

Defining your areas of work intake, learning the law, building the tools to safely and efficiently produce your work and investing in yourself to bring your A game don’t happen by themselves. As a professional there is more to your role than just doing client work. You need to plan for success by recognising the importance of practice management basics, allocate time to work on them and be disciplined in your implementation and application.

Providing your legal services on a solid foundation of practice management basics will give you the best opportunity to efficiently deliver high quality legal services that clients value.

Are you allocating enough time to yourself and your practice management basics?

TIPS

  • Knowledge of the law is only one component of being a good lawyer
  • Practice management basics are an important part of practising as a lawyer
  • Define the areas of law you will do and don’t dabble
  • Develop tools and systems to do the work in your area such as checklists, prompts, shared calendars, precedents and workflows
  • Don’t cut corners, and bring your A game to work every day
  • Allocate time to work on your practice management and legal files.

This file note is designed to be used by practitioners when they are advising third party guarantors and providing a solicitor’s certificate of their advice.

Practitioners should review the file note template with the guarantee and/or mortgage documents before meeting with the client and make any necessary additions or changes to the typed file note section.

The file note should be printed, taken to the meeting with the client and used to ensure all issues are discussed with the client. It also provides a reminder to ensure that appropriate notes are made of the client’s comments and questions. A copy of the file note can be given or sent to the client after the meeting.

The file note is available in a Microsoft Word version so firms can tailor the wording to suit their needs and insert their own branding. Firms are also welcome to use the sample pdf version if they so wish.

We welcome your feedback on the file note.


File note – meeting to advise about a guarantee  (PDF Version) | File note – meeting to advise about a guarantee (Word Version)



Does your firm have a culture of continual improvement and best practice? Are your staff empowered to raise ideas and suggestions on how things can be done better or why things are not working well?

Creating a culture where those things are second nature for staff has many benefits. Hearing about a practice management issue or even possible misconduct by a practitioner within a firm as soon as possible can help prevent a claim or complaint as well as improve productivity.

Over the last 12 months LPLC has been contacted by a number of young lawyers and support staff with concerns about the conduct of another staff member or a lack of procedures in the firm to deal with a particular issue. Most callers said they were reluctant to raise their concerns in their office because they were unsure about the reaction and repercussions. They felt their firms lacked defined policies and procedures on such matters.

One caller wished to discuss the firm’s lack of procedures for protecting and storing client deeds. This issue had come to a head because the lawyer was trying to find a client’s certificate of title which had gone missing. The caller explained that the firm did not have a deeds room and sometimes titles were found on closed files.

Another caller was concerned about the conduct of a lawyer in their office. The lawyer had received a letter from the Legal Services Commissioner and told the caller but also told them not to tell the partners.

A culture of continual improvement needs to be lead from the top. The firm needs to invest in training staff to look for risk management issues and empower them to come up with solutions and ways of doing things more efficiently and safely.

To help create a culture of continual improvement and best practice firms need a foundation of well-written and implemented office policies and procedures. These documents enable employees to clearly understand their individual and team roles and responsibilities within and to the firm. They should also inform staff on the types of practices that should be reported and how to report them. They may include examples of actions which may be taken.

For more general information about policies for law firms refer to the LPLC checklist here.