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Many law firms are still an amazing source of untapped potential. Untapped because team structures and management remain a long way short of the optimum.
It is easy to think that your work is special or your firm could not possibly fit a model that works in other businesses without getting behind what changes would mean to both the lawyer and the client. But there may be a model that would improve the client's view on value for money and customer care, that improves the quality of working experience for junior lawyers and their career development and that, on top of all these benefits, leads to improved profitability and better margins.
One of the key ways to improve the productivity in law firms is to operate in properly structured and managed teams. The 'pyramid' structure of operating a team, in which one partner has a team of between six and 10 lawyers working for them, has much to commend it. It has been used in other businesses such as accountancy and can be made to work very well.
The premise is that you push work down to the lowest level that is competent to do the work. The lower the level of seniority of the 'on-the-ground troops', the greater the management time required to review the file and provide expertise on the key legal issues. Thus, a newly qualified lawyer might put together the initial response and an associate might review what they have done and point them in the right direction of what to do next. When all the work is finished as far as it can be taken, then - and only then - is it passed to the partner for their review and 'expert' input.
The junior lawyer learns faster. The associate manages more than one junior lawyer and is involved in multiple projects. The partner is involved for the final expertise and advice on key legal points and on top of this has more time to spend with the client, in the process gaining a better understanding of their business, providing improved client service or diplomatically losing to them at golf, as appropriate.
Many partners counter this by saying that the client only wants them, personally, to do the work. In reality what clients usually want is to know that their work is in safe hands and to have direct access to the partner.
As long as the right system of management control and file review is put in place, there is no reason why this cannot still be the case.
Another counter is the concern on negligence claims if the work has not been done correctly. Again, the key is an adequate and thorough review of the file. This is not a system that can work by simply giving the junior lawyer licence to complete the work and then to send it straight to the client. It is dependent on lawyers learning to be managers. It may mean having checklists for files and thorough file audits to ensure the process is adhered to. It may mean training lawyers in how to manage people effectively. It may mean a change of mindset and approach.
There are many benefits to this structure. But if you only consider how much work partners can manage if their teams are structured effectively, it has to be worthy of consideration.
And on top of that, just think how much the client will appreciate having better access to their partners because they are not working all-hours to get the job done.
Rosemary Kind is finance director at Shoosmiths