Keeping out of the red (tape)

Sally Eaglesfield believes managing a small practice is a matter of avoiding bureaucracy and finding practical solutions. Sally Eaglesfield is an associate at Delano Williams in Godalming, Surrey.

In a small firm, practice management and survival are one and the same thing. The two firms with which I am associated are surely not the only ones who occasionally feel in danger of being crushed under a mountain of red tape.

There is an endless string of rules: solicitors' accounts rules; best practice codes; legal aid franchising rules; professional development requirements; and this list of time consuming commandments looks set to grow. Unable to keep up with such a high level of bureaucracy, the two-partner outfit is left with just two options: give in to the growing pressure to become part of a larger firm, or hire a management consultant.

In terms of budget and image, the latter option is not viable for the smaller outfit. Independent types are not likely to turn to an outside discipline for advice in any case. Many small firms have allowed themselves to be swallowed up by larger practices, but those who value their independence are on their own.

Do the Law Society's good practice guidelines offer a practical solution to the pressing, everyday problems that come between a firm and its hard-core legal work? No. There may be small firms or sole practitioners who thrive on drawing up profitability graphs and making practice statements, but one cannot help feeling that they have missed their vocation.

Some of the society's guides are useful, but they are usually the ones that cost money. Much of the material on good practice is nicely printed and beautifully bound, but it is paid for by us solicitors and is simply a waste of space.

Technology makes it easier for the small practitioner to manage both work and business efficiently. But advances run in tandem with increased regulations, stringent accounts rules and ever-more demanding administrative measures in legal aid and civil legislation in general. IT helps in many burdensome areas, but where is the Law Society when it comes to advising on which legal software to purchase?

In a two-partner outfit, if there is enough time to attend management seminars then the likelihood is that there is not enough work. If there is enough work to reap any respectable profit, then there will not be the spare hours available to study expansion methods or to catch up on professional education.

In a small practice, sending a member of staff to a one-day course is not always practical. One progressive idea is that of legal education videos which can be viewed at the office or at home to save cost and time in completing CPD hours. Tapes can be stopped and started to avoid interruptions.

The structure of my firm, Delano Williams, is geared (by evolution rather than design) to save administrative and financial hours by using an associate and a consultant (rather than fee earners) for some specialised work.

Self-employed, a proportion of their fees is ploughed into the firm's profit. They have their own facilities and use the office resources as necessary, therefore cutting down on secretarial time and salary calculations.

Delano Williams also employs an accountant who visits once a week and, under staff guidance, ensures the firm is complying with the accounting rules and keeping the accounts in order. Without this service, days can be wasted chasing up invoices and balancing figures.

The alternative is in-house accountancy via a suitable computer program – but this again detracts from fee-earning time and can be expensive in terms of initial outlay.

Marketing and networking are essential survival tools. More can always be done in these spheres, but the small hindrance of earning a living gets in the way. Reciprocal referrals with estate agents provide a good source of business but my firm has not found advertising profitable in our chosen line of business.

Most small practices are reconsidering the type of work that will lead to high revenue. For example, Delano Williams still does some residential conveyancing but is looking towards encouraging more commercial conveyancing.

While legal aid cases will be steered towards bigger practices with the resources to comply with franchising regulations, smaller firms must develop more private client and specialist business. My firm already specialises in mediation and family work, but it is now aiming to develop additional niche areas of entertainment and media contracts and employment law.

Practice management boils down to personal management and survival strategy. It is experience rather than manuals filled with jargon that will teach us this.

Survival is a great teacher. It teaches you, for example, to bill each file every month to get in fees and to attach checklists to each conveyancing file to prevent the odd search being missed.

So far we have survived, but it is a constant balancing act. It would be comforting to feel that the Law Society was on our side rather than lurking like the grim reaper.