Who is responsible for your firm’s success?
The ability of SME law firms to implement years of change into just months has proven their ability to adapt quickly and embrace technology – but without continuous openness and flexibility to change, firms will soon find their long-term success is at risk.
There has been a permanent shift in the way legal services are delivered; it would be difficult for firms to operate successfully if they simply reverted to the status quo. Clients expect a new level of service, employees demand greater flexibility, and technology is inevitable in the future of legal operations.
Never before has the optimisation of the delivery of legal services been more important. The long-term success of a firm is no longer solely focused on what can be delivered, but crucially how. To remain competitive in the sector law firms must focus on the people, processes, and technology they need to serve clients effectively.
The importance of the legal operations role
In its recently published white paper, Wolters Kluwer found that in firms running small departments (teams of 1-10 people), over three quarters of them (77%) don’t have a dedicated legal operations professional – that is, someone who focuses on optimising the delivery of legal services to add value, maximise productivity and streamline processes through technology. With the absence of this role in the majority of SME law firms, it’s likely they are struggling to compete with their larger counterparts, where half of firms with large departments (more than 21 employees) have a dedicated legal operations professional.
It’s clear from Wolters Kluwer’s research that firms recognise the importance of prioritising their legal operations, with the majority of practices agreeing that they will have a dedicated person in place within the next few years. Given the speed of change that the sector has experienced in recent months, there’s a real risk of firms being left behind if they fail to act. However, for such a move to be successful, firms need to commit resource and budget, which smaller firms in particular may struggle to do. However, all firms can implement small, effective changes as a means of benefiting from the improved legal operations, such as identifying an individual who can harness technology to streamline their operations, improve efficiencies and look at ways to add value.
Having someone at the firm taking responsibility for legal technology adoption, assessing what you need and why, and measuring its impact, over time, will facilitate the implementation of good habits to achieve a streamlined operation.
Building effective digital habits across your firm will help to reduce errors, over-heads and the cost of being compliant. You’ll also increase employee happiness, sales opportunities, enhance client service, and importantly, achieve your goals quicker.
The benefits can be realised by building good business habits through technology, which helps you establish a foundation of seamless and effective processes for maximum output using as little resource as possible. When standardised effective processes are agreed upon and implemented those actions can be performed seamlessly, therefore freeing up resource to focus on the bigger picture.
With dedicated individuals driving good habits through technology, and ensuring they become part of the firm’s culture, resource isn’t wasted and time is freed up for building marketing strategies, working on your pipeline, or building client relationships.
So, identifying the right person – whether that’s the operations manager, managing partner or practice manager – is an important first step in taking charge of your legal operations to ensure your firm’s future success.
The operational challenges faced by SME law firms
Alex Hiscutt, a non-practising solicitor and case management developer with Osprey Approach, says that one of the key challenges she sees to assigning a dedicated legal operations or legal tech role in SME firms is that they’re resource light. Fee earners are stretched and unable to dedicate their time to the role of heading up legal operations and they don’t have the budget to hire someone.
“Taking charge of legal operations covers so many elements within the firm; you need to understand the firm’s culture, strategy and what you need the technology to do.”
Hiscutt points out that some firms fall into the trap of believing they have outsourced this role to an IT consultant – “but that only covers the firm’s servers, network, and equipment – not legal operations and case management. It doesn’t get under the skin of what the firm is all about and what it’s trying to achieve.”
In many SME firms the responsibility of at least some aspects of legal operations tends to fall into the lap of practice managers, but Hiscutt sounds a note of caution: “Unless the practice manager has expertise in operational, financial and technology management, along with a strong understanding of how the legal sector works, then it’s likely that the role will become a watered-down version of what’s actually required.”
Ultimately, if the role of heading up legal operations falls to someone who has to juggle other responsibilities, such as fee earning, the latter is going to take precedence because billable hours is the priority. This means that opportunities to improve the running of the firm, and remove any barriers to greater productivity and profitability, are missed.
How SME law firms can streamline operations
Utilising technology is the simplest way to implement better habits and eradicate inefficient ones. Legal software can reduce the bad habits throughout your firm that cause delays, errors, or poor service. Tech provides digital tools that are innately consistent so your team can be more productive, accurate, and effective, helping you to improve by subtraction.
Digital solutions can also facilitate the implementation of improved and modernised habits that make use of client-centric tools, automation, and integration so you can outperform your competition. Technology also enables you to monitor performance and continue to optimise easily.
Software, such as practice and case management solutions, provides freedom from the day-to-day tasks so individuals can focus on value-added work.
Tech can also empower employees to work at their best, enabling businesses to easily adapt to challenges, and providing visibility of performance so areas of weaknesses can be improved.
Hiscutt notes that SME firms have set up successful models where each department has a ‘super user’ who “gets to know the legal software well and can implement new processes, workflows and oversee compliance. They build a closer relationship with the software supplier and are an important point of contact for continuity.”
Issues can creep in where some senior management don’t buy into the concept of legal operations, warns Hiscutt: “It’s essential that there’s buy-in right across the firm to ensure that accounts, support staff and managers are all behind shared goals.” She notes that whilst it can be difficult for fee earners and others to juggle their workloads alongside the responsibility for adopting legal tech, this can be overcome by creating a good working relationship with your supplier from day one and “where everyone across the firm can easily access training and support.”
Hiscutt says that where firms don’t feel they have the right person for such a dedicated role, and hiring someone isn’t possible, a third option is to build legal operations into the job description of practice managers, c-suite executives and heads of department roles. “Without legal operations being high on the agenda, it won’t ever form part of a firm’s culture or become a priority for continuous improvement.”
It’s important that everyone across the firm takes some level of responsibility of legal operations, says Hiscutt. “It’s all very well having a tech person set up an amazing system that does everything, but if staff don’t buy in and take responsibility for using it then it’s going to fail.”
She points to this being a wider issue of firm culture, since “firms that are truly inclusive recognise that each job role, no matter what it is, has an important part to play in the firm’s overall success.”
Creating the right environment for success
For long-term success, legal operations professionals need to foster an environment that enables effective habits to flourish while reducing inefficient ones. Achieving this requires aligned goals, accountability, effective tools, and the right mindset.
Aligned goals help you to focus on what is it you want to achieve. If you know your goals and your purpose, you’ll be able to design the most effective processes for the job, monitor performance, and communicate the plan to your team for firm-wide support.
If your teams aren’t held accountable for their daily responsibilities, they’ll never be motivated to complete the necessary tasks. It can be easy to slip back into old habits, but if you establish specific targets, then individuals or teams are held accountable for adopting new processes to meet the wider goals. Performance can be monitored, and areas of improvement can easily be identified for continued development.
Do you have the right technology, infrastructure, digital tools, and people skills to achieve what you’re aiming for? Can you utilise the resources you already have, or does it require investment for long-term success?
The right mindset
As the saying goes, you’re only as strong as your weakest member, so ensuring your team has the right mindset for improvement to manage change, and for optimisation, is crucial to building the right environment for success.
To discover how to create the right digital, cultural, and operational environment to help improve the effectiveness of your firm, you can download our free guide here. When reviewing operational decisions, leaders need to consider things like encouraging staff to be open to embracing new software or technology features; placing importance on staff taking regular training to ensure the best use of technology; and continually assessing how best to adapt existing processes to maximise its impact. These regular reviews of your processes will help your firm achieve more with the same resource and put you on the path towards excellence.
Take control of your legal operations
Whilst it may be tempting to think that the changes you have implemented in recent months are sufficient to ensure your firm’s future success, now is not the time to stop adapting. There is a real opportunity to continue to review and reshape your practice so that it remains relevant and competitive in the longer term.
Identifying someone – or a team of super users – willing and able to drive forward your entire legal operations by establishing effective habits and embracing technology is key to your firm’s future success. It’s crucial that everyone in the firm recognises the role they play in achieving the firm’s goals and fully optimising opportunities for success. Never before has the legal operations role come into its own as a means of driving forward positive change. Consider who is best placed to carry forward your legal operations; take action now and use technology to help your business realise its long-term ambitions.