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Reflections on What 2021 May Hold for the Legal Industry…

By Nicolene Schoeman-Louw


According to Graeme Codrington, there are three aspects all entrepreneurs (including Law Firms) should focus on in 2021:

  1. You

  2. Your Team

  3. The Organisation (i.e. the Firm)

The "You" often gets neglected, and in doing so is the most dangerous of not attending to these. These disruptive times, of which Covid-19 is just one example, are a marathon, not a race; the journey is a book, not a sentence. So with that in mind, mental health and a healthy pace have never been more critical to establish and implement on an individual level.


Maintaining a healthy pace has become even more challenging for remote working professionals as there seems to be little to no end to the day. It is therefore critical to find and exercise a healthy balance and boundaries in these uncertain times.


In achieving this, it could be useful to set realistic goals and measurables for yourself; this would ensure that you link your desired outcomes to deadlines and make the process of finding your own pace easier. It is vital to ensure that the goals you set for yourself follow the SMART goal methodology: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. A plan to “increase revenue” is not a SMART goal in how it is phrased, but a plan termed as follows: “to increase revenue through growing our client base in litigious services by 50% within the next quarter”, is a SMART goal.


This methodology goes a long way to help you break down what needs to be done on a day, in a week and month to reach your goals at a healthy pace and within a framework of priorities.


Another critical component is to critically assess your day and establish which tasks you are performing, which you need not and to delegate those tasks to focus on where you add the most value as a professional. Thus, now would be a good time to review the delegations of authority frameworks and day-to-day tasks involved in operational business functions.

About the "Team," it is essential to consider how you will support them in these trying times. What level of flexibility can you offer. From a remote working perspective, Stanford University has done some exciting research on remote working.


The degree to which your Law Firm is willing to transition into a remote working environment will (generally speaking) depend on the type of work you do and on your people (personalities). In addition to the data and information security, you need to maintain and what your systems allow. It could require a process into which you transition and therefore, should be thoroughly considered before implemented.


There is also no absolute approach to achieving this; for example, different departments or seniority levels could have other guidelines or policies around remote working. For example, the litigation department members could work part remotely, and part from the office as the need requires and support staff positioned to support the attorneys within this framework adequately. Whilst the commercial department drafting could be working entirely remotely.


Many professional environments have opted for an outcome-based approach with maximum flexibility; this is not a legal profession trend. However, I think there are many advantages which are at least worth exploring. Full remote working will require a total mind-shift away from the billable hour and tracking time spent to a results-driven approach, which does not cultivate an unhealthy relationship between the attorney, client and the Firm.


Settling achievable milestones in matters could therefore be a way to implement a healthy and more outcome-based approach. These could include having a matter reach a certain point or milestone by a specified date. It could also include billables measured currency instead of hours/time and onboarding a specific client or number of a particular type of clients, by a specified date.


Successfully implementing this as a strategy in your Law Firm, would call for a team of more mature professionals. In my view, it is unlikely to succeed in firms where the skilled workforce is too young or inexperienced. Simply put, the attorneys measured in this way should be confident and have the necessary experience needed to succeed in this environment. If your team is relatively young, it means that you would need to embark on a process whereby you support them and expose them as best possible to ensure that they gain confidence and maturity as part of the organisational goals you have set. Again, which is why I say there really is no one size fits all solution here.


Also, allowing critical persons in crucial positions more decision-making authority would enhance efficiency. Naturally, certain functions in Law Firms cannot be delegated, so naturally, I do not include all tasks in a blanket statement. Delegate what you can as opposed to holding onto functions that are not necessary to be centralised. Examples could consist of implementing a policy around new client intake or any rate concessions or fixed fee arrangements. That way, lead generation and the sales cycle remains efficient.

Several processes could be implemented to ensure that the process of onboarding new work or clients remains efficient and profitable. For example, documenting troubleshooting guides for staff to implement when there is a deviation from the usual procedure. Or possibly authorise another person(s) to allow for rate reductions or special fee arrangements within a predetermined framework.


Regarding delegable authority, mindfulness exercises for the group, leadership training and a clear delegation of authority framework could serve your practice well and improve the client experience. Therefore, this is not a “quick fix” solution and should be implemented through strong communication channels and adequate training.


Lastly, tending to the "Organisation" is vital to building a flexible yet credible relationship and a structure that carries you through these uncertain times. Here streamlining and consolidating systems and ensuring that these are secure and meet your remote working requirements is vital.


Look at the systems you currently use, how accessible they are, and how secure they are in a remote working context. Conducting a systems’ audit to ensure that you implement strong security measures and assuring user convenience is crucial. Another consideration is to ensure that systems that could be consolidated, there is nothing more confusing than a system spread over multiple applications and/or causing duplication of work.

Not to mention the likelihood of a human error occurring when data is being captured manually on various systems or applications due to a lack of integration.


A further component to bear in mind is your clients' needs; what do they expect from a reporting perspective? Do they want access to check status themselves or prefer email, phone or other modes of communication? In addition to the client preference, what are your policies around specific methods of communication? What types of messages or reports are being emailed, and which are to be sent or disseminated in some other way? Do your staff know what is most appropriate and when? Staff must be engaged with clients on an emotionally intelligent level to ensure that the reporting or ways in which they communicate adds value and speaks to the client's expectations in the performance of the work.


Besides, there are supportive persons and structures with the relevant experience and authority to ensure that the ship, being the Law Firm, keeps sailing and is more agile in these uncertain times, even in case of absenteeism from work due to illness. Interestingly, many Firms that have embraced digitisation and remote working seem to have reported an increase in productivity, even considering the pandemic's physical/health impacts.


In conclusion, the most critical consideration of all, in my view, is that Law Firms should build and implement more supportive structures for employees from a mental wellbeing perspective. The pandemic has explicitly had a significant adverse mental health impact. Truthfully, we have not yet measured adequately and therefore, do not yet know its full effect. It is more critical than ever to ensure that working environments are supportive and conducive to sustaining a positive and healthy mindset. Several practical measures to implement could include providing that staff take leave regularly, rewarding good performers with time off and to task managers/HR to connect with employees that are personally affected by the pandemic.


Leadership and a structure that supports the people in and behind it profitably and sustainably recognises the value of human capital and adjusts itself to rising to the challenge of the pandemic and an overall disruptive environment in which it needs to survive, function and thrive.

 

About the Author Mrs Nicolene Schoeman – Louw founded SchoemanLaw firm in 2007, aged 24, and is now the Managing Director of the firm.


She is an admitted Attorney of the High Court of South Africa, Conveyancer, Notary Public and Mediator; with a passion for entrepreneurs and helping them reach their most ambitious goals.


She obtained her LLB degree cum laude and successfully completed her LLM degree (dissertation) in commercial law and B-BBEE, both at the University of the Free State. In addition, she obtained her postgraduate diploma in financial planning (CFP) at the University of Stellenbosch. She regularly writes for academic publications such as De Rebus (the SA attorneys’ journal) as well as Without Prejudice and Polity.org (legalbriefs). She also regularly contributes to various online publications such as Spice4Life and other mainstream publications such as The Entrepreneur Magazine, Business Briefs and Personal Finance Magazine (to name a few).


For over 7 years she presented The Law Report with Karen Key on SAFM, until the show was cancelled. She currently shares her knowledge regularly on radio 786, RSG and other radio stations.


Mrs Schoeman – Louw lectured at the University of the Free State during her studies, presently guest lectures at Stellenbosch Business School and currently presents seminars and workshops on a wide range of legal topics for various organizations such as Bandwidth Barn, UnitedSucces, Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Business, Retail and Marketing Indabas – to name a few.


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