New Zealand Law Society - Business focus vital for law firms

Business focus vital for law firms

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Edmonds Law Principal Tracey Edmonds believes focusing on the business side of a law firm is “absolutely essential”.

Lawyers, she says, no longer have a monopoly on information as the landscape of legal services has transformed with the technological advances that have brought knowledge to the masses with a single click of a mouse.

Ms Edmonds obsessively reads every book she can from business leaders she respects with the “proviso that they’re not lawyers”.

She attributes the lack of focus on the business of law, at least in part, to law schools failing to teach students about the realities of legal practice at all.

“Looking back, it’s as if the business of law was a dirty concept, detracting from the ‘purity’ of learning about the law. The traditional model was working just fine, for equity partners. Let’s be honest, we’re in this because it’s a business. It might be a calling also, but it’s at its essence a business and one where the margins are becoming tighter and tighter.

“We are often so busy practising law and chasing the ‘billable hour’ that we leave the work required to run a legal business – whether you are a business owner or looking to develop your practice within a firm – until we have spare time,” Ms Edmonds says.

It is widely acknowledged that lawyers don’t have the luxury of spare time. However, Ms Edmonds says the profession is lagging on the uptake of innovative business practices, which inevitably frustrates clients.

She is under no illusion that strategy is particularly important. It forms the basis of a firm’s overall direction, firm culture and pervades to the essence of a firm’s service offering.

“It also forms a point of reference for your employees to make the best decisions they can in their work without you.”

Law’s traditional roots cannot be ignored, Ms Edmonds says. The pursuit of excellence, upholding standards and collegiality will always underpin the profession.

“These traits should be pursued and valued. In other areas, though, tradition can arrest the development of a legal business.”

Ms Edmonds says there are many downsides to being a sole practitioner but one benefit is that her business is agile and more equipped to adaptation.

“We can meet changing business requirements if we are determined to. My research shows that the business of law will be unrecognisable within a decade. So we may as well change now and think and act like entrepreneurs.”

Nowadays, clients expect more for less, paying for the quality of service they receive.

Ms Edmonds feels many lawyers struggle with the realisation that the business of law requires different skills, character and approach than the practice of law, making it quite an uncomfortable transition.

“It shouldn’t be so surprising really. How can we provide advice on the law relating to business without understanding on a deep level what makes a business fly?”

As in all businesses, before someone becomes a client, people require an incentive to take that all important step of engaging a new or their first firm. Therefore, client appropriate marketing and advertising is extremely important for making a profit.

“I think that with lawyers, the marketing process starts with reputation. You must ask yourself, ‘do I act consistently and in a way that demonstrates I have integrity? Am I fair and practical and sensitive to the needs of the client and people in general? Am I prepared to adapt to what they need? Can people trust me?’”

If the answers to all those questions are “yes”, Ms Edmonds says, that tends to get around organically and new work follows.

Her interpretation is that fundamental to the marketing process for firms is demonstrating to clients and potential clients that the firm understands what “service” actually is and how the client’s specific needs can be met, in a language that people understand.

“So much of the terminology we use is nonsensical to lay people. We need to look at communication from the outside in and make the effort to translate it. How do prospects or clients know that our services – or services they haven’t used yet – would suit them if it’s marketed using legal terminology.”

Ms Edmonds says simple touches such as meeting a client at their house in the evening or office can make all the difference.

“Clients, like us, are time poor. Taking pressure off where you can makes a huge difference to the relationship.

“Our advertising and marketing strategies are tailored to the clients we work best for. My strategy is to expand my offering to clients we have, rather than generating large numbers of clients.”

This is key to Edmond Law’s client-centred model; investing time to understand how clients like to be communicated with, on what matters and their philosophy on issues.

“Some loathe emails, some want to communicate by phone, some like meetings. Some people (mostly the entrepreneurs), avoid written communication altogether. My intent is to focus on understanding that for each client, so we as a team can deliver our service to our clients in exactly the way they like it.”

This strategy helps in Ms Edmonds’ pursuit to create a firm that is her clients’ “go-to for legal needs and business strategic needs within the confines of the law”.

To make them feel valued and looked after for the entire relationship is important, not just in the engagement phase.

“I am told sometimes by new clients who move to us from other practices, that they have previously felt that, once they were ‘reeled in’, they were relegated down the chain while their initial partner contact moved onto the next prospect. I would be horrified if a client felt like that about our practice. It is equally important to facilitate trust transference, so that clients can ask your staff for help, too, and feel that they know what’s happening – at least on a general level – regardless of who they call.

“My orientation is towards clients as individuals or individuals within entities and their needs. That’s why getting the back end administrative and compliance aspects as streamlined as possible is critical. As a strategy I want to workflow as many of our functions as possible to reduce the administrative time taken and complexity in providing our service. This is the only way small firms will survive the next decade.”

Ms Edmonds says her referrers know the firm genuinely has a client-centric philosophy.

She tracks her billable hours and still mainly bills clients in a “value-based fee structure”.

“I encourage clients to call me and chat with me so that the trust and depth of knowledge is enhanced. That’s not something you bill for. It’s part of marketing. It’s part of strengthening a relationship.”

When the relationship is strong and true, clients treat you as a business partner rather than just another service, Ms Edmonds says.

“They are far less likely to replace you with a new, flasher model. At the end of the day, I still think for most matters, except for the truly transactional, law is a deeply personal offering.”

Other forms of marketing – that most firms should have cottoned on to by now – include web presence and digital marketing, as well as attendance at professional functions and forming strong networking relationships within the industry with other practitioners.

Ms Edmonds says it all goes to ascertaining exactly who the firm wants to act for and then determining what channels to use to get to them.

“Referrals are always the best clients. They come pre-qualified, usually from people we trust. Mostly that ensures we are well matched.

“To continue to grow, we will need to expand our channels. For now, we are taking one step at a time, honing our offering, so that customer service can be maintained while we develop the business aspect,” the law firm principal/business entrepreneur says.

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