Implementing change

In the last few years the firm that I work for (Redmans Solicitors)  has engaged in a radical restructuring of the way it works and markets itself.

In this series of posts I’ll write about our experience (both good and bad) and give some pointers on what I think small to medium-sized firms should be looking to implement to move themselves into the 21st century.

This will therefore entail an examination of the following:

  • Our experience with different practice management software
  • How we learned to stop worrying and love our new telephone system
  • How we established an online presence
  • A brief insight into how we market ourselves
  • How we deal with our bookkeeping

In this first post I’ll take a look at how the legal services market has changed in recent years and how I think it will change in the future. I’ll then look at what I think that firms should try to do to survive and prosper in an increasingly competitive market. This post will explore the following:

  1. How the legal services market has changed in recent years
  2. What direction the legal services market looks to be taking in the future
  3. How law firms can survive and prosper in an increasingly competitive marketplace

How the legal services market has changed in recent years
The manner in which law firms have been affected in recent years depends on a variety of circumstances: what practice areas they specialise in, how the law has changed, the vagaries of government policy, and changes to particular regulatory systems. However, all law firms will have been affected to a greater or lesser extent by the following: first, the technology revolution that is the Internet and, second, the coming into force in 2010 of the Legal Services Act 2007.

The effect of the Internet on law firms
Oh, Tim Berners-Lee. Few lawyers in 1990 would have been aware of the work of Sir Berners-Lee on Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (known to us as “http”), let alone have envisaged how the onset of the Internet age would revolutionize the way that law firms do business. Any sensible law firm has a professionally-designed website these days, most communications are made by email, and a large proportion of clients use Google to search for providers of legal services. Simply put: if you aren’t seriously engaging with the challenges that the Internet poses to the business model of law firms then you’re being left behind. In this increasingly competitive environment if you’re not quick then your business will, unfortunately, be almost certain to be dead within a number of years.

However, although technology presents itself as a threat to business, if it is engaged with in the correct way then it can reap significant benefits. Computer technology allows law firms to organise their workflow, workload and case management in hitherto impossibly efficient ways. The Internet allows access to an almost infinite amount of information and allows law firms with the right ideas to get a head start on the game. Prior to the Internet age, marketing yourself required a significant investment of capital or the right connections or both.

Today, law firms, if they’re smart, can market themselves efficiently for most legal services – and with an extremely small capital outlay – by using smart Search Engine Optimization (‘SEO’) practices and engaging with social media. To offer but one example, the hashtag #ukemplaw on Twitter serves as an invaluable conduit of information and discussion for employment lawyers.

The effect of the Legal Services Act on law firms
The Legal Services Act 2007 came into force on 7 March 2008. Among the many changes that the Act introduced, the allowing of the creation of Alternative Business Structures (ABSs) last October is arguably the most revolutionary. It opens up ownership of legal services providers to non-lawyers and is expected to ramp up competition in the legal market. A number of lawyers that I’ve conversed with on the subject have written off the changes. However, the granting of an increasing number of ABS licences to law firms (including Russell Jones & Walker recently joining with Australian firm Slater & Gordon) suggests that serious players in the legal market take the changes extremely seriously. Further, the impending changes to the regulation of referrals of claims management companies (effectively shutting down) will probably result in most of these entities converting into (or at least attempting to convert into) ABS’s, removing another stream of income for law firms.

What direction the legal services market looks to be taking in the future
With consumers able to choose between competing law firms on the Internet and competition hotting up with the introduction of ABSs, things are looking challenging for the conventional law firm. Or are they? If one refuses to become pessimistic about the changes and becomes realistic about the need to innovate opportunities are rife. Through a combination of legal expertise, smart marketing and business reorganisation firms can open themselves up for new opportunities and embrace the revolution. Who dares wins. In the next section we’ll take a look at what law firms should be looking to do survive and prosper in the new-look legal marketplace.

How law firms can survive and prosper in an increasingly competitive marketplace

  1. Reduce your overheads
  2. Get efficient
  3. Offer legal expertise
  4. Market yourselves smartly

Reduce your overheads
Gross profit equals sales revenue minus the cost of goods sold. Simply put, if you can increase your income from your business activities and decrease the cost of obtaining this income then you’ll increase your profit. I’m not talking about getting rid of valuable, skilled employees but about reorganising your business practices to increase efficiency and decrease overheads. Get some good, inexpensive practice management software (I’ll explore this in later articles), reorganise how your lawyers do their work, ditch the paper journals (a great range of electronic journals and guides are offered online by a variety of providers) and think about changing how and where your business is based. Office space (behind labour) is one of the most expensive facets of running a business – consider down-sizing your office by hot-desking, getting your employees to work from home or even using a virtual office. Use efficient practices such as digital dictation, automatic document creation (such as Hotdocs), move into the ‘cloud’ (Microsoft 365 offer a great cost-effective range of services) and possibly outsource some of your administrative work. The aim is to become small but cost-effective, flexible yet efficient.

Get efficient
Embrace new technology. Computers, practice management systems, Voice over Internet Protocol software (‘VOIP’) and the Internet are your friends.

Offer legal expertise
Make sure that you market yourself as an expert in your field. If you’re not promoting yourself then no one else will be. Further, see how you can reposition yourself in the legal market. Are you a niche firm? Then make sure you’re marketed as one. Are you a high-street law firm? See how you can reposition yourself to efficiently market yourself. One of the advantages of being a relatively small firm is that you can be nimble when you spot opportunities.

Market yourself smartly

  • Get a website
  • Practice smart SEO.
  • Engage in social media.
  • Network.

 

Job done. Well, OK, not job done – that’s a bit glib. But if you implement the above you’re certainly on the way to moving yourself and your business into the 21st century.

 

About Chris Hadrill

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