These days being a senior lawyer or partner in private practice is not just about being great at practising the law. You also need business development and marketing skills, people management skills, and an understanding of the financial aspects of running cases.
Having these skills means that lawyers are better able to do their jobs, help clients and grow the business. We can sometimes expect lawyers to just know what to do but this is not part of their formal training. Yet these soft skills can be equally as important.
Firms need to look at how they foster those skills in lawyers operating at every level and equip them with the tools they need. This means providing training for junior lawyers and instilling commercial awareness from day one.
At Hodge Jones & Allen, we last year moved to be part of an employee ownership trust. Given this, there was an even more apparent need for everyone working within the business to understand their role in its growth and profitability. All our employees now have a stake and a responsibility for ensuring our ongoing success.
Junior lawyers are quite rightly focused primarily on their caseload. Historically the firm’s finances, operations and business development have been left to the senior members of the team. In recent years we have been looking to change that.
Personally I think transparency about finances is part of the answer. It’s not just about top-level reporting on turnover and profit, we want our lawyers to understand what it takes to run a legal business – the impact of effective case management as well as the impact of other business costs such as rent, salaries, and investment in IT and infrastructure.
To give our fee earners more visibility on billing and financial performance, we are putting in place a management information tool with a dashboard that gives them real time information on their individual financial performance. With this tool, and with training, the aim is to aid more effective case management, ensuring people are taking responsibility for their own performance, while not losing the focus on providing exceptional legal services to their clients.
I always want to hear what our junior lawyers have to say and their ideas for improvements to the way we work. If you don’t get this feedback there’s a danger that opportunities are missed. At our strategy day in February we invited all lawyers to give their input through dedicated sessions in advance. They came back with some great ideas for improvements to our processes and also had the chance to ask questions about the approach we take.
When people come to me with ideas which we go on to adopt, I make sure that they are involved in implementing them. As part of our commitment to improving diversity within the legal profession, a junior member of our crime team came up with the idea of going into schools, particularly in under privileged areas, to talk to children about being a lawyer. She will play a key role in putting this programme together and getting school visits off the ground.
We have also put in place a number of training opportunities to help junior lawyers with business development. We hold an annual internal speed networking event with attendees from different practice groups. This helps those involved gain a better understanding of the different business areas as well as improving networking skills. As a result we have seen more internal referrals to teams within the firm.
We are now encouraging junior staff members to hold smaller, less formal networking lunches in the West End and the City. We also provide them with networking training and I am undertaking some presentation training to help build their confidence when speaking to a room full of people - an experience many find daunting.
It’s also important to get junior lawyers involved in writing blogs, articles for publication and social media activity. If we can provide information that appeals to potential clients and referrers as well as improving SEO, this will have a positive impact on our case intake.
We have also seen the benefits of giving all our lawyers a good grounding in PR so that they come to us when they are working on a newsworthy case or spot an interesting news angle that the firm could be commenting on.
Let’s be honest, these things don’t come naturally to everyone and I understand that. For me it is about giving people the training, opportunities and visibility in these areas and giving those who want to develop these skills the ability to do so.
Everyone will have different skills and strengths but understanding the basics of what it takes for a law firm to be successful from an early stage in their legal career is empowering for people and beneficial to the business as a whole.
Vidisha Joshi, managing partner, Hodge Jones & Allen