Two years of reforms have created a perfect storm for all firms. Take advantage of it.
The past two years have created a perfect storm for firms like mine. The Jackson reforms, the slashing of legal aid, the introduction of fixed costs, costs budgeting and new rules on proportionality have meant we have had to rethink the way we do business.
This isn’t just about ensuring our survival as a firm, it’s about all law firms like ours reinventing themselves to ensure ordinary people still have access to justice.
Hodge Jones & Allen aims to help ordinary people deal with extraordinary events. I founded the firm almost four decades ago in very different times, but our principles remain the same; to look after clients as people, to employ and nurture the very best legal minds, to use leading-edge financial management and to retain a campaigning edge – trying to improve access to justice by whatever means we can.
However, just because you do vital work does not give you an automatic right to exist. It was clear to us that business as usual was not going to be an option and we had to change, be innovative and reinvent ourselves. We needed to make big changes and there could be no sacred cows. We have challenged everything we do and we continue to do so.
This is a difficult task for hard-working and committed lawyers, asking them to look up from their pressing casework and say to themselves, ‘can I do this better, is the tried and trusted way really the best way?’.
Two years ago we introduced a ‘Continuous Innovation Programme’, reviewing the firm from the bottom up, looking at our structure, our management, the type of work we undertake, the way we recover fees, the processes we employ and the support our fee-earners need. Everyone in the business has had to respond to the agenda of innovation.
One key change was installing a new management board which, in addition to partners heading each of our five legal teams, features four operational heads, drawing experience from other industries including health and leisure, marketing and other professional services. We report on the decisions made by the board to the members as a PLC would report to shareholders, with the members retaining powers over structural issues and the distribution of profits.
Having a board of directors has improved accountability, increased the speed of decision-making and improved the professionalism of our management. This is all a learning process and we are ensuring we bring in advice where we need it, whether it be in training for these new directors, or in helping identify and develop new opportunities or ways of improving efficiency.
We have also innovated on the smaller things, recognising that small changes can add up to make a big difference, from rationalising and reviewing precedents, to relationship management initiatives, to the establishment of a new legal help centre for the take-on of clients.
Of course change is hard and we have been very aware of the pressures this has put our staff under. With this in mind we have introduced new staff assessment and feedback procedures to ensure we can understand and respond to their needs. This has included adopting the London living wage for all staff.
We have always placed a great deal of importance on technology, indeed Hodge Jones & Allen was one of the first in the profession to embrace it, buying its first computer in 1981 – with a grand total of 10MB of memory!
Today we are 70% of the way towards being paperless and expect to have eliminated the need for paper within the next two years. I believe this kind of modernisation is vital for the courts system as well and I have been a member of a working group to improve the use of technology for court users for several years. We are currently looking to see how IT can help to make arbitration schemes attractive as an alternative to the court system in personal injury cases.
It’s important to point out that a desire to thrive in the new legal world does not mean that the firm has lost its campaigning edge.
We have acted in some of the UK’s most renowned legal cases, including acting for Neville Lawrence, the father of murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, in various and ongoing actions against the police; securing compensation for the Bridgewater Four and acting for women in the UK who had been incarcerated in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries.
I don’t believe that this needs to change and am committed to doing what is necessary to thrive in the new legal landscape without compromising on this.
We hope that the changes that we have made will enable us to increase our £14m turnover by a third over the next two to three years and double our profits. I hope to achieve this whilst changing lives, making headlines and advancing the law.
Patrick Allen is senior partner at Hodge Jones & Allen