It is time to stop talking down the personal injury sector and start believing
It is easier to criticise than to create; it is much easier to knock something down than build it in the first place. Talking down the personal injury sector will not help anyone. That is why, with Professor Dominic Regan, I wrote Surviving Jackson: Developing a Profitable Personal Injury Practice for the Future.
Frankly, we had had enough of all the negative commentary and lack of empirical evidence to support the assertions being made by both sides of the personal injury world. Not all claimants are fraudulent conspirators against insurance premium holders, and not all defendant insurance companies are despicable bully boys. Nor will doom and gloom help anyone, because when the dust settles in our industry there will still be accidents involving personal injury that require an expert lawyer’s help. As night follows day, there will still be car crashes and workplace accidents, and there will still be lawyers.
This is why we wanted to produce a practical guide for practitioners based upon the new world of largely fixed costs that was not just about black letter law issues, but also about developing and changing your law firm.
Our conclusion was that despite the almost apocalyptic and frenzied commentary in this sector (usually from those who have never run a law firm), we still believe that firms and lawyers in this sector can make a decent living from personal injury work. There is hope. It will not be like the past, but sadly that’s life.
Also, there is no single magic bullet for success but a series of strategies that can be used to fit firms of all shapes and sizes to ensure not only survival but success. The following are some key tips that will help.
Stop the lawyer/victim syndrome
Yes it hurts, but move on and stop blaming everyone from the Law Society to Lord Justice Jackson.
There are no sacred cows
Get used to the idea that, as claimant lawyers, you can charge clients. That does not mean ripping them off with inflated success fees or byzantine charging structures, but it does mean that if value is created it should be recognised and charged for.
Tell clients that if they want to have a kid in a call centre working in their best interests then that is their choice, but they will have to pay something for having a law firm on their side. There are too many talented lawyers who are too shy or diffident about their talent and value. Be a lawyer and be proud.
Define your business model
Are you a boutique practice or a silo firm? In other words, there is no point in being a grocery shop that makes no money or a volume practice that wants to be like Harrods but isn’t Harrods. Be realistic and honest. From my experience, lawyers get very emotional about new projects but rarely ‘crash test’ them in the real world before spending large sums of money. Marketing or brand consultants are important, but the substance of the firm, the business components in terms of what makes it work, from market sectors to systems and people, have to be clearly defined.
Small is not bad
If you are a small practice and read the legal press you may convince yourself that your days are over. If you are small you will not be able to compete with the big boys on their terms, but box clever and you will find that your agility and expertise make a difference. Can really large firms offer that fantastic personal service coming from a small specialist law firm?
Life after referral fees
It is called marketing and business development, and means working harder than ever to satisfy existing clients, turning them into real fans of the firm. It may be cheesy to some but you can make a real difference to the lives of your clients, even those who have had only small injuries, so let everyone know.
Re-engineer your processes
Use IT wisely and learn from Amazon that it is about effective communication with clients, not simply the medium of communication. That is, remember that sticking to old-fashioned meetings with clients, who are too busy and who would rather have an update by email, will not help.
Panicking or believing you must change in a particular way is a bit like a business version of herding. Recently, I have seen too much ill-thought-out restructuring that has caused more trouble than it was worth.
Change requires planning and leadership
Getting from A to B is the hard bit, but a simple and clear plan with the support of key firm players will make the difference between success and failure.
Preserve your firm’s culture
I do not mean banal marketing straplines, but the values and beliefs of the firm which keep the practice going. It may be old-fashioned to say that going back to basics and simple values does work. Even my bank has changed its strapline to ‘Helpful banking’, which may be an oxymoron, but is aimed at getting to the root of what it should be doing – helping customers.
Banks no longer love law firms
Start to unwind liabilities in a controlled and measured way because things may get even more difficult in the next 12 months, as banks and funders turn from being unhelpful to hostile. For those who do not rely on banks, remember that the deferred terms from suppliers in this industry may no longer be available, as they start to question law firm viability.
Planned abandonment or exiting
If you cannot make it pay, look at the ‘taboo’ subject of exiting. Nobody owes anyone a living and sometimes that adult conversation needs to be had.
Remember that radical change will not happen overnight and the journey will be tough. The danger is always accepting the easy option of incremental change, which in the short term may produce results, but will simply be a fudge in an industry that will see competitors quickly race ahead of you.
You will have to start believing that change is necessary and worthwhile. As Peter Drucker said: ‘The organisations likely to suffer the most are those with the delusion that tomorrow will be like yesterday.’ Yesterday’s personal injury may have gone, but that does not mean tomorrow’s personal injury world will end.
Jeff Zindani runs Forum Law Solicitors and is co-author of Surviving Jackson: Developing a Profitable Personal Injury Practice for the Future (Sun Legal Publishing).