May 28, 2017

HOW TO MANAGE A LAW FIRM by Kaine Agary

In 2004, my cousin, Efere and I were attending the Sithengi Cinema Festival in Cape Town, South Africa, when we spotted, with great delight, the exhibition booth of Jeftha Twala, Inc., one of the largest blacked-owned law firms in South Africa at the time.  We were excited to see a law firm at the festival – they had to be our kind of people to invest the time and money required for an exhibition booth at the festival.  We met the partners, Alan Jeftha and Zithulele Twala, and they invited us to their new office located at the V & A Waterfront area.

We could hardly contain ourselves when we walked into their office – fancy doors; the Jeftha Twala, Inc. logo etched in glass; bouquets of fresh flowers; plush furnishings in the waiting area – we were impressed and inspired.  Their conference room had the latest technology for presentations and teleconferencing; staff welfare was not ignored – there was a kitchenette and a staff lounge area; everything was just so!  Jeftha Twala, Inc., was ready to take over the world of law practice and we were in their corner, cheering them on.

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Fast forward, two years later, when we invited another South African lawyer, Guy MacLeod, from Cape Town, to be a resource person for our first Wetin Lawyers Dey Do… Sef? For the Entertainment Industry.  When we asked him how Jeftha Twala, Inc. was faring, we were crushed to learn that they no longer existed as a law firm.  They could not stretch the glitz and glamour into profits, but it was not all bad news.  They merged with Cliffe Dekker (now Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr), one of South Africa’s largest law firms.  Jeftha and Twala both had years of experience and respect in the legal profession (assets that Cliffe Dekker was interested in), but that is not enough to keep a successful law firm going.

In 2007, the global law firm of Dewey and LeBoeuf, LLP, made international headlines when it was formed by a merger of Dewey Ballantine and LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae.  In 2012, they made headlines again when the law firm went belly up and filed for bankruptcy. The profligacy of the partners and poor people management were to blame.

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The message here is that every law firm needs someone who understands the business of a law practice.  Some firms (partnerships or sole practice) are lucky to have lawyers/leaders that have a good business sense and can put decisions in business perspective.  Others have practices large enough to afford a business management professional on staff.  For others, outside help, like Shan Consulting, run by Sylvia Nzekwu, who offer law firm management services, is an option.    There are now certificate courses and graduate degrees in law firm management for those who do not naturally have the skills and want a hands-on approach.  The cheapest way is to talk to colleagues who have successfully been in business for many years and hope that they share some of their secrets.

Every law firm needs a plan, and must continually assess and update its business strategy to stay in the game.  Here are a few things to consider:

The people – the lawyers and support staff are probably the most valuable asset of a law firm, so they must be happy and incentivized to produce the best work that they can.  Management must understand their strengths and weaknesses in order to use them optimally.  Permit me to say that I find lawyers to be just like artists – brilliant, creative minds, but a crazy bunch with egos that need to be managed.  Staff size and competence are also important. Do you have ten lawyers doing the work that five lawyers could do? Does your lawyer to support staff ratio make sense for the size of your business?

Workload – are your briefs generating enough revenue to cover salaries and a little extra? Do you have a good mix of cases to keep the firm going?  Consider, for instance, that a land matter in court could drag on for 15 years, if you spread what you can realistically charge for that matter over 15 years, you would probably run at a loss, so you must also find those quick, transactional briefs that pay well.

Financial Management – lawyers have no special skills to manage money.  A law business needs a good financial planner and manager.  Someone who can balance the books, keep track of uncollected fees, track expenses, produce some basic accounting statements and help keep the firm in the black.  For the solo practitioner on a budget, take advantage of available technology and software to DIY.

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Marketing – You cannot help the whole world so you must decide who your target market is and how you can reach them?  Attend conferences and seminars in your target area to understand the business.  Keep abreast of trends and prepare yourself to jump on or off whatever train is in service.  For instance, a couple of years ago, IPO deals made good money for some law firms. Some others made millions from election petitions.  These areas are cyclical at best so if they interest you, be prepared to hop on board and be ready to move on when that well runs dry.  Take advantage of social media tools as far as the rules of professional ethics will allow.  I receive a quarterly email/newsletter from a law firm with offices in Lagos and Abuja.  The newsletter tells me when they have new staff and who they are; when they move offices; sends holiday greetings, etc.  Basically saying to me, “you probably do not need our services now, but when you or someone you know does, do not forget who we are, where we are and what we do”.

Business Development – get used to the words competition, market share, strategy, structure, trends, etc., as they relate to your law practice.  One thing that puts a smile on my face is the number of Nigerian lawyers who have taken advantage of the relatively easy/short process for foreign lawyers to qualify in Ghana.  It probably does not make the Ghanaians very happy but it is what it is. Some law firms are thinking global business, and it makes me happy.

There is great joy to be had in being profitable doing what you love.  Plan your law firm like you would any other business.

 

Kaine Agary is a writer and law enthusiast living in Lagos, Nigeria

 

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