A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

ALPMA Member Q&A with Mark Beale, General Manager at Malley & Co

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

By Mark Beale, General Manager, Malley & Co.

In this ALPMA member Q&A, we interview Mark Beale, General Manager at Malley & Co, who shares his experience in the New Zealand legal industry and discusses what's in store for 2017.

What are you planning on doing more of this year? 

Having just completed eight days in Australia’s delightful Central Coast, it’s hard to personally go past more recreation time, but sadly I can hear the office calling me back. My insightful and pinpoint forecast for 2016 was of there being “change”, I’m going again with that this year. Change as they say is as good as a rest and more of that seems pretty compelling. There is plenty ahead of me on that front. 

On the professional front, I’m looking forward to the ALPMA Summit in Brisbane, which keeps getting better and bigger every year. The opportunity to network for those of us walking similar paths (sometimes as the lone manager in a firm) is incredibly useful and the quality presentations, always return you back to your firm with fresh ideas and inspired and reinvigorated. Professionally too, I have a big year ahead having only just moved into my new role with my firm in October last year. There are some exciting productivity and knowledge management projects, that I’m looking forward to leading for the firm as well as driving our own learning and development program for our up and coming lawyers.

What are you planning on doing less of?

The plan would be to work less but achieve more, I’ll get back to you on that.

How did you get started in the legal industry?

I’ve been involved with legal management in several firms over half my life. I was told several years ago that once you are immersed in law firm management it’s hard to extract yourself. The clairvoyant accountant, has been proven correct. I began my working life as a journalist in NZ but after two years working in London across a range of administration positions, I turned my focus towards management and more particularly systems administration in a legal practice. Things progressed and over the years I have worked in a range of management roles within legal firms involving technology, business development, human resources and finance functions. Oh, how I wished ALPMA existed back then!

After over six years in a smaller commercial and property law practice, last October I moved to a much larger full-service practice in Malley and Co. Having seen off the themes of reconstruction and business change which all Christchurch legal practices experienced after the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes in the city, it was simply time to change and look for fresh challenges that the new firm now offers.

What do you think is in store for the NZ legal industry this year?

I was at the NZLaw Association conference a couple of months ago and John Chisholm, the guest speaker, noted that in his opinion there had been more change in the legal industry over the last five years than in the preceding 30 that he had experienced. I have to agree (although John is older than me). The New Zealand legal industry is not exempt from these changes. Younger practitioners are confident, motivated, looking for development and challenge and expecting that their firms deliver the opportunities and the support systems to make them better lawyers. Pragmatically, the current owners of law firms have to ensure as part of their succession planning that their practice is modern, capable and an attractive proposition for their potential new business owners. Equally, firms have to deliver that same capability and attractiveness to a more savvy, researched and price sensitive new generation of clients. 

There is a lot of work ahead for legal practices in the coming five years on both sides of the Tasman. We are beginning to see the emergence of new providers of specialist support services in New Zealand, perhaps not to the same extent as in Australia yet, but their business propositions offer exciting opportunities for law firms to stay focused on their core deliverables to clients, while contracting out knowledge and practice support services with these new legal service providers. It’s very interesting.

How does ALPMA deliver on its promise to you?

I can’t believe how fortunate we are to have such an organisation providing a wealth of constant professional development opportunities for law firm managers. When I first started in law firm management, the most you could hope for was the ALA management periodicals and the occasional offshore conference. Times have changed. I’m incredibly proud to see how ALPMA has developed over the last few years. The development opportunities, the content we provide and the way it is delivered to managers in the city and countryside of Australia and New Zealand is world class. Finally, and on a more parochial note, I’m also particularly heartened by the New Zealand branch’s growth and how its membership has turned out at each Summit in increasing numbers. That tells me that ALPMA is meaningful, relevant and delivers to its member.

Editor's Note

Now is a great time to become an ALPMA member. Membership is a highly cost-effective investment in developing your leadership and management skills and extending your professional network. It will also give you valuable insights to help you improve your firm's performance in a complex and rapidly changing legal environment. ALPMA membership until 30 June, 2017 is just $A250 (ex GST) and less if you work outside the CBD or in New Zealand. ALPMA also offers generous discounts for firms that support multiple memberships.

Your membership includes free attendance at our regular practice management and Leading Your Firm events, free access to content in the ALPMA On-Demand Learning Centre - and much more. Join now.

About our Guest Blogger

Mark BealeMark is the General Manager at Malley & Co. He brings considerable legal management experience having worked for national and regional legal practices over the past 25 years. As General Manager at Malley & Co, Mark is responsible for ensuring the performance of the business across a range of management functions including finance, technology, business development and team resourcing.

Mark has a particular interest in developing and implementing business initiatives that focus on improving performance and delivering accessible and user friendly service to his firm's customers. 

Mark is a member of the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association and serves on the ALPMA New Zealand Executive Committee and the ALPMA Board.

ALPMA Member Q and A with Jane Ritchard, Finance Director - Wotton+Kearney

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

In this ALPMA Member Q&A, we interview Jane Ritchard, the Finance Director at Wotton + Kearney, ALPMA NSW Chair and recently appointed ALPMA Board Member about her inspiration, career development and experience as a leader in the NSW legal industry.

1.       What has inspired you this year?

Fortunately there have been a few things that have inspired me both professionally and personally this year.  It actually feels like it's been a particularly tough year for many; I've heard quite a few people saying they are looking forward to this year finishing and hoping 2017 will be a better one.  

Professionally, my biggest inspiration this year has been watching the firm continue to grow and mature.  It's been great to be part of a management team that is helping guide the firm through its journey of development and change.  We turn fifteen early next year, which is a great milestone.   The firm is always looking for ways to improve and innovate.

The corporate social responsibility programme at Wotton + Kearney is a real source of inspiration for me.  We choose a new charity to support and partner with every year.  This year it's been So They Can.  They do amazing work in Africa; providing education and housing to try to break the poverty cycle.  There were some great fund raising events during the year, including some of the team going to Kenya to see the programmes on the ground and to run a half marathon in the Masai Mara.  We're partnering with OzHarvest in 2017 which I'm very much looking forward to.  The concept of reusing perfectly good food (that would otherwise have found itself in landfill) for people in need, is so elegantly simple and effective.

On a somewhat micro level and specifically in my area of the business, I'm excited about going paperless in our accounts payable process.  It might not sound like a big thing, but will make a huge difference both to my team and the wider business.  We'll be able to process accounts payable invoices more quickly - without printing anything out and have approval done through online workflows.  That means there won't be any more lost bits of paper, we won't have to file paper invoices and we won't have to archive them and pay for storage for seven years.  

Personally, I've been inspired by the amazing Australian track cyclist Anna Meares.  She announced her retirement a little while ago, after an extraordinary career as our most successful cyclist.  Anna came back from a potentially life threatening accident in a race in 2008.  She went on to win more medals and set more records.  What an awesome role model.

 2.       How did you become the Finance Director at Wotton+Kearney?

Interestingly it was through ALPMA!  I was approached about the position by a colleague that I knew through the NSW committee.  So many roles at this level are filled through network contacts, rather than through more traditional recruitment channels.  

3.       What do you think is the biggest issue facing senior finance professionals in law 

I think the biggest issue we face is keeping up with the pace of technological change.  We need to make sure that we have the best technology; to ensure our finance teams can give fast, reliable and relevant information to the business.  That includes practice management, business intelligence and other ancillary systems (such as expense management, budgeting and accounts payable systems).  We have to make sure that our systems allow everyone in the business to perform the financial aspects of their roles with the least amount of effort.   It can be challenging to build the business case that asks for the commitment of time and resources to implement new or upgraded software.  We are all competing with our IT, HR and BD colleagues for finite funds allocated to technological investment.

It can also be interesting trying to work out what is best for our firms.  We all have subtly different businesses, so what may work really well for one firm, might not be the best for our firms.   Then, once we've worked out what we need, it's important to set up the best resourcing for the project team.  It's very rare to find anyone with much excess capacity in a finance team; so it becomes a juggling act to keep the wheels turning on normal operations whilst an implementation is underway.

4.       What do you think the big challenge for law firms will be in 2017?

For a long time we've been hearing that the ball is firmly in our clients' court when it comes to the provision of legal services.  I think that's certainly the case and I can't see that changing in the short term.  Our clients are becoming more sophisticated in the way they  run their procurement processes and are demanding more for less.  Coming up with appropriate fee arrangements continues to challenge our ingenuity. It's also difficult trying to work out where the next possible disruption may come from.  Sometimes we won't know what it looks like until it's here, so it's tricky to plan for that kind of eventuality.  The challenge is to stay nimble; to be able to respond quickly to threats to our business models.

5.       How has your ALPMA membership contributed to your professional development?

Being an ALPMA member has made my life as a finance professional in the legal industry so much easier.  It has contributed to my professional development in so many ways.  Initially, it provided me with great networking opportunities; giving me access to people who could answer the questions I had about how things worked in law from a financial perspective.  Once I was settled in, I went to the regular lunch time practice management seminars and the annual Summit which helped me learn more about the legal industry as a whole.  I've developed a deeper understanding about the HR, IT and BD aspects of our industry along the way.  It's been great to be able to give back to the ALPMA community by being involved with both the NSW committee and more recently the ALPMA Board.

Editor's Note

Watch the video learn more about Jane's experiences as an ALPMA member.  

If you are inspired by Jane's story and are considering joining the ALPMA community, now is a great time to get on-board.  From 1 December, membership until 30 June, 2017 is just $250 (ex GST) if are a law firm leader or manager working in an Australian capital city - even less if you are based in a region, live in New Zealand or your firm supports multiple members.  

Learn more about becoming a member.  

About our Guest Blogger

Jane RitchardJane Ritchard has nearly 30 years’ experience as an accounting professional. Jane is the Finance Director at Wotton + Kearney, a specialist insurance law firm.  She has also worked in senior finance roles at Curwood Lawyers and Clayton Utz. 

Prior to this, when not travelling, working in the UK or doing contract work, Jane spent 12 years working on and off at Deloitte, progressing from office junior to auditor, to small business practitioner and then to internal finance manager and consultant. 

She is member of the ALPMA Board and Chair of the ALPMA NSW Committee. 

2016 - A Year of Change, Growth and Collaboration

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

By Susan Comerford, People and Practice Development Manager, Cowell Clarke and ALPMA Vice President

As 2015 draws to a close, it is the perfect time for everyone to reflect on the year that has gone past (seemingly in the blink of an eye) and to look forward to what is coming in 2016 on both a personal and professional level. 

With my new ALPMA Vice President’s hat on, one thing we can be sure of in 2016 is another busy year – both for the association and for the broader industry. From an ALPMA perspective, there are three key themes emerging for 2016:

Adapting to Change

In 2016, ALPMA will be doing everything we can to support our members (and the legal sector as a whole) in their efforts to adapt to the changing legal landscape. We know that change does not happen overnight in many firms and can be a painful process – but there is little doubt that the time for talking is past – in 2016, our focus is on taking action! 
To this end, the 2016 ALPMA Summit’s theme is “A Blueprint for Change”. The Summit committee is putting together a program that provides a plethora of practical, “how-to” advice drawing on the real-world experiences of our extended community to help you successfully plan and implement the necessary people, process and technology changes at your firm. The Summit committee is currently developing the program, so if you have been implementing change at your firm (or working with a firm to do this), I encourage you to share your experience at Summit by submitting an abstract. 
ALPMA is also continuing to expand its extensive research program to help firms understand legal industry trends, benchmark their performance to similar firms and identify opportunities for improvement. There are some exciting collaborative research projects with leading universities in the pipeline as well – stay tuned for more information on these.

A Year of Growth

2016 is also shaping up as another year of growth for ALPMA. In Western Australia and New Zealand, we will be offering a full program of 10 practice management seminars per year in FY17, bringing the L&D program in-line with that offered to members in our existing member States. We are continuing our efforts to provide compelling and accessible professional development for law firm managers at smaller and regional firms across the region, via our Leading Your Firm program – and starting to explore market need in the Asia Pacific region for professional development on the business of law. 

We are also planning improvements to our on-demand resources. This is a significant body of knowledge on legal practice management and leadership that is currently under-utilised – and we are looking at how we can share and improve access to this content to better meet industry needs.


Finally, 2016 will be a year of collaboration and co-operation for ALPMA. We are working hard on strengthening our relationships with other legal associations and education providers with a view to working more effectively together for the benefit of the industry. 

But most of all, I am looking forward to another year of connecting and collaborating with other ALPMA members and partners, to learning from each other, sharing advice and experiences – the good and the bad. Being part of a supportive network of people in the same boat as you is the true beating heart of ALPMA membership. 

I wish all of you a safe and happy festive season. 

About our Guest Blogger

Susan ComerfordSusan is the People & Practice Development Manager for leading commercial law firm Cowell Clarke. She was recently elected to the role of Vice President on the ALPMA Board

Susan is responsible for all aspects of human resource management and people development at Cowell Clarke.  She is also responsible for the marketing and communications function and has general oversight of the day to day operations of the firm.

Susan has worked in a variety of roles within the legal profession. Having commenced her career as a lawyer in Adelaide she initially practiced in commercial law, working in private practice, corporate and government for several years. For the past twenty plus years, she has focused on legal practice management, holding a range of senior roles with top tier and national law firms.

Make the most of your Summit investment

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

By Ann-Maree David, ALPMA Summit Committee Chair and Executive Director, College of Law Queensland

There is no doubt that attending conferences, like the forthcoming ALPMA Summit, can be tremendously beneficial for both you and your firm. They provide a great opportunity to step outside of the everyday operation of your firm, to learn from experts about best-practice and to meet others in the same boat as you and share experiences.  You gain valuable insights on how you could be more effective in your role as a leader and manager, and how your business could improve the way it is doing things.  One of the reasons I am so passionate about the ALPMA Summit is the number of 'light bulb' moments that it delivers.

There is also no doubt that attending conferences represents a significant investment of both your time and money - so it makes sense to do everything you can to squeeze the most out of your experience.  

Here are my three top tips to ensure you (and your firm) achieve a strong return on your conference investment.

1. Share the experience

Bringing your managing partner or key members of your leadership team will mean that they come on the learning journey with you, and that you can work together on implementing key ideas gained.  If they can't spare the time to attend for three days, pick out a key workshop to attend together, or bring them along for one day. If you can't bring them along in person, then sign them up to attend the key sessions via the live-stream broadcast.   

After the event, get staff together to watch the on-demand recordings of the most inspirational sessions together.  There is no more effective way of getting everyone on the same page than sharing the experience.  

2. Create an action plan

Create a running action list of things you would like to do or research when you are back in the office (you can divide these into Easy Wins and Longer Term Actions if you like), and take a few minutes at the end of each session to actually write these down.  Make sure that everyone else attending the event from your firm does the same.

This will help you keep track of the big and little ideas that attending an event like Summit will generate.   

When you get back to the office, conduct a post-Summit de-brief and use this list as the basis for creating a combined, prioritised implementation plan.  Assign responsibilities and timelines to each action. Agree when you are going to get back together to review progress and ensure continued momentum.  

3. Utilise every opportunity to connect

Summit provides an incredible opportunity to connect with industry experts, other law firm leaders and managers and industry vendors - so make the most of it.

Come to all the networking events (like the welcome reception and the Gala dinner).  Challenge yourself to meet new people each time. Don't spend the whole of Summit with people you already know.  If you are with your colleagues, make an effort to split up during breaks to meet as many people as you can between you! 

Conferences offer plenty of good conversation starters (from the venue, food, speakers, Award winners, post-Summit plans to holiday at the Gold Coast) so make the effort to step outside of your comfort zone, and you will be richly rewarded!

Do not spend all the breaks on your phone or doing your email!

Enter your information in the Summit app prior to Summit (available to delegates in early August), and use the app to identify other delegates and sponsors that you would like to meet. You can then set-up times to meet during Summit. 

If you are attending Summit by yourself, visit the ALPMA booth and they will happily introduce you to other delegates and ALPMA committee members. 

Make sure you visit each of the trade exhibitors and learn about products and services they offer law firms and legal departments.  This is a very quick and effective way to find vendors that could have the perfect solution for the challenges your firm is facing, to learn about new developments and take advantage of many of the great deals and prizes on offer.

Implementing these tips will help ensure you (and your firm) get real benefit from attending the event.

Editor's Note:  

The ALPMA Legal Management Summit & Trade Exhibition is the largest legal management conference and trade exhibition in the Southern Hemisphere. The 2015 ALPMA Summit will be held from 9 - 11 September, at the Gold Coast Convention and Exhibition Centre.  

This year, more than 300 law firm leaders and managers from across Australasia will converge for an action-packed three days of intense professional development, networking and fun. 

Significant savings are available to those who take advantage of the early bird rates and register before August 2.  Register now!

About our Guest Speaker

Anne Maree David
Ann Maree David is the Executive Director of the College of Law Queensland, a long-term ALPMA member and the 2015 ALMA Summit Chair.  

She has worked within the Queensland legal profession for more than 20 years, in both public and corporate sector roles and in private practice as a solicitor. 

She holds degrees in Arts and Law and has devoted much of her career to working in legal education in both the academic and professional spheres.

Q & A with Claire Wivell Plater, Managing Director, The Fold Legal

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

In this blog post, ALPMA member, Claire Wivell Plater, Managing Director of The Fold Legal Pty Limited, shares her insights into leading a boutique law firm with the editor of ALPMA's blog, A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

What are the biggest challenges facing small law firms?

Overcoming scale is always a significant challenge for small firms. Executing a growth strategy, expanding the client base and even marketing generally is tough when you are also managing a busy practice and only have so many people to involve. This is why delivering legal services more efficiently is such a priority.

Differentiation is another challenge, but it applies to larger firms too. The market is crowded and competitive and when you’re hunting for revenue, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to chase every opportunity. Deciding who you want to be, and more importantly, sticking to that, is key!

How have you sought to differentiate your firm?

We made a conscious decision to play to our strengths – being sector specialists, knowing our ultimate client, and leveraging the typical strengths of a boutique, such as personal contact and cost-consciousness. 

The Fold specialises in providing regulatory and commercial advice to financial services businesses, primarily in the insurance, wealth management, credit and funds management sectors. We focus on small to medium sized businesses because we can’t compete with the big end of town (although we often see them on the other side!).

While we regularly work with in house counsel, the majority of our clients are decision makers on the commercial side. This means we target the industry press, have a website that focuses on the business life cycle (rather than our vast technical experience!), don’t use legal jargon and always aim to answer the questions "how does it apply to me" and "what do I need to do". We don’t want to say we’re different – we want it to be very visible.

How have you overcome the issue of scale?

Leveraging knowledge and automating workflows are crucial. 

We've always seen ourselves as being in the knowledge business, not just the legal business. For the vast majority of our clients, the law is a given. So where advice is replicated across a number of clients, we convert our knowledge into manuals, procedures, policies, templates and training which economies of scale enable us to sell at a reasonable cost though our online shop. Our clients can then educate themselves on the basics – our advice only needs to be the icing on the cake which ensures they're correctly applying the law to their situation. 

For any work of a significant volume, we map and systematise the process to ensure we maximise efficiency, leverage our templates and can scale up or down as workflows require it. Contract review is one area where we have successfully done this, enabling us to handle high volumes of enquiries, quickly and at a very competitive price.

One of the best recent examples of “doing more with less” is our approach to accountants’ licensing. Accountants are required to obtain a financial services licence before July 2016. To ensure we capture our share of the market, we’ve created a streamlined process and templates to enable us to manage high volumes of licensing applications and developed a DIY Kit to assist those accountants who wish to do it themselves.

What is your view on the changing legal landscape?

It’s an exciting time to be part of the legal industry with so many firms trying to do things differently. New entrants (like Marque and AdventBalance) have been very successful at breaking the old time based billing model. Clients are also pushing for change. I recently spoke to the general counsel of a large bank who has successfully managed to get her panel firms to forget discussions about hourly rates and move wholly to fixed pricing. I’m sure there will be more clients to follow. 

Is the lawyering being offered by new entrants any better though? As I’m not experiencing their services, I don’t have an answer to that. My interest is in how we disrupt the underlying delivery of legal services. How can we be more user-friendly and meet the real needs of our clients? I think smaller firms have greater flexibility in responding to these challenges.

Why did you join ALPMA?

I was really impressed by ALPMA’s commitment to professional development and its vast library of research, resources and tools. They are invaluable to firms like ours who don’t have all the expertise in house. I also value the opportunity to see and hear what other firms are doing and how they are overcoming challenges similar to ours. The recent benchmarking survey in particular, was very useful for its focus on firms of all sizes; so often the focus is on the large firms.

Editor's Note:

Now is a great time to join ALPMA.  

Membership offers great benefits to you and your firm and represents tremendous value. Membership to June 30, 2015 is now only $192.50 (incl GST) for regional members and $255.75 (incl GST) for those working in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide or Perth - less if your firm already supports multiple ALPMA members. 

Your membership includes free attendance at our regular practice management and Leading Your Firm events, free access to content in the ALPMA On-Demand Learning Centre - and much more. Join now.

About our Guest Blogger

Claire Wivell Plater is Managing Director and owner of law firm, The Fold

Prior to establishing The Fold in 2002, Claire spent 17 years as an insurance law specialist with Phillips Fox (11 of these as partner) and three years in Corporate Development with ING.

Claire is passionate about finding practical and cost-effective legal solutions to regulatory and commercial challenges.

Personal Reflections on 2014

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

by Andrew Barnes, ALPMA President and Financial Controller, Lantern Legal Group

This time of year means many different things to many different people.  Many of us are ‘head down’ trying to leave our desks tidy before we take a few days of leave whilst others will not enjoy a break and their year-end urgency is dictated by others void of any festive cheer.  Wherever you sit on this spectrum, I hope this is a safe and enjoyable time for you.

I wrote recently in our December e-newsletter about another great year at ALPMA.  This time, I will reflect on some of the more personal aspects of the year with ALPMA.

1. The rewards of volunteering  

In my relatively short time with ALPMA I have seen many people come and go from our various committees, and I only see a small section from here in Victoria.  We experience annual angst when people resign a position and we worry about who might replace them, only to have new people coming forward to volunteer.  Some people even come back for a second or third tour of duty.  In addition to our interest in driving the interests of legal practice management professionals, the one thing I can confidently say that makes it worthwhile is the collegiality we have amongst our band of volunteers.  The personal connection assists us all professionally and whilst we invest time in contributing to the ALPMA cause, the reality is we all grow (and our firms benefit) from the experience.  I thank our volunteers again and encourage others to become involved.

2. Narrow does not equal small

This remains my favourite take away from our annual Summit, held in Melbourne back in August.  It was part of the fantastic presentation by Tim Williams.  Our firms seem to experience enormous pressure to be everything to everybody.  It is worth revisiting Tim’s presentation in the On Demand Learning Centre on our website.  Clarity in strategy, true differentiation and determining what you do not do all assist us in doing the important things excellently and not doing too many things adequately. 

In this mad year end rush it makes sense, doesn't it?

3. Progress

Some will argue I am not qualified to comment at this early stage, but I do so with the interests of law firm managers in mind.  I am unsure what will confront us with the roll out of the Legal Profession Uniform Law Application Act.  For starters there are only two states signed on.  The first article I read was barely three pages of text yet had more than 60 footnotes.  Will this be buried in technical considerations such that the intent is lost?  The implementation and living in the reality of this will not be without challenges.  If we do not get this right, it might just remain a NSW/Vic exercise.

4. The Future  

In the face of the disruptors threatening to tip the profession and industry on its head across the world, have we stopped and asked ourselves what we are doing differently today to what we were doing 12 months ago?  What about five years ago?  If we are not doing anything differently, should we be?  

The threat of change means different things to people depending on where they are on their career lifecycle.  If the retirement horizon is near, the disruptors can wait.  If I am new in the game, the disruptors may forge my career.  In these disruptive challenges comes excitement for what it might mean for your firm, your peers and your profession.  Let’s not let this swamp us and leave us behind.  

In many different ways, and particularly for myself and my fellow Board members at ALPMA, we all have obligations to be stewards of the present for the benefit of the future.  

Let’s not permit our vested interests to deny us the opportunity to engage – it might be fun!

About our Guest Blogger

Andrew Barnes
Andrew Barnes is the Financial Controller of the Lantern Legal Group, incorporating the practices of Hardwood Andrews and Sladen Legal.

He was appointed ALPMA President in July, 2014, after serving as Vice President and Treasurer.  He is also an active member of the ALPMA Victorian Committee.  

Member Q and A with Kerri Borg, CEO, McKays Solicitors

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

In this ALPMA Member Q&A, Kerri Borg, CEO of McKays Solicitors based in Mackay, Queensland, shares her insights into life leading a regional law firm with the editor of ALPMA's blog, A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

Q. How did you become the CEO at McKays Solicitors?

I’ve had a very long history with McKays, commencing as litigation secretary in 1988 when the firm was founded through the merger of two small Mackay firms. I left the firm to travel overseas in the early 1990s and, when I returned, spent some time in real estate and accounting as well as owning and operating a small retail business.  But the lure of working in the legal industry was too strong and I returned to McKays in 1998 in an administrative role. Since then, I’ve been exposed to all facets of practice management and watched the firm grow from four partners and about 10 staff in one regional office to around 120 staff across offices in four locations throughout Queensland, including the Brisbane CBD.  

I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to grow and develop my own skills as the practice has expanded and grown.  The practice became incorporated in 2011 and, since that time, our business model has gradually evolved to a much more corporatised model.  Part of that transition has involved the appointment of an external director to the board, as well as the creation of Managing Director and CEO roles.  I definitely think that having worked in so many different roles within the business and having a detailed knowledge of the practice’s history is a strength that I bring to the role of CEO but I’m also mindful that I need to look outside our business to see what we can do differently and what we can learn from other industries.

Q. What motivates you?

Learning about something new, seeing new ideas and thinking about how they could be applied in our practice to add value.  I get inspired by working with people who think outside the box.  

One of my favourite quotes is by Nelson Mandela - “It always seems impossible until it is done”.  

It’s an exciting time to be involved in the industry and it will be interesting to see how quickly we all adapt (or not) to the new legal landscape.

Q. What are the biggest challenges facing regional law firms?

From a staffing perspective, attracting and retaining practitioners is always a challenge in regional centres.  People who have never lived outside a major city can have reservations about whether the quality of work, professional development and career opportunities will be more limited in a regional area.  In actual fact, the opposite is often the case – they will often have the chance to do more interesting, complex work earlier in their careers and also have more variety in the type of work they do, as opposed to practising in a very narrow area.  McKays is fortunate to have offices in Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Surat Basin which can provide opportunities for staff to relocate for personal or family reasons when we otherwise might have lost them to another firm and had to bear the cost of replacing the staff member.  

Another challenge for regional firms is overcoming the perception of some that you need to engage a top tier firm for large, complex legal matters and only use local law firms for less complex or transactional matters.  Regional firms can and do have many talented practitioners who choose to live and work where they do for a variety of reasons, including lifestyle and family.  For example, one of our principals, who was born and bred in Mackay, has recently topped the state in the QLS Business Law Specialist Accreditation assessment.  Part of the solution to this challenge lies in the way in which regional firms position and market themselves and their capabilities.

On the flipside, there are advantages for regional practices, such as fewer competitors, which makes it easier to differentiate and position a practice as a big fish in a small pond, provided you have the right people in place.  This relates back to the first point I made about the challenge of attracting and retaining quality people.  So if you do well with your people strategy, it puts you in a good position to succeed in terms of your positioning in the local law firm market.                                                                                                                                                                                        
Technology has also provided some remarkable opportunities for small or regional practices to compete on an almost-even playing field with much larger CBD firms, for example by creating a strong online presence on a small budget.  This is in stark contrast to the days when a small firm couldn’t possibly hope to compete with large firms with equally large marketing budgets.  

Being small also makes you more nimble – you can see an opportunity and just run with it.  That’s much harder for larger firms to do because there will normally be a lot more consultation needed and the project itself will likely be a much larger scale.

Q. How has your membership of ALPMA helped you address these issues?  

Definitely having access to the educational resources ALPMA provides is a tremendous benefit for regional firms.  The Leading Your Firm Program, which was developed specifically for smaller and regional practices, has really hit the mark in terms of enabling us regional members to enjoy the same educational programs offered to capital city members, on a diverse range of topics by expert speakers from all over the country.  

I often encourage our managers or practitioners to view a recorded lunchtime session on a topic I think may be of particular interest to them and this is a great way to provide professional development for our staff as well as maximise the value of my membership.

I find the weekly blog posts from  ALPMA another great way to keep my finger on the pulse with topical issues and hear what other firms are doing in response.  When law firm management and administration staff have access to information that is practical and relevant in a way that is convenient for them it’s a win:win for the staff member and the practice.  

Becoming a member of the Qld ALPMA Committee has been a wonderful opportunity to network with and learn from my peers.  The annual ALPMA Summit is another excellent educational and networking opportunity and the quality of topics and speakers at Summit seem to just keep getting better and better every year.  

Q. What advice would you offer those considering working at a regional law firm?

Be prepared for and embrace a working environment that is likely to be culturally different to a big city firm – one that is very warm and welcoming and where work colleagues seek out each other’s company outside of business hours.  

Understand that the local community and relationships are very important – reputation is everything.   

Appreciate that resources and talent are often tight and there is an expectation to utilise the resources you have rather than outsource.  

Recognise the opportunities to cross-skill yourself and others and to “raise the bar” in terms of the way the business is managed and truly make a difference.  

And lastly, make the most of the networking opportunities ALPMA offers by forming a regional hub if there isn’t already one established in the area.  

Editor's Note:

Now is a great time to join ALPMA. 

Membership offers great benefits to you and your firm and is tremendous value. Membership to June 30, 2015 is now only $192.50 (incl GST) for regional members and $255.75 (incl GST) for those working in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide or Perth - less if your firm already supports multiple ALPMA members. 

Your membership includes free attendance at our regular practice management and Leading Your Firm events, free access to content in the ALPMA On-Demand Learning Centre - and much more. Join now.

About our Guest Blogger

Kerri Borg
Kerri Borg is the recently-appointed CEO of McKays Solicitors, based in Mackay, Queensland (although she regularly commutes to Brisbane).  Prior to taking on this newly created role, Kerri was McKays' General Manager for five years.  

She is passionate about importance of organisational culture in achieving firm objectives and the joys of regional-city living.

Kerri is a member of the ALPMA QLD State Committee and the ALPMA National L&D Committee.

Q and A with Jodie Baker, Managing Director, Hive Legal

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Start-up virtual law firm, Hive Legal were crowned the 2014 ALPMA/Telstra Thought Leadership Award winner in recognition of their innovative business model at the 2014 ALPMA Summit Gala dinner last week, over finalists  AdventBalance, PD Law and Swaab Attorneys

In this ALPMA Member Q&A, Jodie Baker, Hive Legal's Managing Director, provides insight into how Hive Legal's innovative, virtual business model works.

Pictured (left to right)

Jodie Baker, Managing Director, Hive Legal; Will Irving, Group Managing Director, Telstra Business; Jamie Prell, Legal Director, AdventBalance; Bronwyn Pott, Chief Executive Officer, Swaab Attorneys; Mel Cox, Director and Chief Executive Officer, PD Law; and Lisa Sikorski, ALPMA Victoria Chair and General Manager, Septimus Jones & Lee.

Q: Why did you decide to set up Hive Legal?

Two years ago I was working remotely from the U.S. for a progressive Australian company; I came to appreciate how technology could be leveraged to change the way professional services firms work, and realised that other markets were significantly ahead of Australia. I saw an opportunity to bring true innovation to Australia and the Australian legal industry, and to really change the way that lawyers work and engage with their clients, each other and even themselves.

The founding principals of Hive Legal had the advantage of starting with a clean slate – we were able to re-imagine the provision of legal services without the weight of legacy infrastructure, procedures or costs.

Our business is driven by clients who want a more cost-effective outcome, without compromising the quality of advice. Clients are demanding greater efficiency and turnaround times and we believe that the principals and senior lawyers who service the clients directly are best placed to determine how this can be done.

Q: How does your ‘virtual law firm’ model work?

Hive Legal is founded on collaboration (like bees in the hive), so this is not a silo model where practitioners work independently without co-ordination with other team members.  We work very closely as a team to deliver outcomes to clients. 

While we have a central hub, Hive Legal lawyers can choose when and where they would like to work. We believe that it really doesn’t matter if you produce the work at home or in the office or where you’re located as long as the quality is consistently delivered. 

However, we also recognise that there are a diverse range of demands on the time of all employees, and enabling an employee to accommodate to some extent those demands in a time shift capacity, or by working in different locations, will ensure that high quality staff are happier and more likely to stay with the firm. Our enormous output since the launch of the firm has been derived from hard work and, at times, longer hours - but staff are able to accommodate other demands by shifting their time without compromising deliverables to clients.

Many firms allow their staff to "work from home" or enable mobile working.  However, a corporate firm servicing blue chip companies (which requires significant collaboration between large teams) built on the assumption that this will occur for all staff has a fundamentally different vibe.

Making virtual work involves a number of technology and cultural priorities. 

We use technology to its maximum capability, so our employees can work collaboratively on client projects from any location at any time and reduce costs. 

This involves two elements: first; logistics – we partnered with a high security and highly reliable cloud platform provider and made a commitment to be paperless. Second; collaboration – our corporate clients require a team approach to complex matters, so our staff utilise multi-party video conferencing, collaborative software and a sensitivity to communication with each other to make this work.  And it really does! We have weekly meetings in the office to ensure regular face to face time, but otherwise we find that all employees are embracing the opportunity to work anywhere, any time, but not everywhere all of the time.

The end result is that we are able to have principals and senior associates in an efficient infrastructure for effective client solutions.  

We have adopted value pricing for all of our work.  The scope and value of each project is discussed with clients. A resourcing plan and timeline is developed, fees and billing milestones are agreed upfront with the client and the budget is then locked in. This works comfortably and consistently with the virtual model, by valuing the deliverables our staff generate, not the time they put into it.

Where necessary, we also collaborate with larger traditional firms on specific projects.  A client will unbundle their legal services and expect the firms to collaborate. We’re keen to progress these partnerships and believe there is absolutely no reason that we can’t work together with conventional firms to deliver solutions for clients. 

Q: How is this effort paying off? 

Winning the ALPMA/Telstra Thought Leadership Award is fantastic industry recognition of the value of our approach, and caps off a tremendous and very busy year for Hive Legal!  

Clients are embracing the technology and innovation forward model of Hive Legal at many levels. We have only been operating for eight months, and in that time we successfully attracted some great clients including large blue-chip household names in health, transport and energy and have grown from three to 11 employees. 

Our intention is to keep growing as the client demand dictates and people of the right cultural fit become available. 

Editor’s Note:

Interested readers can hear Jodie Baker and the ALPMA/Telstra Thought Leadership Awards finalists from Swaab Attorneys, PD Law and AdventBalance, talk about law firm innovation in this online discussion panel “Legal Innovation: If It Was Easy, Everyone Would!”

Read the media releases and news coverage of the ALPMA/Telstra Thought Leadership Awards.

Q&A with Andrew Barnes, Financial Controller, Legal Lantern Group

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

In this Q&A series, the editor of A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers interviews ALPMA members about their jobs, career challenges and inspirations.  In this post, we talk to Andrew Barnes, Financial Controller of the Legal Lantern Group, which incorporates Harwood Andrews and Sladen Legal.  Andrew is also the ALPMA Vice President. 

What is the scope of your role as Financial Controller?  

I work closely with the Managing Principal, Board and Management Team to ensure the finance function remains relevant to the firm going forward.  Whilst the scope of my role covers what you would expect with annual reporting, tax, budgeting, etc. the critical aspect of my role is ensuring the finance function remains a key contributor to the firm on a daily basis.  If my team is only reporting basic information which is freely available on everyone’s desktop, then we are not adding value.  We need to have an understanding of what we report today and what that might mean to the firm tomorrow.  Forecasting (in terms of the P&L as well as staffing and other resources) is very important and requires a sound control environment and key collaboration across all key management functions to ensure we move forward together.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?  

At the end of the day, the relationships I have developed with the shareholders and fellow managers in the firm over many years are important to me and this is a rewarding aspect of my job.  We cannot avoid people when working in law firms, so I also really enjoy the fact that a few of the guys in the accounts office have stuck around as long as they have – they must enjoy it as well!  Additionally, my firm has encouraged me to be involved with ALPMA and that has not only enabled me to bring back to the firm many ideas but has also been a key driver in my personal development.  I have met some terrific people within ALPMA and this has extended my view well beyond the walls of the firm.

What are the key challenges of this role?  

The challenges are mostly centred around remaining relevant.  Law firm partnerships have a generational lifecycle and what I did eight years ago will not suit todays partners.  The easiest thing to do each year is to repeat the cycle from last year but that lacks application.  It is a challenge to revisit what it is we do each year and then try to make it better or slightly different – and this is not about adding new pages but trying to get better information into reports on fewer and fewer pages.  On a more specific point, we are working on how to move with (or stay ahead of) the pricing revolution and this has daily challenges.

What changes would you like to see happen in the legal industry?  

More from a law firm progression perspective than an industry perspective, I think law firms can benefit by engaging their non-legal managers earlier in discussions on strategy or decision making in general.  Given the application of the minutiae falls to the administration of the firm (or at least it should) it makes sense to include them earlier in the process. A non-legal perspective can be very worthwhile, particularly given most of the deliberations with respect to strategy or day-to-day operations are deliberations which do not require legal training but delve into disciplines where management has expertise such as finance, technology, HR, marketing, etc.  

If firms insist on keeping such discussions as the exclusive realm of the partners, the flip side of this of course is to ensure they are exposed to new management (not legal) thinking via organisations such as ALPMA.  I have just returned from the ALA Conference (run by ALPMA’s sister association in the USA) and this was a recurring theme – let managers manage so the lawyers can lawyer and grow the business. Start by asking whether your firm is a business and then accept that you can be both a business and a profession.

How has being involved with ALPMA helped your career?  

Being involved with ALPMA has ensured I am challenged by the continual exposure to the L&D program and the interaction with peers in response to the new learnings  The networking opportunities facilitate this and the level of ‘comradeship’ between members is fantastic.  I have a few peers where we pick up the phone and discuss issues regularly and that would not happen without ALPMA. 

What makes you happy?  

Trying to avoid being corny, there is not much I say makes me happy in the way I define happiness.  I am happy when 4.45pm on a Friday rolls around, just as I am happy when I am with my family.  I was pretty happy when the Cats made a habit out of winning flags.  In a professional sense, if you correlate happiness with satisfaction, then that comes with each milestone achieved within the firm – annual budget approval, successful retreat presentations, annual accounts and tax return finalised, etc.  It also comes with the interaction you get across generations within a law firm when we gather socially and everyone throws away the hierarchy and we just enjoy each other’s company.

About our Guest Blogger

Andrew Barnes is the Financial Controller of the Legal Lantern Group, which incorporates Harwood Andrews and Sladen Legal.  He has is the ALPMA Vice President and Treasurer of the ALPMA Victorian Committee.   

Law Firms Tightly Control Salary Costs

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

by Anthony Bleasdale, ALPMA President

The 2014 ALPMA/Rusher Rogers Legal Industry Salary & HR Issues Survey results were released this week. More than 230 firms from across Australia and New Zealand responded to the survey, generously sharing salary details for more than 70 legal, management and administrative roles at law firms, their employment conditions, recruitment and salary increase intentions and their key HR challenges for the year ahead. 

From my perspective, there are three key take-away's from this research:

1. Law firms are maintaining tight control on salaries

  • Year-on-year, salaries paid across virtually all roles – legal, management and administrative - have remained flat (with some notable declines for some legal roles in WA).
  • The number of firms intending to pay above CPI salary increases continues to decline. Only a third of the 230 participating firms were planning pay increases above the rate of the Consumer Price Index (CPI). This percentage is down 15 percent from the 2013 results (where 48 percent of firms planned increases above CPI) and 20 percent from 2012 (where 53 percent of firms planned increases above CPI). 

  • Most firms (40.5  percent of respondents)  expect to pay only CPI adjusted salary increases.

  • 22 percent of respondent firms are planning partial wage freezes with some individual pay increases below CPI - while 4.5 percent of respondents (all from firms with less than 75 staff) expect a total wage freeze at their firm.
Salaries make up a significant proportion of overhead costs, so it is prudent for firms to carefully manage these costs. 
This tight wages control is also a reflection of what has been happening in the broader Australian market, where wage growth fell below inflation and plunged to its lowest in 17 years.   The recent Australian Bureau of Statistics wage growth figures show wages rose just 2.6 per cent in the past year.  This is the weakest growth since records began in 1997 and falls well behind the consumer price index, which rose 2.9 per cent over the same period.

2. Recruitment demand remains steady 

Meanwhile, demand for law firm staff remains steady year-on-year, with most firms (80 percent) likely to be in the market for lawyers/solicitors next financial year, with 56 percent likely to recruit secretarial staff and a further 36 percent likely to recruit paralegals and 28% administrative staff.  
This has scarcely moved from last year. Opportunities remain flat for executive and managerial staff at law firms, with few firms likely to be in the market for these roles in the coming year. These roles are tightly held, with churn predominantly caused by firm restructuring.

3. 'Finding good people’ remains the key HR challenge for law firms

Interestingly, despite the flat recruitment market, law firms continue to rate "finding good people" as their number one HR challenge for the third year in a row, followed by managing performance and employee retention/talent management.

Susie Rogers, from Rusher Rogers Recruiting observed that she thinks many firms miss out on quality candidates because they are too rigid in specifying specific skills and experience they require, rejecting good candidates at resume stage, and do not spending enough time exploring a potential employee’s attitude.   You can read more about this in her 
recent post - Want to Find Good People - Look Past Their Resume

‘Managing partner communication and staff management skills’ (#4)  and ‘ability to drive change’ (#5) have moved firmly onto the agenda at law firms, with these issues moving into the top five most important HR issues for law firms the first time, replacing ‘developing organisational leadership capability’ and ‘effective social media useage’ in 2013.

And for the future?

Few firms seem to be planning on investing in non-legal roles (like marketing, business development or IT) to support their scaled down growth ambitions.  This is despite many firms reporting last year that business development and technology where the two areas earmarked for investment to help firms adjust to the changing legal landscape. 

The strong focus on controlling costs at law firms was also a key finding of the recent ALPMA/Crowe Horwath Financial Performance Benchmarking Study, conducted with Crowe Horwath, which found that firms were effectively managing their cash flow and costs - and sacrificing their growth ambitions - in order to protect partner profitability. 

While the industry's current cost management obsession has protected profitability for now, I don't believe this is a sustainable strategy in an industry that is undergoing transformation on many fronts.  Firms need to focus equal effort on strategies that will help them (and all their staff) thrive and prosper in the changing legal landscape.  

Editor's Note

The ALPMA/Rusher Rogers Legal Industry Salary and HR Issues Survey is the most comprehensive, independent report on salaries for all roles at law firms in Australia and New Zealand. It provides a detailed review of salaries paid for 74 roles within legal firms, spanning legal professionals, executive, management and administrative staff categories at law firms, and differing levels of seniority and experience for each category. Other information provided includes anticipated salary movements, recruitment plans, employment benefits, bonuses, staff employment arrangements and the key HR challenges facing law firms in 2014.  

The ALPMA/Rusher Rogers Legal Industry Salary and HR Issues Survey Report is provided free of charge to all participating firms. Non-participating firms can purchase a copy for $550 (ALPMA members) or $2,200 (non-members).
ALPMA will be presenting the key findings from the report at a webinar on Thursday June 5 from 1pm (AEST). Register here

About our Guest Blogger

Anthony Bleasdale in the President of the Australasian Legal Practice Management Association (ALPMA), the peak membership association for law firm leaders and managers in Australasia.  ALPMA provides an authoritative voice on issues relevant to legal practice management.

ALPMA delivers a comprehensive professional learning and development program for members, which includes regular practice management seminars across Australia and New Zealand, the annual ALPMA Summit, webinars and live-streamed events, online resources and a legal industry research program

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