A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

A Survival Guide for Legal Practice Managers

Moving beyond slips, trips and falls in WHS: Managing psychosocial risks at work

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

ICON - Compu-stor advert

By Dr Rebecca Michalak, Principal Consultant, PsychSafe

In 1835, four hundredweight of mutton fell from an overloaded wagon onto a butcher servant, dislocating his shoulder, breaking his thigh, and causing a number of other injuries.

The incident lead to the landmark Priestley v Fowler (1837) common law case. The jury debated, amongst other things, whether the defendant engaged in 'pigheadedness' – in other words, whether the butcher knowingly over-loaded the wagon, thus causing or at the very least contributing to the accident.

The resulting judgment in favour of the plaintiff effectively paved the way for changes in the meaning and extent of employer and employee safety duties and liabilities, setting a precedent, and arguably underpinning our modern workplace health and safety legislative framework.

Workplace health and safety (WHS) standards have come a long way since 1835, and you would be forgiven for thinking that employers have workplace safety issues pretty much under control nowadays.

Air quality sensors have replaced canaries in mineshafts, warning signs galore adorn stairwells and lunchroom boiling water dispensers, and ergonomic keyboards and chairs are omnipresent.

“Safety” also appears as a core value on corporate vision and mission statements across the country, often alongside the ubiquitous statement that “people are our greatest asset.”

Unfortunately, more-than-decade-and-a-half in management and HR roles tells a very different story. Rhetoric abounds, and, in my experience, if one scratches just a little bit, the shiny surface of these safety claims is exposed, revealing a decidedly lack-lustre reality.

In law specifically, no natural – let alone subterranean – assets exist. Think about it. The law is a common good. Your business does not own this good. Your strategic competitive advantage lies in how you use this common good to produce products and services, which requires knowledge-workers.

In the absence of knowledge-workers, your business is essentially sans assets. Sans revenue. Pretty much sans a business (ok, yes, we have Lawbot, for contracts. But Lawbot depends upon knowledge-workers, to create and run Lawbot).

Strategically, for what the OECD classifies as a knowledge-based economy, our current approach to WHS is far less advanced than it should be, and that we’d ever like to concede. While humans are considered the most advanced species on earth, our approach to certain aspects of WHS is still back there hanging out with the hominina. Aka chimps.

Don’t get me wrong – we do seem to be across the need to prevent physical injuries. You can (probably) give yourself a tick.

However, employers appear decidedly stuck in the ‘slips, trips and falls’ WHS era. The requirement to ensure workplaces are not just physically but also psychologically and emotionally safe remain poorly, if at all, understood, aspects of WHS law.

Unsurprisingly, when it comes to risk management of factors affecting psychological and emotional safety, otherwise known as “psychosocial risks”, workplaces fare….. well….. Not So Well.

In my experience, organisations are more likely to have detailed risk management / disaster recovery / business continuity plans for a ‘two Boeing 767’s flew into the office block’ scenario than they are to have strategies to effectively manage psychosocial risks. Ironically including the psychosocial risks inherent to the fallout of said crisis of plane into building scenario (did someone say survivor post-traumatic stress disorder…?)

This failure exists despite a plethora of empirical data and anecdotal evidence that employees are exposed to these risks on a daily basis, if not multiple times a day. Recent research suggests poor interpersonal and/or leadership behaviours, including mistreatment, sexual harassment, incivility and bullying, are common, and for all intents and purposes, culturally pervasive in legal. As in amongst lawyers, risk exposure affects the majority, and for some risks, exceeds 90%.

The above in mind, I suggest leaders and managers need to stop, consider and strategise, because:

Psychological and emotional safety is AS important as physical safety

Not an add on; not a nice to have. A legislated requirement. Firm and officer liabilities for negligence offences for failing to provide a psychologically and emotionally safe working environment are the same as for failing on the physical safety front. The terms “significant” and “severe” spring to mind. While Priestley’s £100 is ‘only’ about $18,000 in today’s terms, a Category 1 Reckless Negligence offence can now attract a $3m fine for the employer, and 6,000 units in personal officer liability (in QLD that translates into $600K). And/or five years in jail. Take your pick. D & O insurance does not cover WHS breaches by the way. It’s a bit like crashing your car while drink driving; no insurer covers that scenario. Oh, and much like simply having unsafe scaffolding up on a construction site is enough to attract a WHS fine even if no one has fallen off it (yet), a psychological injury does not need to actually occur for you to be considered recklessly negligent in failing to provide a psychsafe working environment.

Resilience and mindfulness are psychosocial risk fire blankies

I have seen some fairly questionable safety conduct in my time – including walking in on someone disconnecting a 920 kg drum of liquefied chlorine gas sans breathing apparatus – and without closing the live flow valve off first.

I’m pretty sure my sprint exit from that chemical storage room would have given Usain Bolt a run for his money. No, seriously. I think I flew.

But I have to admit I am yet to see an employee douse an office in fuel and set it on fire, only to joyfully pull out a fire blanket and declare “It’s all good” or “This is fun!” whilst attempting to smother rampant flames.

Tiered (read: “legitimate”) risk management plans should include, but not rely solely on fire blankies.

Resilience and mindfulness strategies have their place. But these strategies really only come into their own after exposure to the risk. After 400 weight of mutton falls on your servant. This approach is a little bit like wanting to be an after-the-fact accessory. To grievous bodily harm, manslaughter, murder.

I’ve noticed the legal profession has an unnatural obsession with fire blankies. They should probably see someone about that.

Failure to primary prevent is costing you – and/or your insurers – money. A lot of it.

Evidence suggests merely being exposed to psychosocial risks negatively impacts all five aspects of job performance, translating into (*cough* SUBSTANTIALLY) lowered profitability. Employees who merely witness a risk exposure event also suffer psychologically and job-performance wise, causing a ripple effect.

Decade-long trends also show amongst other confronting stats, psychological injury claims are not only the single disease-related category of injury on the increase, these claims are, by a loooooong shot, the most expensive claim type.

In addition, poor mental health is considered the elephant in the room in approximately 1 in 3 professional indemnity claims.

It is unsurprising that Worker Compensation and Professional Indemnity insurers have started to cotton on to the “pfffttt, but that’s what insurance is for” attitude to psychosocial risk management. A more eyes wide open and move on from current ‘community’ or ‘number, not cost of claim’ approaches to setting premiums is underway.

After all, it is logical a car insurer would probably have an issue with someone deliberately driving their Ferrari into a wall at 140kph thinking “wahoo, this thing is fitted with airbags.”

Life and income protection insurers are also unimpressed with the exponential increases in TPD claims coming out of the legal profession by those who self-select out and then are declared psychologically unfit to work. In many cases, ever again.

The slips, trips and falls approach to WHS is decades out of date. When it comes to psychological and emotional safety, 1964 does not cut the mutton; Times have changed. Failing to recognize, respect and proactively integrate these changes into your firm’s risk management plan is not only a display of ‘pig-headedness’, but also akin to being as old as Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are A-Changin”, and getting caught with your pants down. In public.

Does your firm have a psychosocial risk management plan? Is it tiered to cover primary prevention, early intervention and tertiary intervention strategies? Or do you rely on mindfulness and resilience strategies?

Editor's Note

psychosocial risk management imageWant to know more about managing psychosocial risks at your firm? You can watch Dr Rebecca Michalak's 2016 ALPMA Summit presentation Psychosocial Risks in Law Firms: Why Prevention is Better than Cure from ALPMA's On Demand Learning Centre for just $99, thanks to our 2016 ALPMA Summit On-Demand partner, BigHand.

About our Guest Blogger

Dr Rebecca MichalakDr Rebecca Michalak possesses over a decade of employment experience in senior management, consulting, and strategic human resources management roles in the private, not-for-profit, and public sectors. Rebecca's primary interests lie in strategic HRM, including values-based alignment practices, high performance cultures, change management, and psychosocial risk factor management. An expert in the field, she adopts a stress optimisation approach to employee performance that maximises productivity whilst minimising psychosocial risk to employees. Her perspective on managing human resources for strategic competitive advantage is knowledge-worker centric, and underpinned by social sustainability principles.

Dr Michalak holds a PhD in Business from the University of Queensland, a Master of Business Administration and a Master of Management Research from the University of Western Australia, and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with Honours (Organisational Psychology) from Murdoch University.

Rebecca is also a Certified Trainer and Assessor, a Certified Team Management Systems Practitioner, and University of Queensland Alumni Future Leader Program Awardee (2014). Her professional memberships include Member, Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology, Member, Australian Institute of Company Directors, and Certified Professional Member, Australian Human Resources Institute.


Personal Reflections on 2016 by ALPMA President, Andrew Barnes

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

By Andrew Barnes, CFO, Lantern Legal Group and ALPMA President

When I think back on our year with ALPMA it is difficult not to dwell on the success of our Summit, held in September at Etihad Stadium Melbourne. The event is growing from year to year and this year to have record levels of attendees and trade exhibitors being added to an exceptional program was something we are very proud of as an Association.

On day one there was something for everyone, but many people still think back to the power of the speech given by Catherine McGregor about her life, her challenges, her opportunities. How she interwove so many relatable snippets into one incredibly moving story was a highlight. We were also fortunate to have:

  • The inimitable Ron Baker as MC
  • Dr George Beaton again reminding us that to stand still will probably mean we go backwards
  • Matthew Burgess taking us down the ‘Lean Startup’ path and challenging us to change and ‘fail fast'
  • Dr Bob Murray reminding us that ‘praise is the biggest weapon in a leader’s arsenal for change’
  • Steve Wingert and Andrew Price talking about change management in law firms in real, relatable language

In 2016 we have maintained our commitment to undertaking research projects aligned with our six pillars of Learning and Development and also the Thought Leadership Award presented annually at Summit. There is often so much that falls from these projects that it can all be quite overwhelming, but our position at ALPMA is that these are not one-size-fits-all and that there is something for every firm to take away and work with. Firms have different cultures and different life cycles and therefore do not fit neatly into the outcome synopsis in research projects. I suggest you have another read and choose something to work with … small steps are better than no steps!

Our research for 2016 is summarised here:

  • Finding quality staff remains the top HR challenge for law firms, more work to be done on diversity and inclusion at firms etc 

Any thoughts at this time of year always extend to thanking our fantastic team of volunteers on our Board and various committees across Australia and New Zealand. Thanks also to our support staff across the Association who do so much behind the scenes to bring our programs to life. We remain absolutely committed to ALPMA’s core promise to members. We are continually pleased with the way our membership engages with the association and enables us to remain aligned with their expectations. As our Board tries to navigate a way through an ever-increasing competitive landscape for professional development providers, we strive to balance immediate member needs with those of an Association who is more frequently competing to hold its’ profile and standing on a national and regional (international) basis. Thanks to everyone who have contributed in some way to us having a great 2016!

As we look forward to 2017 we can expect more than just business as usual. We have provided branches with extra budget funds to develop local initiatives and enhance the offering. This should ensure the core promise to members remains a focus and that there is a greater value proposition through the branch networks. Our National Learning & Development group is planning new workshops to complement existing programs. Our Summit committee has already commenced planning for Summit 2017 in September in Brisbane. We continue to work on collaborative relationships with groups such as the Australian Law Management Group (particularly after the success of our joint foray into Singapore in November), College of Law, CPD for Me and others in this space. It is a challenging time for Associations such as ALPMA but with those challenges come opportunities and we look forward to exploring these opportunities with our members.

Thanks for being part of ALPMA in 2016 and I wish you and your friends and families the very best for the festive season.

Editor's Note

This is the last ALPMA blog post for 2016. We look forward to the weekly posts resuming on January 3, 2017.

About our Guest Blogger

Andrew BarnesAndrew Barnes is the President of ALPMA. He is the financial controller for The Lantern Legal Group Pty Ltd, which practices under the firm names of Sladen Legal and Harwood Andrews.  He works closely with the principals to deliver strategic planning, reporting and budgeting initiatives and applies his robust commercial skills to drive continued business improvement.  Andrew worked in public practice, as well as financial services and broad industry roles prior to joining the firm in 2003

The secret to effecting practice improvement

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

By James Sowry, Managing Director, Sentrian

Technology is an enabler. It is the primary and easiest method to facilitate actual change in your legal practice. But it is only half the story. Change requires people to jump on board.

Addressing the change aspect of improvement projects is such a common challenge for law firm leaders that Sentrian convened an expert panel to discuss Effecting Practice Improvement. I found that no matter what topic we were discussing, the conversation always drifted back to the same issue: how to work with those who resist change.

Bringing a firm’s decision-makers and key staff on side may be the single most difficult aspect of effecting change. No matter how wonderful the outcome, or how low the risk may be, stubborn partners may be just that, immoveable. Technology with a focus on people can instigate improvement by taking on their critical perspective and creating a plan that works for them.

Technology gets the ball rolling

In my experience, the majority of practice managers fall into one of two camps:

  • They have a wealth of practice improvement ideas and opportunities, but no way of prioritizing where to start or the capability to successfully implement

  • They have a directive from the partners to achieve a broad business outcome (eg: reducing expenses by $X), but no clear idea of how to identify the change needed to achieve it

In either case the bottom line is the same: no clear starting point = ultimately sticking with the same old “way we’ve always done things”. For practice managers trying to become champions of change, it can feel like a hopeless cause.

Turning to technology can often provide the simple “quick win” that counters initial resistance and kick starts a series of simple improvement projects. The key here is not to focus on technology for technology’s sake but practical outcomes. It requires a clear and honest vision.

Create a vision, dig in

Effective technology innovation takes more than a string of intermittent projects. It takes a long-term vision with short-term goals. On too many occasions I’ve seen not only resisters against change, but champions for change give-up at the first sign of the deployment not matching the plan.

Speaking as a member of the panel, Dr Peter Lynch of dci lyncon highlighted the need to secure the partners’ commitment to at least a three year timeframe when undertaking large practice improvement initiatives to establish realistic expectations. Keeping the long term goal in mind allows scope to refine the approach in response to short term results and emerging opportunities.

The key in setting that commitment is early, direct communication. It is arguably the most important element in effecting change. Setting out a vision early on will prepare the senior figures in your firm for all the blips and setbacks that inevitably occur in any improvement strategy. Partners will be empowered with the knowledge the plan is progressing. And significantly, it will dampen any urge to pull out of change at the first hurdle.

Back yourself

When talking about or planning change, it is easy to stereotype and marginalise partners into expected roles. Like the over 50-year-old partner who resists change no matter the facts. Yes, in many cases it is difficult if not impossible to convince them otherwise. But that’s only going half-way in trying to effect change.

Think outside the box. My fellow panelist, Graeme McFadyen of Russells, underlined the persuasive power of expert external agents on senior partners. They can show actual evidence of where technology has created real change in other firms and provide a perspective that will often go missing from internal strategy meetings. Sometimes all partners need to hear is the same argument from a different voice.

Be pragmatic, match reality

What constitutes substantial change in one firm may be dramatically different in another. Technology and how it is used can vary wildly from one firm to another, and from one partner to another. Quantifying expectations and perspectives is a powerful tool in creating a strategy for change. Stories from members of the audience flagged this as a useful tool in convincing resisters to change. Knowing what those resisters expect of technology improvement can allow the champions to set acceptable outcomes at a tolerable yet still effective pace.


Taking advantage of technology to effect improvement takes more than completing a project. The ideas-driven planning stages should not be forced into a pure logistical role once a project is undertaken. A guiding hand, directing change offers greater security toward matching outcomes. Further, it facilitates active communication. If technology enables change, then communication delivers it. Effective practice improvement takes more than a bright spark, it needs fuel for a slow burn to truly achieve meaningful change.

About our Guest Blogger

James Sowry

James Sowry is the Founder & Managing Director of Sentrian.

James lends the benefit of his experience to helping law firm leaders establish the technology platform needed to drive digital strategy and practice improvement.

Sentrian delivers digital strategy, business improvement, computing platform and support services to organisations Australia wide within the flexibility of a managed monthly subscription. With over 40 law firms on the client list, Sentrian has particular experience in supporting a variety of practice management applications and helping firms realise the benefits of hosting these mission critical systems in the cloud.

The hazards of instigating transformational change at law firms

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

By Margaret Fitzsimons, Director at Trans4mation

While the basics of instigating and driving change within professional services environments are essentially the same as corporate environments, many traditional professional services organisations are further complicated by their ownership structure. 

In the corporate environment, management, the board and the shareholders are normally mutually exclusive.  In the traditional professional services partnership structure, management, the board and the shareholders often overlap.  This is why instigating major change in professional services firm can often seem like an insurmountable problem. There are two major stages of organisational transformation.  The first is to actually instigate the transformation.  The second is to ‘drive’ or implement the transformation.

Instigating transformational change

Instigating transformation in legal firms is often the hardest step.  This is because encouraging partners who are in their comfort zone to realise, firstly, that they need to change and, secondly, that they need to actively and enthusiastically embrace change is extremely hard. 

Partners are often reticent to risk what is perceived to be a “collegiate partnership culture”. Other fears include losing staff and having to change silo or personal work practices.  Fear of the unknown and inertia are the major reasons why many legal firms decline rather than making a proactive decision to change.  
Instigating change means working with human psychology.  Finding out what drives the decision makers, appeasing fears and presenting a vision for the future are critical at this stage.  

Change can only ever be instigated by a compelling argument, by presenting facts and figures which support the reasons why change is necessary.  Fear can only be eroded by clear and logical thought. Facts and figures that build a business case for change may include:

  • Declining net profit or returns to equity partners over a given period of years
  • Decline in partner/staff numbers over a period of years
  • Decline in market share
  • High staff turnover
  • Loss of key clients or reliance on a couple of clients
  • High levels of staff or client dissatisfaction 
  • Inability to achieve stated strategic goals.
In addition, the following are often symptoms of a declining business:

  • lack of future direction (no strategy)
  • inability to make decisions at the board room table (or infrequent partner meetings)
  • silos operating in the business
  • high turnover in management staff due to frustration 
  • reactive rather than proactive decision making
  • clock watching 
  • low pay environments
  • poor culture
  • political assassinations.
Legal firms in decline will often only actively search for change solutions once the hip pockets of motivated partners reach a level that leaves them personally uncomfortable.

Driving transformation change

Once the board or partners have accepted the need to change and you have support to progress, there are two imperative roles which must be filled if the change is going to be successful.  These are:

  • The driver – the person with change management and technical experience who will make sure the change happens, will formulate the strategy and implement the project plan.
  • The champion – a partner who is respected by the other partners and the driver, who is a performer and has interpersonal skills to support the driver.  The champion needs to be able to take the lead from the partners’ perspective in supporting the change and is the bridge between the partners and the driver.  This person will be needed when the driver takes on important issues within the partnership and may need to shield the driver during significant periods of instability.  The champion helps to implement the vision of change, prevents white-anting of the process and brings the partnership along on the journey.  
To get the best results from transformational change, consider the following:

  • Launch a formal change program in the firm
  • Educate everyone on why change is needed, what the change will achieve, what to expect during the period of change and how to manage change.
  • It is important to get the partners and senior management fully behind change.  Leading from the top is the only way.  Make sure that any dissention in the top ranks is done behind closed doors and that everyone walks the talk when with staff.
  • Communication is key.  To sell change there must be a silver lining.  Quantifiable goals which are published to relevant groups or people and compared to actual results over time are a good way to show that the changes are working.
  • Have a forum for communication; develop some really good people strategies to build a happy culture.  Try to balance bad news with good news.  
  • Celebrate wins.  Get some quick wins happening at the beginning of the change process to ignite momentum.
  • Teach business skills to all fee earners so they can make the right business decision in their area of responsibility. 
  • When the business starts hitting goals, reward the staff too.  
  • Tie your key staff to the business, be generous with remuneration, be a great place to work.  Say thank you to your staff for their efforts.  
  • Keep the momentum going, keep your staff happy and the business will boom.
Transformation takes strong leadership. While the results of transformational change are worth the pain of the journey, if you don’t have someone (ideally both the Chairperson of the Board and the CEO) who can shoulder pad up and tackle the difficulties, don’t even bother trying to make the changes.

Editor's Note

Margaret Fitzsimons is presenting at an ALPMA QLD seminar on "Net Profitability Reporting" on May 20 in Brisbane. Register now to take part and learn how to price and package services for profit. 

About our Guest Blogger 

Margaret FitzsimonsMargaret Fitzsimons is the Director at  Trans4mation.  Margaret began her professional life as an accountant working for (what is now) PriceWaterhouseCoopers. She has more than 20 years’ experience in the professional services industry and has managed legal firms, two of which she was employed to transform. Margaret has a special interest in helping professional services businesses to realise their full potential by challenging the traditional methods of practice management. 

Margaret has extensive change management experience and has proven her business acumen by assisting the professional practices she has managed to achieve significant growth in both turnover and profitability.

Communicating with influence

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

By Richard Lawton and Mary Ferguson, Ignite Coaching Australia

Apparently when Paul Keating was asked to identify the secret of Barak Obama’s success he answered in one word – ‘poise’. The good news is, yes, that poise can be learned, and there are certain techniques that can make a big difference to the influence we cast on the world around us.

Use your voice

Voice is a big part of creating a presence of poise. There are some simple techniques you can use to train your voice to increase depth, size and resonance, and therefore a sense of magnetism: a voice that people want to listen to. How many successful people do you know who have a voice that’s hard to listen to? (for various reasons let’s exclude politicians!)

Learn how to read people

You can also develop your awareness of high and low status body language and of how to ‘read’ people. This doesn’t mean that something has to be put on, in fact, what really works best is authenticity; letting yourself shine through. Often, a significant part of the retraining is about trust; in discovering that the place to start is with who you are right now, and that you have what it takes to come up with the goods.

Stay grounded

Staying grounded under pressure is what it’s all about. Knowing how to breathe fully-down into the belly, that is, the hara/centre of gravity, when in a high stress situation, puts you in touch with the training that makes martial artists succeed, and gives you an aura of calm, centered, unruffled readiness for anything.

Stand tall

If you know how to stand tall, whatever your height, people will be ready to listen to you. Psychology has for years named this the ‘halo effect.’ I’ve found that when I show people how to put an imaginary crown on their head, they discover their inner aristocrat. I watched a petite female lawyer, use this and saw her ‘size’ grow exponentially; she acquired a definite ‘don’t mess with me,’ vibe, that served her well in a predominantly male office. 

Learning how to naturally elongate your spine makes you look more impressive and even possibly younger, because you look like you’re ready for action. 

There is a caveat here; mere posturing will not get you very far

Your best bet is to work with a specialist coach to bring out your authentic strengths. Exploring these physical shifts,will bring to the surface those beliefs that contradict our sense of self worth, and this is where the most valuable form of personal development starts.

Editor's Note

Interested readers can learn more about this topic by viewing the on-demand recording, "Presenting Confidently and Authentically" co-presented by Richard Lawton and Mary Ferguson, from ALPMA's new On-Demand Learning Centre.  This recording is free for ALPMA members and $99 for non-members.

About our Guest Bloggers

Richard LawtonAs a coach and consultant, Richard Lawton has worked with all levels of legal professionals, executive level managers, CEO’s and board directors. Past clients include the Vic & NSW Bar Associations, Lander & Rogers Lawyers, Herbert Geer Commercial Law, NSW Crown Solicitors Dept, VCAT, Esso Exxon Mobil, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Telstra, Australia Post, Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Scott Winton Insurance, Workplace Training & Advisory Australia, Sugar Australia, Bouverie Centre.

Richard’s former life as a theatre director informs his ability to help people master self-expression and performance capacity. 

Mary Ferguson is an IAMA accredited mediator, with senior corporate experience in recruitment and psychology services.  Mary’s clients are senior and mid level managers, lawyers and professional services executives who are stepping up in their careers and require the direction, support and encouragement for lasting change and fulfilment. She works with people who want more confidence, creativity and inspiration in their lives and in their jobs. 

Mary’s professional business qualifications and depth of experience in senior corporate marketing and human resources based roles internationally have led her to the role of executive coach and facilitator. 

  Subscribe to receive posts as email

2019 ALPMA Summit

Recent Posts



Australian Corporate Partners

Principal Summit Partner

Thought Leadership Awards Partner