By Julian Bryan, Managing Director of Legal Futures Associates’ Quill
This blog is based on our ‘15-Step Guide to Starting Your Own Law Firm’ webinar from 12 November 2020. To download the e-Book we shared with listeners, please visit www.quill.co.uk/Legalpracticemanagementforstartups.
Having already covered many of the essential steps to setting up your own law firm, from accounting responsibilities and cashflow forecasting to Professional Indemnity Insurance and risk management, our ’15-Step Guide’ blog series concludes today with a focus on: deciding where to practice, using technology to streamline workloads, outsourcing to cover the skills you lack, turning to professional support when you need it and getting your name out there through marketing.
Step 11: Decide where to practice – real or virtual?
The law is a traditional industry and consumers normally expect to visit physical premises when instructing their law firm. The lockdown experience has triggered many changes, however. Zoom calls, email and remote-friendly software allow you to work from your home, local coffee shop, hired meeting room, wherever. As a bonus, you’re no longer tethered to a location and that means your business footprint has no limits.
Nick Archer at Silversmiths LLP is a cloud software convert: “By using hosted systems, our fee earners can work from the office, home, court, anywhere. They can literally input time from their iPads. Mobile working means that no time is wasted and every piece of fee-earning activity is captured.”
Even if you want to progress down the physical office route, there are alternatives to a costly, rigid, long-term office lease. A serviced office or co-working space is far more cost-effective.
“Since March, the overwhelming majority of applications that we’ve dealt with on behalf of law firms have comprised home-working businesses. The SRA accepts working-from-home setups but be prepared for questions about client confidentiality and security measures to prevent theft,” comments David Gilmore, Director, DG Legal.
Step 12: Use technology to streamline workloads
Most law firms will agree that their practice management software is their core business tool. It’s what powers their daily work. In an ideal world, you’ll have one fully integrated system for all your software needs – legal accounts, case and document management.
Practice management software is the go-to system for an overall practice-wide view of status at any point in time. It’s the place to action all tasks from entering e-chits of monetary transactions to managing live matters. It’s the glue that binds your business together with functionality spanning this checklist:
- Cloud-hosted application – for use wherever you choose to locate your business
- Customisable dashboard – for a single-page overview of KPIs and one-click access to most-used functions
- Data storage location – UK-based company that’s compliant with GDPR legislation
- Word, Outlook and Excel integration – for easy document production and superior file management
- Appointment and task management – a practice-wide list of all tasks, meetings and court attendance
- Integrated forms – essential forms and e-submissions coupled with court bundling facility
- Secure client portal – to effortlessly collaborate, share and sign documents
- Intuitive time recording – to capture all chargeable time
- Reporting in real-time – ready-made and bespoke reports availability
- Compliance-centric legal billing and accounts management – for costs recovery and compliant bookkeeping
- Free accountant’s licence – to enable remote audit and inspection of your accounts
- Scope for integration with third-party systems – close APIs to automate data transfer between applications
- All of the above plus outsourced cashiering – a designated cashier to perform bookkeeping on your software of choice
“Quill’s software contains all the features we need and is completely logical in terms of layout and operation. It provides my business with the tools to manage all our matter, accounts and time recording information in one place.”
Rosie Bracher, Rosie Bracher Solicitors
When I entered the legal world eight years ago, people were concerned about having their data in the cloud. The world has changed. It’s now recognised that data in a UK cloud provider’s domain is the safest option. Plus, it doesn’t matter where you work, you can still access your data everywhere. Law firms should choose cloud-based practice management and legal accounting system.
This sentiment is echoed by James Brown: “With cloud software, you can scale it relatively quickly which supports growth and it’s secure which keeps the SRA happy.”
Step 13: Outsource to cover the skills you lack
When you think about how much of your life (personally and professionally) is wrapped up in your business, many will decide to take it all on themselves to save money and time in the short-term. The problem with that mindset is that it’s a dangerous and inefficient way to conduct business and doesn’t plan for the long-term.
Let’s face it, even the best all-rounders can’t excel at everything. Our suggestion? Let more qualified people or tools tackle the ‘stuff’ that forces you to slow down, lose productivity and create something less than what your clients deserve.
Take some time to decide what technology and services rank high as your ‘must-haves’ and prioritise the ones that will save you the most time, money and most importantly – stress! Whilst some of the fancy ‘bells and whistles’ you may be used to from working at larger firms are too costly, there are many other services out there that will fit into your budget if you know where to look.
Outsourced services – virtual assistants, cashiering, typing and payroll, for example – are all proven to maximise your fee-earning potential and lessen your administrative burden by having a system in place for back-office functions so you can focus on servicing clients and developing your company.
“If you’re charging £150 or £250 an hour, depending on your disciplines, why spend this time working out the payroll for your secretarial staff or maintaining laborious accounting records when outsourcing providers can do it for you?”
“Outsourcing saves money and time, which are scarce in the early stages of setting up alone. It’s helped me to keep my overheads and stress levels down,” says Josie Robinson. “As far as I’m concerned, outsourcing is the way forward. Acknowledge that you can’t do everything yourself with limited funds, and enlist outsourcing assistance instead.”
James Brown from Hall Brown narrates his decision-making with regards to outsourcing: “Sam Hall and I had a simple creed – if outsourcing services cost less than our hourly rate then it was better to outsource than do it ourselves. Quill, for example, provide our time recording system, prepare our weekly compliance reports, liaise with our accountants and manage our payroll. We’ve used Quill from the day we started trading. The hours we would have burnt dealing with all of the above would have cost us tens of thousands, not to mention the potential compliance issues it would have caused. There is a stark difference between being careful with your overheads and false economies.”
Step 14: Turn to professional advice when you need it
Don’t be scared to ask your peers for recommendations — did they use advisers when they formed their business? Who do they turn to for external support? Which software and/or outsourcing services do they subscribe to?
Professionals to bear in mind are:
- Accountants – with experience in law firm start-ups and offering general financial advice
- Consultants – for planning, project and risk management to put in place the necessary building blocks for your business
- Software houses and consultancy firms – to steer you in the right direction for your IT infrastructure and compliance systems
- Outsourcing specialists – to talk you through your outsourced back-office options to cover the areas you’d be more likely to neglect
- Law firms – to share their own experiences, draw up your contracts and agreements, and undertake ‘second pair of eyes’ checks on complex documents
Ash Sanger at Allwyn Sanger Solicitors offers these words of caution: “Before making any rash decisions that you may later regret, speak to lots of people, not just the alluring salespeople [at your software house] but other staff members you’ll eventually come into contact with and, more importantly, clients. Ideally, speak to firms who’ve left and returned to understand the full picture and make the right decisions.”
“Get good advice. Ask for recommendations. Look for positive online reviews. Choose suppliers who’ve got significant experience with law firms.”
David Gilmore, DG Legal
Step 15: Get your name out there
Once you have all your approvals, insurance and administration sorted, the last but key step is to promote your business.
Competition in the legal sphere is fierce. Marketing will empower you to compete on equal terms with your counterparts — however big or small their practice. On the basic level, you need to create a functional and easy-to-navigate website to get your name out there, and also lean on your existing network to grow your clientele.
Determine the marketing and advertising expenses that you’ll use such as business cards, website, brochures and announcements, and case acquisition costs.
However, remember that people are different and relying on just one type of marketing won’t yield results. Cater to a mix of preferences by promoting your services across different channels – online (website, social media, web advertising and email campaigns) and offline (exhibitions, networking events, postal mailshots, flyers and print advertising).
Social media marketing is worth a special mention. This is the use of social media platforms to connect with your clients, extend your audience, build brand awareness, increase sales and drive website traffic. To do social media marketing well, you should publish great content that’s beneficial to your followers, listen to and engage with these self-same followers and run social media advertisements when the occasion demands.
It’s impossible to do every type of marketing all at once due to time and budget constraints in the early days. Adopt a trial-and-error approach. Figure out what works and do more of it. Similarly, figure out what doesn’t work and do less of it. Take calculated risks and leaps of faith now and then. You never know where extending your comfort zone will take you.
Leverage the Law Society brand in your marketing too. Placing the member logo on your marketing materials shows you’re part of a regulated profession. (Just remember that you can only use the Law Society’s digital badge – not The Law Society’s logo on any paper or electronic media.) You can, of course, use accreditation logos where you are members of a specialist accreditation scheme. There’s also the ‘Find A Solicitor’ function on the Law Society’s website. By making sure your firm’s profile is updated and your categories of work are accurate, potential clients can find their way to you via this well-used platform.
To conclude with marketing tips from James Brown: “The majority of our work, 83%, comes via referrals from former and existing clients. We focus our marketing efforts on keeping these people ‘warm’. Do not underestimate the power of LinkedIn. It’s free. Use it. Do things like entering awards. This is also free and puts your name in front of future potential referrers. The law is still a word-of-mouth industry. Get a website and invest in search engine optimisation so even more people can find you.”
Perhaps the most important thing we can remind you, is that you should expect to fail. “Failure is a prerequisite for great success. If you want to succeed faster, double your rate of failure,” wrote Brian Tracey in the Great Little Book on Universal Laws of Success.
Expect to make mistakes. Learn from them and adapt accordingly. Remember, it’s part of the journey! It goes without saying that there’s so much to think about and so much to do when starting out in business. We hope this guide has helped you confidently set up your new law firm!