Perspectives on Practice Management: the Regulator and the Practitioner



Garry Wise:  On the weekend, I had the notion that it might be interesting if David and I devoted a post or two to answering some recurring  law practice management questions we typically encounter.

My co-author, Dave Bilinsky, of course, is SlawTips’ resident guru on law practice resources. As a practice advisor and lawyer for the Law Society of British Columbia, he brings (among other elements in his broad perspective) a regulator’s vantage point to all things practice management.  I come at these questions from a different place, as a practitioner and veteran of the legal trenches, having focused on litigation at a small, Toronto law firm since 1986.

I thought it might be interesting to see how our two, varied perspectives might mesh – or perhaps even, not mesh – in such a discussion.

So to start, I posed this question:

What are the three most common practice management issues each of us encounters in our respective day-to-day roles, and how do we address them?

David provided his list:

  1. Complaints from clients that they don’t hear from their lawyer
  2. Fees are too high
  3. Matters take too long

I provided mine:

  1. Staff supervision without micromanagement.
  2. Maintaining client communications
  3. Creating templates to establish best practices

And right away, I was struck by something revealing, as I compared our answers to this question.

The regulator’s window on practice management appears by necessity to be so largely defined by constant exposure to an endless refrain of complaints and public dissatisfaction with our profession that simply never seems to stop – lawyers, fairly or unfairly, perceived as charging too much to get nowhere,  while keeping clients shut out and in the dark.   We practitioners really do need to understand better that our Law Societies genuinely hear these very real concerns from the public – our clients – day in and day out.  And we must listen  – and do better.

But is that the whole truth?

By contrast, the individual practitioner’s practice management focus is on the day to day needs of our firms and the people we work with. Building the better “law practice mousetrap,” as we endeavour to innovate, improve services, get the job done, achieve results, create decent workplaces, and limit risk, as a matter of responsibility, efficiency and personal and professional pride.

Perhaps our regulators would do well to recognize – and dare I say learn from – the degree of dedication and determination so many of us have to getting it right, just as we must recognize how discouraging it must be for our Law Societies to so constantly confront situations where individuals in our profession fall short or are perceived by the public to fall short in delivering the most basic of client services.

When David so kindly invited me to join him for this Thursday SlawTips adventure, I confess I was both flattered and extremely interested in seeing where this conversation between the practitioner and the “Law Society guy” might lead.

And while we will get to the answers to the practice management questions above soon (I promise), my Practice Tip for the day is a simple one:  When regulators and practitioners dialogue, only good things are bound to happen.

I will let David take it from here.

David Bilinsky:  Well, to read Garry’s portion is to take me back. There was a time before I joined the Law Society ..18 years in fact..that I ran my own law practice (and part of that included  studying for my MBA).  So I know what it is like to try to juggle all the competing demands of life, practice, clients and more.  Secondly, I would like to make it clear that I am speaking here from my personal perspective and not on behalf of the Law Society, who may or may not share my views.

I have great sympathy for all those lawyers trying to meet their client demands and make a living too (not to mention trying to maintain a life).  But I am going to turn this around and ask Garry…What do you think that lawyers can do to make theirs – their client’s and their regulator’s – life a bit easier?

Here is my take on answering this question:

One: Set out yours and your client’s expectations clearly at the outset of the retainer.  We all know the parameters:  How long do you expect this matter to take?  How much will you charge (approximately)? How can I contact you and when – and how often – will you contact me?  How long does a client have to pay their bill or deposit $$ into trust to keep the matter moving?

If lawyers set this out – realistically – in writing and in a conversation with their clients at the outset – imagine how much more satisfied each party will be going forward?  Stephen Covey (someone whom I admire greatly) once said “Begin with the End  in Mind”.  If we all start out by  – accurately – describing the journey and the bumps to be expected along the way – then everyone will understand what to expect.  Or to put it another way…no one likes surprises.  If a road bump emerges, then tell the other party about it…immediately.

Two: Fees.  No one expects a lawyer to be a crystal-ball reader in terms of predicting the final cost of a matter.  But just imagine how unsettling it is if you took your car in for repairs and the repair shop said “We charge $45 an hour and we will let you know how many hours it took to repair your car at the end.”  Certainly there are matters that must be billed by the hour.  But there are many many more that can be changed to a fixed fee or alternative billing method. With respect, there is much that we can do here.

Three:  Delay.  We are all busy.  But what can we all do to help keep matters moving forward? Procrastination is not unknown in the legal profession.  Part of this is letting people know what is a realistic timeline for tasks to be done.  But part of this is keeping ourselves accountable.

I *very* much agree with Gary about using templates..and checklists…and other ways to systematize and streamline the workflows in the office.

I like Gary’s point about maintaining client communications.  I think this is key and echoed in my thoughts above.  I also agree about staff micromanagement.  After all,  you hired this person to do your work – now –  trust them to get it done! “Hovering” doesn’t assist anyone.

One of the people who had a strong and permanent impact on how I view law firm management was Milton Zwicker, who for years wrote a column for the CBA nationally.  His advice was to make your firm ‘client focused’.  That advice is just as important today as it was when he first penned it.  From the perspective of fees, of communications, of time expectations…lay out your expectations..and those of your clients..from the client’s perspective.  I think everyone stands to gain this way.

Garry Wise: Much food for thought, as always, David.  The challenge here may be in moving from platitudes to practice.

I’m going to chew on your comments a while, and pick up on this dialogue next week.

To be continued….

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