I had always assumed a practice area like family law, by its nature, required direct partner intervention at every level – particularly ‘face-time’. It was also a practice that could not be commoditised. Nor could it be spread geographically. Also, unlike some other practice areas, there didn’t seem to be scope for a para-legal to play as significant a role.
Scott McSwan, innovative Managing Partner of McKAYS Lawyers in Queensland, Australia, had other ideas and debunks these reservations – his ‘think different’ approach has led to the establishment of a successful, geographically distributed and highly leveraged Family Law practice and business model. He agreed to share some of his experiences. I believe there are lessons in this for law firm leaders, and not just in relation to Family Law
Sean: where did this all start – what was the spark?
Scott: very early in my career partners I reported to allowed me a lot of (controlled) independence as soon as I demonstrated capability. They entrusted me to deal directly with Family Law clients. My and my partners’ confidence grew from that. I soon formed the firm view that given the opportunity and careful nurturing, capable junior lawyers can do an awful lot more than we give them credit for.
Precisely the same could be said of a more experienced lawyer who is learning the ropes to supervise staff. If the right person is given the opportunity to build and run a team, the growth path to a good measure of independence can be surprisingly fast.
Soon after this it became clear that contrary to common belief a Family Law practice was capable of being highly leveraged. It seemed to me to hold all manner of opportunity and potential.
The end result? A happy team made up of high calibre people relishing the opportunity of being trusted with great work. As a by-product, great leverage.
Sean: tips for other firms?
- Family law is of course a very personal area of practice, so it is absolutely crucial that the client has confidence in his/her legal team members from the outset. This can mean that, perhaps more than some other areas of law, a more senior lawyer may have to handle some initial client meetings.
- A very competent senior lawyer who has earned the client’s confidence by his/her professionalism and character, can also readily identify cases or parts of cases that are appropriate for internal transfer to be undertaken by a more junior lawyer under the senior lawyer’s supervision.
- Believe it or not there is great scope to use para-legals in this area too – we advocate placing an experienced paralegal with a junior lawyer. The role they can play is significant – it frees up both the junior and their supervisor. In turn it meets the equity partner’s aspirations towards improved leverage.
- A potential client’s confidence in his/her legal team must be earned from the outset – from the marketing messages you send (however you may market your services), to the way in which their call is answered by your receptionist, to the initial client interview. You must be absolutely certain that each of those interactions with your potential clients is handled extremely well. Every such touch-point must be identified and the team must ensure at each, a consistent good interaction in accordance with the team’s and firm’s standards.
Sean: what have been the greatest challenges?
Scott: Making tough decisions around not keeping people who are not demonstrating high calibre performance and the right fit for the team.
Sean: key do’s and don’ts?
- #1: notwithstanding you as partner are not always hands-on involved; still have the mindset that you are personally accountable for the toughest decisions that are necessary to ensure the continuing health of the team and your clients well-being. For example, you cannot abandon your people to “sort out for themselves” any issues with people who are not team players within the group. Your good people deserve a lot better than that.
- #2: Also, you cannot leave any team member isolated when he/she makes a mistake or meets a tough challenge on a client case. They need to know that you will be there for them and help them deal with it. Calibre people will, in turn, go the extra mile for you and your practice.
- # 3: keep experimenting (even subtly) with new ways of marketing, watch the business source (marketing) statistics like a hawk, and allow the statistics to inform your marketing experimentation.
- #4: Be incredibly selective about who you bring into your team. – this is the crux – the calibre of your people – I cannot emphasise this enough – if there are calibre people at every level, then you will quickly have a team that is able to operate very capably without a high level of involvement by the “equity partner”.
Sean: benefits for clients?
- Work is naturally done at the right level of competency and therefore at the right price, which is fair on clients. This means the more senior lawyers do the more complex, challenging stuff which of course keeps them motivated. As juniors progress they move up the curve of difficulty assignment-wise.
- With the right team this becomes self-regulating. At the end of the day the clients are the winners.
Sean: the role of IT and systematization?
- Lawyers get frustrated having to reinvent the wheel on any system or process – either administrative or legal –they lose confidence in those systems and will not serve clients nearly as well as those who do not have that frustration.
- The resultant loss of lawyer time causes firms to over-price services in an effort to maintain profit margins.
- As a result we spend an enormous amount of time thinking through our support systems to ensure our high-calibre teams have everything they need, when they want it.
- Well thought out IT and systems are a key cog in a virtuous cycle that starts with a client with an unmet, very personal need and a law firm that wants to and can do the client’s work. It ends with a happy client whose matter has been well handled and a prospering legal team that can be congratulated on another job well done.
Sean: future plans for this venture?
- We are ready to look to new horizons about how to build business around this model which has worked so well.
- We are re-setting our business building goals and tackling potential referral networks (including from other lawyers, many of whom don’t do this work) and other untapped sources of business that previously we thought were in the ‘too hard’ basket.
- With a team like this they participate actively in business building thinking and initiatives – the group is now ready to think creatively and work hard to identify and win referrals from other sources.
- I believe that the business model and systems we have in place can be replicated if you have the right calibre people with whom to do that.