Legal Aid practice isn’t for the faint hearted because you are facing the kind of problems that don’t beset any other type of business. Everything you do is political and subject to half-baked schemes that turn into expensive fiascos, making long term business planning very difficult.
It takes a certain kind of determination and belief in the importance of legal aid to survive in this situation. It also takes some hard-headed business approaches to help reduce the catastrophic risks the MOJ can have on your business. Here are four of the most important.
Strategy 1: Costs
This is a really big one for Legal Aid firms: know all the rules and bill properly within them. Many practitioners and their staff don’t know how to do this and they miss out on stuff they can be legitimately claiming for. For example, do your staff know how many police station fees are payable per investigation? Or which work remains in scope for legal aid? We regularly speak to billing staff who don’t know how to maximise the fees that are claimable for legal aid and that means you are watching money walk out the door
If you make this a training priority across the firm and ally it with a well-informed case management system that knows about all the legal aid fees and rates options, you will make more money from the same work.
Strategy 2: Bill more efficiently
These are the things that no legal aid firm should be saying in 2016:
“We use the costs draftsmen on most of our bills”
“We log onto LAA Online and enter our monthly submissions manually, line by line”
“We have to do bills manually because the fee earners aren’t very good at time recording so we have to re-check all their work”
“We use paper timesheets and the secretaries input the time”
All of these behaviours are totally avoidable and wreck fragile profit margins. This is what legal aid firms can and do say instead:
“We don’t need cost draftsmen because our legal aid billing software produces the bill so we keep the percentage cost and that adds up significantly”
“We log onto LAA Online and to a bulk upload from our legal aid billing system. It saves us a couple of days work a month”
“We have trained our fee earners to time record properly straight into the system, it is a performance issue for all of them”
“Secretaries don’t waste time duplicating work that fee earners should be doing, leaves them free to do some fee earning work of their own or cope with more complex issues”
Strategy 3: Get more clients by starting with the client
It’s very common to think that legal aid clients don’t shop around as much as private clients do and research into buyer behaviours generally recently released by the Law Society doesn’t support this. It means that law firms pay little or no attention to their website and other marketing materials and make an assumption that any approach should major on their areas of expertise rather than what the client actually wants (which might be expertise if only the things lawyers said about it made any real sense to potential clients). Remember, you are competing for attention and relevance and how a client pays or is paid for doesn’t change that. If you really make an effort to get the right message out, the chances are good that you do two, resilience building things: get more clients in your core area of work and attract clients who will enable you to consider the next strategy….
Strategy 4: Diversify your Work Base
The thing about looking at what a client wants instead of talking about your expertise is that you will inevitably end up diversifying the work you offer. We have all acted for the client who initially presented with one matter and subsequently needed other services and it isn’t unusual to send them elsewhere for these. Legal Aid lawyers tend to fight shy of doing related work, preferring to stick to their core area of expertise because of what they perceive to be a lack of resource or knowledge. However the advent of great software, checklists, workflows and automated precedents means your firm can seriously consider picking up the options for diversified work, often at private rates, which then help broaden your billing base.
A final word on profit. It is essential that you make a profit and that all your staff from the bottom up understand that that is the objective. It is far too stressful running low profit or periodically loss making businesses. It leads to bad practices, lost practising certificates, insurance claims and despair. By organising your small law firm to make a profit on legal aid and private work, you can eliminate those risks.
Christina Grzasko is the UK’s leading expert on legal aid billing systems and is a long time crusader for law firms that do legal aid work. She is the founder of ILAW legal aid software and is now the Director of Legal Aid Systems at LEAP Legal Software, the largest independent provider of software to law firms in the world. Christina may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.Tweet