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Andrew Woolley on Practice Management

Date:18 APR 2010

Managing a family law practice

Andrew WoolleyThis is my first column piece and I hope to inform on family law as well as on managing a family law section or firm as well as challenge for improvement. I will look at expectation setting, communications, marketing that lawyers can do themselves and other management issues.

If you are managing the family law part of your firm, there are a lot of expectations to manage.

These seem to me to be the most important, not necessarily in order: yours of you; yours of your people; clients; owners, and; courts, SRA and so on.

I am not going to talk about the last lot! But crucial is to spend some time thinking about what you want from yourself and your department. If you say "more money" then I shall challenge you because it won't just be that. Really think and feel what is important to you. Make some goals. Put amounts, dates percentages on them. Then plan how to get there. Easy!

How do you eat an elephant? In small bites... In many ways, it would be good if you could get the owners to do the same and then share your bit (at least) with you. Then hopefully you'd know what they expected of you. You'd have the chance to argue they expect the impossible or argue for more resources to enable you to get there. Too many people work on with no idea what is expected. This applies to the people who work for you too. Do they know exactly what you expect of them, how much, by when and in what way? Do they really? Have they shared the decision and do they buy into it? Do you and they discuss how it's going?

If you are heading in the wrong direction it doesn't matter how hard you work, you'll just get to the wrong place even faster.

There is a risk of being boring by mentioning the next thing about goals. They should always be SMARTER. I imagine you'll have heard this before but are your goals SMARTER (specific; measurable; achievable; realistic; timed; ethical; rewarding) or even SMART-are they really?

So, you have got your goals and now you need to decide what you spend the pitifully small amount of time you've got left after fee earning, to "manage". What do you do? I suggest you make a quick list of what you worry about. Then highlight the (probably few) of those you can actually do something about. Then concentrate on those, only. Most of us spend a lot of wasted time worrying about things over which we have no control.

Now the hard bit. Clients. In family law it would be very unusual to get a SMARTER goal from a client or even for you to be able to offer one. You might get S, M or even T from a client but not so often A or R.

With clients, it's about making sure we give them what they want and not what they need. (Of course, we have to advise them what we think they need to avoid getting sued!) But if you give them what they need and not what they want they will not be happy.

So, find out what they want. Ask them. Not many lawyers do. It's not just about the case either. Ask them: Do you want to approve all letters out? Do you want a regular report? What do you want to achieve from this case? What would "success" for us look like? And so on...

Do ask your lawyers to listen hard to what their client wants. It's all too easy to make assumptions.

Andrew Woolley is the Senior Partner of Woolley & Co solicitors which he set up in 1996 as the world's first 'virtual' lawfirm with no traditional offices but a network of home based lawyers. Click here to follow Woolley & Co on Twitter