Diagnosing what next for your business

 In Gill's Blog, Practice Management

Disclaimer: LawSkills provides training for the legal industry and does not provide legal advice to members of the public. For help or guidance please seek the services of a qualified practitioner.

– after the dramatic effects of the pandemic

Gill Steel in OfficeWith September always comes the feeling of a new start – schools have indeed gone back, and Universities and Colleges will do soon. But in this rather damaging year for business, at the end of October, the furlough scheme comes to an end and businesses must make some important decisions about the future. Here are some thoughts.

A second wave of infections

The current increase in infection rates and the plethora of local lockdowns makes it look likely that over the coming Autumn and Winter months staff will not be looking to return to offices in droves and clients may go out of business. This means your law firm must consider carefully whether you need the same amount of office space or should downsize; whether the office is designed for current and future safe working needs; how you will support your people both those in the office and those working from home; whether your processes and procedures need review and how you can support your old clients before embarking on seeking lots of new ones.

Office space

This subject could be fraught with disagreement. A lot will depend on whether the firm rents it offices from an arm’s length third party or whether the premises are owned by some of the partners or former partners. Emotions may get in the way of objective business decision-making if the property is owned by people connected in some way to the business who rely on the rental income.

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If you can reduce your overheads by reducing office space then clearly it may take time to work through when this could happen and will depend on whether you own the premises and can sell them or whether you have break clauses in any lease.

Assuming for the moment that you can control when you downsize then you need to consult staff on just what a new office would look like and where it will be located. Clearly, you will need to think about transport links; the ease of parking for clients and staff; the design and layout of the space if government recommendations are to be implemented and staff kept safe – a move back perhaps from open plan offices to well ventilated rooms with windows maybe.

People

Some staff may have been supporting homeworkers by undertaking administrative tasks in the office like scanning paperwork and distributing this electronically. In witnessing just how much can be done electronically you will want to re-think your storage of paperwork generally and whether you can move to a paperless office. This alone could reduce the size of office you need if you are not storing large amounts of paper.

You will need to re-evaluate the roles people perform and may not need some staff who have effectively been replaced by technology. This means some people will need to be made redundant – never an easy task and employment lawyers will need to provide advice to HR, or the person responsible in the partnership, for how to approach the selection, process and procedures.

Furloughed staff in areas of work which have been adversely affected by the pandemic will need to be considered too. To what extent do you expect the work to recover or is it gone for good? If your client base is hospitality industry based, you may have seen that work evaporate and they may well be slow to recover and indeed may go under.

A sensitive issue will be whether the contracts of employment are still appropriate. If most staff wish to work from home and can work anywhere as a result, why pay city centre salaries if you could pay less? Equally, the contracts may not have allowed staff to work from home or flexibly and will need to be reviewed or rewritten.

Staff who are to return to the office will need reassurance about the safety of the office and the firm will need to comply with government requirements. The Law Society has produced some useful guidance on this: https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/topics/coronavirus/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-members

Many solicitors have been working from home and would like to continue to do so. In the short term the firm focused on getting the IT in place but probably did not conduct proper workspace assessments which would have been done if they were working in the office. These will need to be done to ensure that in the long term no health and wellbeing issues arise. You need to test people on their workspace and may need to get a health and safety adviser to guide you as to the workspace and equipment requirements, like a proper chair or keyboard, for long term home working.

Client confidentiality is also an issue. To what extent are your staff working in an environment where this cannot be safely maintained? For example, does your trainee solicitor share a house with three other people and do they all use the kitchen table to work? Where does Mum take a telephone call with a client? Is it in private or in a room in which her children play and her husband also works?

People need to be kept motivated and competent. This means strong team leadership and proper training. There could be gaps in the firm’s technical knowhow if people are made redundant and some people continue to work from home and others come into the office. Junior staff suffer when working from home from lack of supervision and personal learning on the job from those around them. How to address this needs careful thought. Simply cutting the training budget to zero is not the way to maintain staff competence or retain talent.

Processes and procedures

The last six months will have seen many staff accessing your IT systems remotely. You probably need to review the software licences for number of users given some will now be offsite and some onsite; you may need to engage outsourced IT help to boost any inhouse team to ensure that all security checks are undertaken and equipment audits are done. How are you backing up data entered by remote workers? How secure are their systems from cyber-attack? Do you need to bolster your security policies and staff training?

With staff in government agencies and other third party contacts working remotely too the speed with which some work can be undertaken has slowed down making turning the firm’s work into cash receipts worse than usual. Recovering time spent and fees incurred is now more important than ever and a review of how your people record time spent and bill it would be worthwhile. Investigate where you can have money on account or spread the cost by monthly direct debits from clients to improve cashflow.

How do you identify clients as part of the engagement process? Now may be the time to go to a digital provider rather than having to get photocopy identification and certify copies somehow whilst working remotely. Procedures like this are often outdated but don’t change until there is a major problem. Now is the time to make these changes.

This leads into reviewing your client engagement letters and terms of business. Are they still appropriate or do they need re-writing to reflect how you are offering your services now?

Insurance is always time consuming and the professional indemnity insurance market is set to be difficult this year we are told. So best to review your terms now and consider whether you must inform your insurers of significant changes to your turnover and working arrangements. Does your business continuity plan need to be updated to take account of a pandemic? Insurers are bound to ask tough questions about survival without government assistance. The firm’s risk manager needs to be prepared.

Supporting clients

Have you delivered to your existing clients as you promised you would? What lessons have been learnt about servicing your existing clients, such as having the right resources in place to deliver the service to them as promised or appropriately? Find out about their ability to pay you and make sure you have agreed payment terms in place so there are no nasty surprises for either the client or the firm.

Many firms have provided useful covid advice to key client sectors via the firm’s website. Customers are looking for free advice and may have found a competitor’s website helpful which may attract them to be a client of that firm rather than your firm. Review what you have done and whether it was enough to support your clients. Where you can under GDPR, consider which past clients you should touch base with to see if they may become active clients again for whatever services you currently offer in perhaps a new way compared to when you last did work for them.

One of the first overheads to be slashed in a recession is the marketing budget but now is the time to review your marketing strategy. New ways of networking are in play and relationship building now happens online. Your target market may well have changed as your clients have had to adapt to the ‘new normal’. It is time to re-think your unique selling point and find ways of distinguishing your firm from the competition.

LawSkills offers consultancy and training to help your firm address these issues. Coaching and mentoring leaders is a great way of getting a project underway and keeping it on track. Why not give us a ring to find out more? – 01962 776442

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