It is perhaps not a great revelation to members that solicitors’ firms are businesses and that small firms are small businesses.
However, it is the conclusion of the Market Study of Sole Practitioners and Smaller Legal Practices in Ireland – the Society-commissioned report by consultancy firm Crowe – that the Society and small firms themselves, have not focused enough on developing practitioners’ skill-sets as business owners and operators.
Practitioners in small firms require business-management skills and access to business supports in order to increase scale and take advantage of the opportunities present in the marketplace.
Indeed, smaller practices face similar challenges and opportunities that are common to business owners and SMEs in other sectors.
It is important that smaller practices work and, where necessary, evolve in response to today’s more demanding and ‘instant’ business environment in order to serve their clients and succeed.
The recommendations made in the study are a roadmap for both smaller practices and the Law Society to achieve greater success for small firms. The Society is now working to address the study’s 11 recommendations.
Throughout 2019, the Small Practice Support Project will develop a range of supports and tools for sole practitioners and smaller legal practices. The programme focuses on delivering supports within four main categories.
Supports for growth planning
A key recommendation of the market study is that smaller practices should develop a growth strategy that reflects the long-term vision, purpose, and growth ambition for the practice.
Developing a growth strategy provides a focus for the future of the business, in terms of the type of business and clients it wants to target, the rationale for doing so, and what it needs to do to achieve its ambition.
To assist sole practitioners and smaller legal practices with the development of a growth strategy, the Law Society will provide a sample strategy that can be customised by each practice.
The sample strategy will cover activities such as the definition of current service lines, market analysis, and options for both organic/ internal growth (expanding within current operations) and inorganic/ external growth (for example, via takeovers or mergers). The growth strategy will also cover target setting, financial and human resource planning, market activities, and monitoring mechanisms.
A guided workbook for the growth strategy will be provided to firms, and this will be followed by a range of sample scenarios that will assist sole practitioners and smaller practices in understanding, completing, and implementing a growth strategy for their own business. These scenarios will be developed by ‘hot-housing’ a small number of firms that wish to participate.
Each scenario will be focused on, and tailored to, different types of practices, such as new practices, specialist practices, general practices, rural practices, and mid-size practices. This will ensure that sole practitioners and smaller practices will have the tools they need to assist them with developing their own growth strategy.
Growing a business is also dependent on effective marketing and the ability to communicate with existing and potential clients to convince them of their need to use the services on offer in the practice.
To assist smaller practices in formally planning their approach to marketing, including client communications, the Law Society will provide a sample marketing and communications plan.
This will also be provided as a guided workbook that will support small firms to customise the various elements for their own practice, including market trends analysis, market segment profiling, defining sources of service-line income, competitor analysis, developing marketing objectives, business-mix definition, and market planning by segment.
The Law Society’s market study recommends collaboration and network building:
• Within the solicitors’ profession itself,
• By smaller practices with external bodies, and
• By the Law Society with external bodies.
Many of the issues to be addressed by small practices would benefit from collaboration, where other interested parties are working together to achieve a mutually beneficial end result in areas ranging from financial and human-capital benefits to partnering and sharing physical and/or intellectual resources.
Networking can also assist with furthering business-development opportunities and marketing efforts, jointly achieving what might take longer individually and creating more significant business outcomes.
To assist sole practitioners and smaller practices with the expansion of their network, the Society will provide guidelines and supports for network expansion and collaboration, which will include a listing of potential SME organisations to join and their benefits, a guide for maximising memberships, and case studies of successful memberships.
The Society will also explore collaborating on issues of shared concern with external bodies that work with SMEs in other sectors.
The Law Society will continue to develop and deliver a programme of learning supports that will respond to the current needs of smaller practices, including supporting them in their efforts to create sustainable businesses.
A range of learning opportunities, channels and supports will be delivered to small practices to support their journey in creating a sustainable future.
A Small Practice Support Hub will be developed for lawsociety.ie, with a dedicated area for small-business resources. There will be ongoing additions to this hub, including monthly Small Practice Support Bulletins that will aim to support small firm practitioners with guides to key business areas such as:
• The value of research and how to get started: market scanning to understand market trends and client needs – the why, the how, and the benefits,
• Competitor analysis: why and how to understand your market and key stakeholders,
• Client communications: the benefits of building and maintaining a customer relationship management system (CRM) and/or a case-management system,
• Marketing content that excites: creating great copy for emails, blogs, and social media,
• Finding efficiencies: project planning and risk management,
• A guide to networking: where and how to generate leads and increase your referral base,
• Thinking outside the box: the benefits and challenges of shared office space,
• Financial planning: the benefits and practice of target setting and monitoring, and
• Performance and time management: maximising your time and your staff as a valuable resource.
Learning and knowledge-sharing events will also be developed, and CPD opportunities explored, to assist in small business implementation, action-learning and peer sharing.
Promotion and communication
The value of legal services is not generally understood by the public, and needs to be promoted further by both small firms and the Society. To this end, a media relations campaign will demonstrate the value of legal services generally, and small practices and the general practice model specifically.
There will be additional work to promote the value of life in rural areas and work in small practices. Some of this activity will be in collaboration with local authorities and local development agencies.
The Law Society currently offers many supports for small practices, and these will be expanded significantly over the course of 2019. However, the market study showed us that there was a disappointing level of awareness of existing supports among our members.
A communications preferences survey will aim to clarify how members prefer to be communicated with in terms of method, timing and frequency. The results of the survey will inform the development of a new member communications strategy.
Foundations for the future
The aspiration of the Small Practice Support Project is that smaller practices will be fully equipped – through the range of toolkits and supports provided – to develop and implement growth plans, marketing, and networking strategies during 2019.
Sole practitioners and small practices can then focus on the roll-out and implementation of these strategies and plans in 2020, which will assist their growth and help create a foundation for future sustainability.
This work was initiated by former Law Society President Michael Quinlan, whose aim was to help smaller firms achieve sustained growth and realise their potential. We will keep you informed of our progress throughout the year across all Law Society communications channels, but especially in the Gazette, on www.lawsociety.ie and in the member eZine.
If you would like to provide feedback on this project or have any questions on how your firm can begin implementing the recommendations, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. The market study can be found on www.lawsociety.ie/marketstudy.