Building a business in the age of COVID-19

By Jeremiah Samatra|24 July 2020

Whilst there are inherent business opportunities for new legal practices in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, equipping one’s self with the right tools is critical in ensuring success.

With businesses of all stripes, in law and outside of it, doing all they can to keep their heads above water as we continue to wade through the choppy waters of a global pandemic and subsequent national recession, the idea of launching a new law firm may seem outlandish to some.

However, for others, a marketplace that is fraught with turbulence and uncertainty is also one that is rife with opportunity. In that sense, starting a new boutique legal practice at this juncture can see practitioners grab the bull by the horns and ride it to business success.

Such success does not come overnight, though. Certain boxes must be ticked, including and especially employment of the tools necessary to thrive. Here, three LEAP clients espouse the business and professional benefits they have gleaned from their use of the tech provider’s products and platforms, and how such tech complemented their business strategies to pave the way for their businesses to flourish.

Building a business in the age of COVID-19
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“I wanted to be in a position to control my future and provide quality legal services to clients.”

That was the motivation of Tony Maher, who is based in Port Macquarie, NSW and started his firm, Maher Legal, in June of this year.

tony maher

With the world becoming more accepting of the use of technology during the pandemic, I felt I would be able to provide legal services more freely to clients from a regional area than would previously have been the case.
- Tony Maher

Neilson Law practitioner director Kassandra Neilson, whose firm is based in Brisbane and the Gold Coast and opened its doors in March 2020, says she was initially primed to take over another practice at the start of the year, but those negotiations fell over.

kassandra neilson

With a (secret!) milestone birthday approaching, I decided that 2020 would be the year I fulfilled a dream by opening my own firm.  Little did I know that COVID-19 was lurking around the corner.
- Kassandra Neilson

Jacqui Bilson, the principal of one-month-old Bilson Law on the Central Coast of NSW, was inspired to step out on her own by virtue of her passion for the people whom she serves as a family lawyer with a background in psychology.

jacqui bilson

[My] expertise in the humanities combined with my passion for family law is hugely beneficial when advising and advocating for clients in the family law arena. I was inspired to start my own firm to provide a unique legal service to clients that centres around compassion and empowerment. Personally, I find family law work to be deeply rewarding.
- Jacqui Bilson

Lessons to be learned in this time

Regardless of motivations to start a new legal business, all three had to quickly realise the enormity of launching a firm during a global pandemic – particularly, Ms Neilson observes, given that COVID-19 went, overnight, from “being a problem in a way off country to a challenge in my own backyard”.

“I sounded out people close to me and took on board advice that has held me in good stead, including; being modest in fanfare, premises, formal commitments, and most of all building our reputation as a rock solid firm to ensure there are no backward steps,” she recounts.

 

And, of course, I must say that I am extremely grateful to my staff who have been very supportive and have worked hard, long hours to help me build and stabilise the firm.

 

Such a support network is “essential” to the longevity of such new boutique practices, Ms Bilson says in agreement: “With COVID-19, a new approach to networking is necessary. To make this happen, a good grasp of technology and social media is a must.”

Practitioners looking to start up their own firms, or those who have already done so, must make sure that they have thought about what people need and how best one can meet those needs, especially in this time, Mr Maher argues.

“It is not simply thinking about how things have been done in the past, it is about being able to adapt to the ever changing environment in which we live and ensuring your business model is flexible to meet the changes we are currently facing, but also those which we have yet to encounter,” he suggests.

Benefit of legal tech

All three new business owners acknowledge that that utilisation of legal tech products and platforms has been instrumental and inextricably linked to the viability and success of their ventures. Ms Neilson, for one, initially didn’t appreciate how LEAP services would be a difference-maker, but “quickly learned” that they should have been.

“LEAP has provided us with the opportunity to manage our files in an effective, paper lite environment which was always a goal.  It also provides me with great reporting mechanisms that allows me to keep on top of things which is really important,” she says.

The LEAP offerings have allowed Mr Maher to focus on the substantive legal work, he notes, rather than worrying about setting up software and accounting solutions that are regulatory compliant.

“It has been easy to navigate but is also flexible and allows me to access information on the go, which assists me in being more productive, but also my clients as I am able to access information for them instantaneously if meeting them away from the office,” he explains.

For Ms Bilson, efficiency was paramount: “With LEAP I have confidence in my firm file management and integrated accounting. I am most impressed with the Commonwealth Courts Portal integration with LEAP, having filed documents automatically added to the LEAP matter, so impressed. The set up process was straight forward, I was up and running in no time.”

Issues and challenges

One of the more burdensome factors of 2020, Mr Maher reflects, is that the most serious and looming professional challenges are the ones that we simply do not yet know about. What is required, moving forward, is an ability for all legal businesses – not just new ones – to be flexible and adaptable.

Ms Bilson agrees: “I have seen a great deal of development in firms’ approach to change implementation, it has been great to see teams improving the ways that they work cooperatively and supportively with each other.”

“Adapting to changing climates requires lateral thinking and a lot of listening. It is also important to listen to the client and the client’s experiences as a tool for guiding the path for effective adaptability,” she adds.

There remains, however, the more urgent concerns that all legal businesses must grapple with, Ms Neilson notes, namely the ongoing threats posed by COVID-19.

“I take preventative COVID infection measures very seriously to protect both the staff and the business. An outbreak amongst our small team could shut down my firm in an instant. We have put in place systems which allow the team to work remotely (which were implemented during lockdown and can be implemented again with minimal notice),” she lists.

“As a new business owner, I am monitoring the performance of the firm and the economic market closely. We have also given considerable thought to strategies surrounding cash reserves (in the event the economy seriously falters), alternate marketing options and flexible working arrangements.”

Opportunities on the horizon

New and accessible forms of communicating with clients and colleagues are “emerging at a rapid rate”, Ms Bilson observes, as a result of the need to work remotely and rely more heavily on tech. This, she says, provides a window through which new legal businesses can thrive.

“We can use these new opportunities to help clients feel empowered throughout their engagement with the legal system and importantly, to facilitate resolution of matters. Training on technology is key. We must however, be mindful that not all clients are able to access technology and ensure that systems remain in place for those not able to access technology,” she says.

Better understanding these client needs, Mr Maher offers in support, is fundamental in adhering to their idiosyncratic needs.

“If you don’t know what they want, how can you deliver. By focusing on what the client is seeking to achieve, I am able to manage client expectations. I then focus on providing clients with quality legal services in a timely manner,” he says.

Ms Neilson takes a slightly different approach, noting that while there are inherent opportunities for practitioners to better adapt their client interactions and thereby service delivery options, the emergence and availability of such boosts cannot be relied upon.

“We are taking the view this should not be relied upon and that smart marketing, building referral networks (in whatever way we can) and establishing a solid reputation from the get go is what we’re about,” she outlines.