No room ‘for dead weight in a lean NewLaw practice’
Work-life balance is absolutely possible in a boutique NewLaw practice – but one has to be prepared to tick certain boxes first, argues one professional.
Some boutique lawyers will get to practice “in one of those unicorn areas of law”, Nest Legal principal Laura Vickers mused, in which clients are content with their advocate only being available for 15 hours of the week and/or waiting up to two weeks to receive advice.
For most lawyers, however, there is a need for “amazing people and processes around you”, she said.
Speaking to Lawyers Weekly ahead of her appearance at the 2020 Boutique Law Summit, Ms Vickers moved to dispel the idea that movement into a boutique practice, particularly one in the NewLaw space, will automatically equal greater work-life balance.
“You can’t do it on your own and have a life and a successful business. Nor is there room for dead weight in a lean NewLaw practice – everyone needs to be excellent and able to step into each other’s shoes if needed. Otherwise, your best lawyers will never have the opportunity to switch off and have a life outside the law,” she warned.
“You need to document how you deliver your service and how your firm runs, so clients get a consistently excellent service regardless of which lawyer in your firm assists them. And continually innovate to make those processes more efficient and responsive to your clients’ changing needs. If only one person knows how to do a particular area of law or re-order printer cartridges, that person can never have a holiday.”
Moreover, leaders of such firms will need a brand and marketing strategy that create goodwill in the firm (or in a team), not in one individual,” Ms Vickers added.
“Clients and referrers need to feel comfortable talking to whoever picks up the phone,” she said.
“NewLawyers” love the way they work she continued, which is evident from the volume of sharing about their vocational path on social media.
“We thrive in our teams and our client relationships. So, when the times come where we have to work harder or longer hours, it doesn’t feel like our lives are thrown totally off balance or feel like we’re a replaceable cog in a massive legal machine,” Ms Vickers explained.
“New technologies and being your own boss mean that you can cut out a lot of the inefficiencies and do some of your work with a child sleeping on your lap. But not all of it. It is a ridiculous amount of work to build a successful business and maintain that reputation in the marketplace.”
“A successful law firm, NewLaw or otherwise, needs happy clients who each feel they are the most important thing in your world, and enough of them to cover your overheads.”
However, even if NewLaw firms – particularly smaller ones – are being run by people with big hearts, they will likely be operating with small margins, Ms Vickers mused.
“Creativity and technology and honest conversations help lawyers have lives, as do awesome teammates. But, the NewLaw badge doesn’t cure all the pressures of being a lawyer. Banks will still delay signing off PEXA workspaces, elderly clients still need someone to sit with them and carefully assess their capacity, court dates still need to be met,” she said.
“You can’t do that when the whole team is in Bali or on a kinder excursion.”
Moreover, leaders in such practices have to implement fair and reasonable policies that balance the needs of all staff and clients, she added.
“This will be different for every practice. A wills practice needs witnesses and lawyers available when clients need them, and a conveyancing practice needs enough people on deck during settlements. It doesn’t work for everyone to choose their place and hours of work without any regard for their colleagues or clients – it needs to be an open conversation between all members of the team,” Ms Vickers outlined.
“Boundary setting and showing vulnerability are important. One practice that helps us is a daily huddle in each team where we check in and each say what help we need from our teammates that day to be able to get out the door on time. We have set the expectation that each lawyer’s task list will be clear by the end of the day but the expectation is that you should ask for help from your teammates if you are not able to do that on your own, and they will help you.”
Her firm, she noted, hosts a monthly whole office meeting “where we nominate who in the office has helped us that month and brainstorm ideas of how we could change our internal processes to make everyone’s work life smoother”.
When asked about how best leaders in this space can best balance all of the aforementioned competing interests, Ms Vickers said they should listen and, where possible, find ways to balance everyone’s needs.
“For us, this means some lawyers starting at 10:00am or working Tuesdays from home or part-time, a kid-friendly office, Friday night drinks that start at 4:00pm, kale salads delivered on big settlement days, monthly in-house massages, standing desks and continual learning,” she said.
“And, know your numbers so you can predict what is going to happen in three months and you can resource it appropriately. It takes time to get good people up to speed.”
Ultimately, it is hard work to get to a place whereby you have the freedom, flexibility and balance that one so craved upon entering the boutique and NewLaw spaces, Ms Vickers concluded. One shouldn’t presume it will be anything other than a challenge to attain, she noted.
“Start your own practice because it gives you purpose or an avenue for creativity or because you want to pick the people you work with or how you do that work. But, if you want total control of your working day and that elusive work/life balance, join the public service or be a yoga teacher,” she said.