Time to swot up on legal aid threats
To avoid icebergs, it pays to look at your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, says Vicky Ling. LAPG’s innovative Practice Management Certificate course shows firms how to use this kind of analysis to stay afloat.
Some legal aid practitioners say things change too fast and there is too much uncertainty for them to be able to plan; but surely challenging times are exactly when you should sit down and work out where your organisation ought to be heading? Maybe there is an iceberg on the horizon, or maybe all the changes ahead create opportunities which could be of benefit.
We have been piloting the LAPG Practice Management Certificate (PMC) course since April. One of the set texts is Fiona Westwood’s book Accelerated Best Practice. She found that the key to success is to accept that continuous change is inevitable and to focus on its positive benefits. The following characteristics are common among successful organisations:
•They have leaders and managers who are trusted and respected.
•They are aware of their strengths and play to them.
•They recognise their weaknesses and tackle them through investment in technology and/or training.
•They manage their resources effectively and lever in additional resources through networking and/or joint ventures.
•They review their client services and adjust delivery to meet client demands.
•They manage their client base well through close and regular contact.
•They carry through the changes they decide to make.
In a recent PMC session we asked participants to carry out a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) exercise based on their own practices. There were people from almost 20 different firms in private practice and not-for-profit (NfP) agencies; but we found there was a significant degree of agreement between them.
•Good legal and support staff
Good reputation is built on values which we had identified in a previous session – some characterised as ‘commercial’ and some as ‘professional’ but we found that there were in fact significant overlaps between them, eg ethics, honesty, integrity, quality, confidentiality, independence and impartiality.
NfP charities operate in an environment where good governance is supported by the Charity Commission; but it is also relevant to private practice, especially as legal businesses have external capital investors who expect clear decision-making.
•Reliance on legal aid funding
No surprises there then! Low fees and scope restrictions make life difficult; but they also push organisations to make the best use of their resources and maximise efficiency, which was also identified as an opportunity. Pressures created by overheads also encourage people to look at the way they do things.
It was interesting how many participants felt that cost-cutting measures, such as reducing support staff, hadn’t always been well thought through and could lead to solicitors and caseworkers becoming less, rather than more efficient, as they struggled with their own support needs. In some cases, it appeared that they had become untrained and expensive administrators, filling the resources gap with unpaid overtime, leading to stress. Perhaps time for a re-think for legal administration in some organisations?
•Acquisition/merger (economies of scale)
•Using the efficiency required by low legal aid fees across the organisation
The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) contributed significantly to the session, giving us its perspective on running contracts. The feedback was extremely positive, it really helped participants to understand the LAA’s objectives and see things from its point of view. The LAA told us that most requests it receives to novate contracts are due to mergers, and while it can accommodate most of them, sometimes these are left too late. So, if you are considering a merger, it is important to talk to your contract manager as early as possible.
Location can be important in two ways. If you are in a low wage/low overhead area, you may be at an advantage when offering services via the internet, as your fees can be lower than the competition elsewhere. However, clients still seem to like personal face-to-face services in some areas of law, so walk-in, high street premises can be extremely valuable.
•Public spending cuts
•Changes to the legal landscape
We had to acknowledge that increased funding is not going to come from legal aid, and NfPs relying on other public bodies are having a tough time. Some NfPs are working with others to share resources and deliver better services, often funded through the Advice Services Transition Fund (ASTF). Let’s hope the government is planning some form of continued support, along the lines recommended by the Low Commission, when this funding stream comes to an end.
Although changes to the legal landscape were identified as a threat, some private practices have benefitted from the introduction of external capital. NfPs no longer have to become alternative business structures in order to charge fees direct to clients. While controversial, and unlikely to generate large sums, some NfPs are making small but helpful amounts of money by charging for employment and immigration advice, which are no longer in scope of legal aid.
Playing to identified strengths and being aware of weaknesses enables organisations to adapt and thrive in changing circumstances. As PMC co-tutor Matt Howgate put it: ‘If there is an iceberg on the horizon, you may want to land on it, chip bits off and sell the 15,000-year-old ice to hipsters for their martinis!’