Managing to survive
LAPG is launching a ground-breaking certificate in practice management, which aims to help hard-pressed legal aid firms fill the management gap. Carol Storer explains the thinking behind the scheme
Why do some legal aid practices thrive while others struggle? Partners, directors, managers – whatever the title – feel that life consists of juggling endless management issues and many are trying to run casework as well. They can see other practices doing well, but they never quite find the time to sit back, have a think, and work out whether there is anything they could do differently. They are amazed to hear that some practices are actually prospering.
A germ of an idea
Matthew Howgate and Vicky Ling are freelance consultants who help firms with multiple difficult problems. I was a practising solicitor for many years before becoming director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG), so I know what it’s like to be on the sharp end; and in my current role, I daily deal with worried LAPG members who are facing great uncertainty. We know how much reinventing of the wheel goes on within legal aid firms. Matthew says: ‘Too often in my experience, law firms don’t invest enough time and resource into strategy, planning and management. Invariably when I am asked to help a firm or advice agency on the brink of collapse, the underlying problem is a lack of active management over a prolonged period. Often the owners or trustees of those organisations don’t seem to think that “management” is a real thing, certainly not compared to legal casework. Management isn’t an esoteric concept, it is an active focus on driving forward a business and achieving a clear strategy – and it is essential in any healthy business.’
Diagnosing the problem facing many firms was one thing. However, developing a bespoke training course to help them fill the management gap would be time-consuming and expensive, beyond LAPG’s existing resources.
Clearly, what LAPG needed to take this idea forward was funding. As luck would have it, a solution presented itself when Vicky spotted that the UK Commission for Employment and Skills was offering funding for projects that would improve leadership and management in the UK. Our bid was successful and the LAPG certificate in practice management was born.
Since then, Matt, Vicky and I have been busy consulting lawyers across the country. Thank you to practitioners in Bangor, Bristol, London, Manchester and Newcastle, and everyone who answered our survey. Your input helped us answer key questions, such as: What do practitioners think they most need help with? How do they want to train: face-to-face or web-based? How important is price?
Some clear themes emerged in response to some questions, but others proved more tricky. For example, there was no unanimity over whether it would be helpful to share information and experiences with other local firms. Some respondents thought this would be useful; others said it would be impossible because of rivalry, but they might like to be in a support group with firms from other parts of the country
Although we had given it a lot of thought, it was still an enormous amount of work to prepare the course. We were clear that we wanted to pilot:
•a relaxed setting, so that people could meet others in their position and get to discuss issues away from their office and outside the formal course structure;
•a dedicated website;
•webinars and web-based learning;
•a range of excellent resources.
Content is king
We thought long and hard about what subjects to cover, and concluded that content mirroring the Lexcel headings would be helpful for participants:
•structure and strategy;
•client and case management;
‘Often the owners or trustees of organisations don’t seem to think that “management” is a real thing, certainly not when compared to legal casework.’
Training via the web
We know how hard it is for people to take time out of their offices, so the web-based element of the course would be vital, if practitioners were to be able to complete the full 60-plus hours of training on offer. We have no illusions about how hard it will be for people to find the time, so we have built into the project an element of chasing and reminding people about what needs to be done.
D-day: 23 April
The pilot training courses will be officially launched on 23 April in Leeds (which is the location that suited most of those interested in being our guinea pigs). The course we devised consists of three full days, and an evening seminar the day before each (followed by a meal). Two Leeds-based courses will then be followed by one in London. We had feared that having courses in the capital would be impossible because of the price of venues, but the University of Law came to our rescue by offering us a lecture room.
LAPG believes that this is a really great opportunity to help hard-pressed providers take some time to think about management and to implement changes that could make all the difference between surviving and not. By providing training, helpful precedents and materials, and by creating a network of law firm/advice agency managers, we believe that we can strengthen the position of legal aid providers and help sustain the sector now and in the future.
Vicky Ling, p22