AJS Practice Management is Subjective III

How Nicholas Van Den Berg defines it. 

The topic of practice management has sparked a conversation within the legal industry. 

Which is kind of surprising. But also – a really good thing.

Because we had no idea to what extent it would strike a nerve. 

But it does. Evidently. 

And it seems as if it is a topic that needs to be spoken about. You see, from what we can tell, lawyers’ kind of battle with the idea of practice management and more importantly how to implement it – what does it mean to them (personally)? 

This is not a comment we make lightly. We have been told as much. By more than one lawyer.

Despite the idea that lawyers (as professionals) rarely see eye-to-eye on topics, we wager that most lawyers would agree on the following – 

1.     Practice management – as a concept – is not something that is really taught in University or when serving articles, and

2.     Practice management is most definitely subjective – it depends on the lawyer.

With the above in mind, we have set out to gather some more “intel” from those in the legal industry. From those that are running their own legal practices and from those that “are in the know”

What does practice management mean to them?

To start off our intel gathering mission, we spoke to Managing Director of NVDB Attorneys, a young entrepreneur/business-guy/tech-savvy/forward thinking lawyer, Nicholas Van Den Berg.

And with NVDB’s website opening with the following – 

 “Where Legal Expertise & Technology Unite to Deliver Game Changing Results”

We figure that we are on the right track.

Meet “Nick”

Nick studied his L.LB through UNISA. After graduating in 2012 he went on to complete his articles where (again) like many lawyers was not only subjected to the “wild west” that is serving articles but was also compelled to complete the practice management training course developed by LEAD.

It was developed with the greatest of intentions. But not quite getting to the real crux of the matter – the practical side of it. How a legal practice really works and what practice management means. In the real world. In Nick’s words –

“You are exposed to things that you often don’t use in business. For instance, drafting a business plan. I didn’t understand it in high-school and practice management training didn’t help either. Having a business plan means nothing if you don’t know how to implement that plan or how to start a business – what are the tools, what infrastructure does it take? We were not taught those things. And without those practical guidelines, it is extremely difficult to make a success of your firm”.   

Whilst studying, Nick worked full time for Kargo, working directly for the Managing Director and was therefore exposed to the various facets of the business (how things are run, what tools you need and what infrastructure is required) – how a large logistics company was able to run their operations. Smoothly. And with the help and support of high-end, top-of-the-range software.

During his time at Kargo, Nick realised that 

“The implementation and the use of the software is driven from the top down. Everyone from the Managing Director to the more low-level staff members were required to use the software. Everyone was trained on how to use the software effectively, and by so doing, the company ran smoothly and without a hitch. Because there was complete buy-in from all staff members”.

And that incorporation of software into the business, the training of all staff and having every staff member’s buy in was something Nick found severely lacking in the legal space. In general.

Business versus law

It was the training he gained at Kargo that sort of set the pace for Nick. It stuck with him because it showed him how well an operation could be run. How easy it could be. With the proper processes and systems in place, managing copious amounts of client’s was a breeze.

Upon entering the legal space and practicing law full time, this is where Nick became frustrated with how law firms operated –  

“I had this nagging feeling, after completing my articles and being admitted, that there must be a better way to run a business”.

Law firms, generally, were still very draconian in how they managed their practice – manual opening of files, paper everywhere, more employees to complete more manual tasks, bigger premises to store all the paper files and documents. Filing clerks pulling diarised files daily, filling them away at night and then repeating the entire process again the next day. Such a tiresome process.

And this tiresome approach became a huge hinderance, often resulting in attorneys not being able to get through all their matters in a day. With a paper environment, mistakes can easily be made – papers are not filed properly, or there are missing documents. Holding attorneys up. At the same time, letters or contracts may have the same wording, paragraphs, or clauses in them, but instead of this process being automated (where it’s done with a click of a button), the document was completed with a basic copy and paste function. 

Not ideal. 

Labour intensive. And unnecessary. Quite simply, (and again – in general), there were no systems in place. 

And at the end of the day – this harmed billable hours. 

Law firms were, at least in Nicks experience, not operating at the same levels that businesses were operating in – the businesses that the law firms were serving.  And that was a major problem.

Nick began to find it difficult to work in an environment where people didn’t possess the foresight to improve things – sort of going along with the status quo and not questioning the existing system themselves. 

This was not a case of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. This was very much a situation of – there is something very wrong with this picture and something needs to be done about it –

“Lawyers were not operating effectively, efficiently, or optimally. How can this be the norm? How can we do what is best for our clients and run our practices in the way they should be run? It just didn’t make sense to me”.

Going out on his own

There is a noticeable difference between how businesses operate in South Africa versus how law firms operate – 

“Sure, you can be a good attorney. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you will be a good businessperson”. And vice-versa.

And it is in that statement that Nick had a major problem.

Because it is when you finish your articles and are practicing for yourself that you need to bring the business world and the legal world together –

“You need to be both a good lawyer and a good businessperson at the same time”.

After acknowledging his frustration and realising that there was, in fact, a better way to practice law (and manage the business side of it as well), Nick went out on his own, forming NVDB Attorneys in 2017.

For Nick, his first order of business was to have proper processes and systems put into place. From the very get-go – starting his practice off on the right technological foot

Nick recognized that how some law firms were running their practices was their biggest downfall – 

“Once a firm is running, it is very difficult to go back and fix something that was broken from the start”.

Once a certain way of doing things is entrenched in a company’s culture, it is extremely difficult to change. And Nick did not want that for his legal practice. 

In starting his business, Nick’s whole ethos centered around –

“If you have a good system in place, good processes in place and excellent accounting software, everything else will fall into place. Everything else will work”.

And to his credit, it does.

Automating should be your best friend

Nick recalled (whilst heading up the Foreclosures and Insolvencies department at a previous law firm), googling ways on how to make his work more efficient and how to automate certain documents so that it was a simple “plug and play”. Again, thinking to himself –

There must be a better, easier way to do this”. 

Through learning, trying and testing systems, Nick developed several templates that could be used by his department – “an absolute life changer”. With this (somewhat) simple act of developing templates, Nick’s department made a massive turn-around – fees increased, the number of hours worked overtime decreased, productivity improved, and clients were happier because the files were moving. 

But the problem with the templates (he discovered) were twofold – 

1.     there was no buy-in from other departmental heads and without that buy in, there is no support for template using, let alone the use of software, and 

2.     whilst staff were encouraged to use the templates in an effort to automate the processes, it was not driven home by the senior staff members and as a result, they simply defaulted to how things “had always been done.” 

It seemed as if Nick’s vision to automate and streamline labour intensive tasks was not assimilated with the enthusiasm he had hoped for. As a result, there was very little improvement in the way things were being done. 

This was not what he wanted for his own practice. 

Nick was on a mission to find like-minded individuals, those that also believed that there was a better way to do things. A more efficient way. Slimming down the number of staff it takes to complete a process and be able to work from anywhere – not tied to a desk. 

Following from this idea, Nick’s firm is a fully automated, completely paperless practice that allows for a ‘work from anywhere” attitude. Remotely, in the office – whatever suits. And it works. 

NVDB attorneys has also geared up all their employees to have the most up-to-date laptops, extra screens, and full access to all legal software – “whatever tech they need at home, they have – it’s crucial for the success of your legal practice”. 

And this was before COVID. 

Nick has always believed in the investment in proper software and hardware, ensuring that all employees could work effectively from wherever they are. Standing them in good stead when COVID forced all lawyers to work from home. Having already ensured that NVDB attorneys could be fully remote, they were able to continue running where other law firms could not – all they had to do was open up their laptops at home. 

“When COVID hit, we simply continued as normal, continuing with the day-to-day operation of the business. It was easy for us to ride out COVID, still working, still reporting to clients, still billing”.

What does practice management mean to Nick?

“When I was doing articles, I didn’t really know what practice management meant. I knew what managing my department meant to me personally (and that was because of my previous exposure to Kargo) but there were no set processes in place to guide us on how to manage a practice or what practice management meant. There was no training for it. 

The focus was always on the files and the fees, it was never on the business. 

Now, a couple of years down the line and with my own practice, I have come to understand that practice management is the core of the business. And I say this, because when you start your own practice, you need to ensure that every aspect of it is being managed effectively and efficiently. Create different departments (no matter how many people are in your practice), like an accounting department or human resources department. Put processes in place for each one and understand that these departments are the backbone of your business. It’s a very hands-on process and is not something you can really step away from, hoping that everything will be fine. Because a law firm is not just about files and fees. That’s not what makes a successful practice. It’s about how everything else that supports the files and fees works. Practice management is an ever-changing thing, an evolving thing. As the practice changes, as it grows, so will the way you manage your practice, and it requires you to stay on top of things. It requires constant training, constant involving of staff in the goings on of the practice and ensuring that your software and hardware are always up to date and running properly. 

Something Alicia Koch mentioned in her own article – Practice management is an all-encompassing thing that centers around what works best for your particular practice at a specific  time”. 

What advice does Nick have for other lawyers who are struggling to define practice management?

‘Don’t be guided by what you were taught historically, rather apply your mind. If you see that there is something that can be done better, make it happen”.

– Written by Alicia Koch on behalf of AJS


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