How collaboration and contra can pay off for smart law firms

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,People Management(HR)] January 13, 2020

A modern twist on contra deals, whereby knowledge-sharing and assisting other law firms becomes the norm, is a viable way for businesses to improve their bottom line and enhance innovation, writes Catherine Brooks.

I recently went to my local hairdresser and begged her to fit me in for a last-minute appointment as I managed to find a small window of opportunity in between kids and work.

She runs a small business, so my hairdresser Connie made it work and I found myself sitting in a chair, breastfeeding my 10-month-old and finalising an unfair dismissal claim while FINALLY getting those awful roots lightened up.

Such is my life at the moment.

However, halfway through my treatment something magical – yet seemingly commonplace – occurred. The mechanic from across the road came and took Connie’s car keys and went and sorted out an issue that she had with her vehicle. He returned the keys, sat down and got a haircut, and no money exchanged hands. It was a true-blue contra deal that unfolded in front of me and it struck me in a way that prompted me to instantly ask Connie questions about the arrangement.

“So how did you come to know each other, and do you often do contra deals for each other’s businesses?” I asked. Connie explained that due to the geographical proximity of the businesses, they’d become firm friends and always helped each other out when they could, preferring contra deals to cash because, put simply, keeping cash is ‘king’ (or ‘queen’!).

The contra system worked well for them and it got me thinking about the legal industry. Do we do enough back scratching of our fellow practitioners in a truly helpful way and, if not, how can we do more of it.

Collaboration in the NewLaw world

I’m fortunate enough to work for a NewLaw firm and I’ve certainly witnessed a great deal of collaboration happening in a rarely-otherwise-seen supportive environment.

We collaborate in informal and formal ways in this NewLaw world. Let me share a few of those ways and hopefully spark some discussion about how we can collaborate more to support each other’s practices.

1. Knowledge-sharing

First off, our firm collaborates through knowledge-sharing. We have a Facebook group that is utilised multiple times a day. We use that group to seek referrals and recommendations, but also to build up knowledge and awareness in the industry of the many strange and discreet laws that impact our clients.

From nuances in property law, to topics such as how to bolster a protection order to aid a woman fleeing domestic violence, no subject is left uncovered. Even though I practice in the discreet area of employment law, I regularly read the threads to learn but also to see if I can add assistance by tagging someone else that I know is an expert on the topic.

Aside from the law, we also share knowledge about the business of law – topics range from how best to service our clients and keep our staff happy, improvements that can be made when it comes to billing, technology (to invest in and steer clear of) and innovations from within and outside of our industry.

I’ve learnt about chatbots, value-pricing tips, which staff feedback forms to use, options when it comes to KPI setting, which billing software to avoid – and the list goes on.

We also take our Facebook group offline by meeting up when we can arrange it and further developing our network that way. For those operating in smaller teams, or bespoke areas, it can be a key part of feeling like you’re a team member in a broader industry as opposed to someone existing in a silo.

2. Specialist advice

I have also been increasingly doing employment work for other firms – often on a fixed-fee (mates-rates) basis. Through Employment by Law Squared, we have been carrying out a range of work for fellow lawyers and their firms, including providing contracts of employment, providing advice in relation to award coverage, helping with performance management or firing meetings, and even advising when an ex-employee lodged an unfair dismissal case.

But our collaborative arrangements extend beyond the legal profession and into dealings with our clients. For instance, we have recently been working with a marketing agency that let us test out a new staff training product (all about how individuals can be Active Bystanders and prevent harassment in the workplace) on their team. The training went really well and we received an excellent endorsement from the agency’s head director which has been used on our marketing material and led to more bookings for this training. Another win-win.

We have found that this engagement is an option worth exploring as another value-add, particularly for those transactional pieces of work, or when you’re investing in a long-term relationship with a referrer or client.

3. Beyond the law

Collaboration outside of the legal profession has been the key for us at Law Squared, too.

We partner with a number of professional services firms, including in the accounting and finance space, along with the R&D and technology world, to develop our expertise and broaden our skill-set in the best interests of our clients. It also gives us insight into the innovations on the horizon that we can look at applying in our own practice.

In 2020, we plan to continue to focus on collaboration within and external to the sector and look forward to exploring many more ways to work with our colleagues and clients in innovative ways in the best interests of the profession.

My question for you to consider is this: “How can you collaborate to drive innovation and an improvement in service delivery?”

Catherine Brooks is an Associate Director at Law Squared and an accredited specialist in workplace relations. She is also the author of Let’s Make It Work, Baby!