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What’s the D-R-I-L-L? The big leadership issues facing boutique firms

From smarter delegation of work to strategies to better utilise resources, the new year provides a perfect opportunity for reflection and renewal within boutique law firms, writes Trevor Withane.

In 2024, law firms will continue to navigate a dynamic and highly competitive legal landscape.

They will grapple with shifting client demands, regulatory changes, increased cybersecurity concerns, rapid advancements in technology, and the challenges of talent acquisition and retention.

Boutique law firms may face additional challenges due to their sometimes more limited financial and human resources.

Writing this article in the rare contemplative moments the summer break has provided, I present my D-R-I-L-L for 2024, which aims to identify some of the challenges potentially facing boutique law firm leaders today and some thoughts on addressing these challenges.

D – delegate

Leaders of boutique firms often fulfil many functions within the firm, and so do their staff. Consider what tasks could be delegated to enhance job satisfaction and increase profitability.

In the last quarter of 2023, I reflected on how I spent my working hours in the first three quarters. What became clear was that, as the founder of the law firm, I remained involved in very many of the operational, finance, HR, administrative, marketing and business development activities and production of client work. I had not previously thought through what could be delegated, and how more of my time could be spent on both client work and revenue generation.

Toward the end of the year, I was ruthless and took the proverbial scalpel to my tasks, and delegated all tasks that someone else could or should do. I also employed an executive assistant whose job it was to help manage my time and keep me within my lane.

While thinking through delegation started with me, we took feedback from our lawyers about the tasks they were doing which could be delegated so that they could be more productive on client matters and career-enhancing activities (such as growing their personal network).

From a business perspective, empowering lawyers to appropriately delegate can be a powerful tool to enhance job satisfaction, enable lawyers to concentrate on higher-value billable legal work, deliver cost benefits to clients, while mitigating the risk of burnout and stress.

R – retaining employees (and hiring new ones)

Attracting and retaining top legal talent is an ongoing challenge in any firm, let alone boutiques which often do not have the big brand names that young lawyers covet.

Last year, we began the process of refining our values and thinking through the firm culture we want for our employees and clients. It is unremarkable that many law firms have not devoted much time to clearly defining their values and culture – this is because of the organic nature in which law firms grow and their razor focus on delivering client work.

Through speaking to our employees, especially those who had left the firm, we realised that creating an environment where employees feel genuinely valued and can continually develop their skills is crucial – and this is something boutique law firms must invest in.

Initiatives could include understanding where employees want to take their careers, and helping them to acquire the skills and providing the opportunities to get there.

Interestingly, recognition of employees' contributions is also crucial. Research has shown that companies with a ‘recognition-rich’ culture have a significantly lower voluntary turnover rate than their peers, and it can enhance clients’ trust in the firm as recognition of the lawyers who actually produce the work inspire confidence in clients.

I – inspiring passion and purpose

As any entrepreneur or business owner will tell you, your blood, sweat and tears will go into growing your firm from the ground up. A big challenge that leaders face is inspiring the same level of passion and vigour that they have for the business in their employees.

In order to foster passion and drive employee engagement, we have found that employees need to feel part of the business (and not just a commodity of the business).

I do not have all the answers, but inspiring passion and purpose in employees will require a multifaceted approach. For us, we have started with involving our employees in developing the firm’s values, developing its proposes and being involved in business development at all levels.

L – limited resources

Boutique firms, through necessity or business model, often operate with limited resources, both in terms of finances and personnel. Leaders must find ways to maximise the efficiency of their teams while delivering top-tier, market-leading services with limited resources.

Boutique law firms need to have a core in-house team to meet client contact continuity, achieve consistency in the house style, maintain matter knowledge and know-how and (among other things) provide succession opportunities.

That said, strategic outsourcing is worth considering – especially for administrative and lower-value work (especially where the margin for error is low). This approach can deliver cost efficiencies for the firm and clients. Moreover, if lawyers can be relieved of less appealing and non-billable administrative tasks, there is likely to be an increase in job satisfaction and revenue generation.

The legal ‘gig economy’ can also be utilised by boutique firm to access specialised subject-matter expertise, without the need for in-house hiring and training. It also enables firms to upscale for particular projects, without having the associated hiring costs and burden of providing ongoing employment beyond the project. What is more, with so many talented lawyers opting for a more flexible working pattern, the quality of lawyers available for flexible project-based work can be exceptionally high.

Ironbridge Legal has found that the intelligent use of outsourcing and the gig economy has provided much-needed agility and competitiveness in the fast-changing legal landscape.

L – leveraging your network

More and more clients approach boutique law firms for the whole suite of their legal needs. However, boutique firms, like Ironbridge Legal, can be highly specialised – we focus only on litigation, insolvency and restructuring work.

While highly specialised boutique firms cannot meet all of their clients’ legal needs, we have found that clients value referrals from their professional advisers. Being able to refer clients to appropriately skilled lawyers for the issue at hand can foster the client’s trust in the referrer and result in cross-referrals from the referred to law firm.  

This year, we intend to invest more time getting to know our referral partners and developing new relationships with other law firms – especially those outside our circle of expertise.

Summing up

While the thoughts and ideas in this article represent my personal reflections on the year just passed and plans for 2024, whether you agree with them or not, the start of the new year is a great time for reflection and planning for progression.

Trevor Withane is the founder and principal of Ironbridge Legal and is a specialist commercial litigator and insolvency lawyer with deep experience in his areas of practice. Prior to founding Ironbridge Legal, Trevor was a partner of a successful Sydney-based boutique law firm.