Douglas Mill: A month of Sundays

Douglas Mill: A month of Sundays

Douglas Mill

Douglas Mill looks at some of the opportunities the current lockdown presents.

Or perhaps two months. Or longer. Who knows. And that is the worst of it, as business planning and strategy without a timeline is impossible. Part of the difficulty of the current situation is, I think, psychological for the profession as most solicitors are driven workaholics with a real need for achievement. Many may struggle to come to terms with this unprecedented situation.

That is an area I am not qualified to comment on, and I accept that a lot of my advice might seem preachy and is geared more towards our hard pressed and regularly neglected and traduced thousand or so high street practices, but advantage can be taken of this downtime.

1. Convert all your work in progress into fees. Cashflow remains critical. If ever there was a time to fee out old files and springclean the place it is now. Do not look back on the lockdown as a missed opportunity. Read Mayson on the degradation of realisation and impose zero tolerance on unbilled work. Yes, some clients may have cashflow difficulties of their own, but that allows you to be seen to be reasonable with stage payments and deferrals.

2. Get your wills safe audited and indexed. It never ceases to amaze me when I speak to firms looking to merger/retirement and they say to me, sometimes smugly and complacently, ‘Mr Mill, the real asset of this firm is our will safe’. I then agree, saying it is generally a significant element of value. I then ask to see their database. “What is a database?” from 50 per cent of them. Well, an index then. “Ah…yes, Willie started one about 12 years ago, but never got round to completing it.” Astonishing. Other professions simply cannot believe our total inability to develop this asset and to communicate with our clients. Face facts, if the will was made in 1932 you probably did not get the executry.

3. Rattle any skeletons. Now is the time to tackle the files you have (almost certainly without any real cause) built up a mental block about. Have an amnesty. Exchange problem cases. Let a colleague take a fresh look.

4. Get you processes and systems up to date. Compliance comes with zero tolerance. Clear the balances. Get AML records sparkly clean.

5. Get your creative juices flowing. Work out how you can progress or complete work under the current restrictions. Don’t think that because you can’t meet your clients, you can’t progress or complete a piece of work. You don’t have to be a tech wizard to use video calls instead of having a face to face meeting. Your clients will appreciate your efforts to keep matters moving during the current restrictions. They will understand that you might be faced with someone on the other side of a transaction who is firmly of the “We’ve never done it this away before” school of thought, but they will give you credit for trying to move things on. Keep your clients informed about their current business. As long as you communicate with them, and explain why a matter cannot be advanced, they will generally be happy. Even if you have nothing substantive to tell them, drop them an email – they will be pleased that they are still on your radar.

6. Learn. The lessons of the banking recession have been quickly forgotten by most firms. Not just the dangers of operating with very little reserves or the inability to pass any financial stress test. Not just taking out more than you should and understanding that what equity partners get is not a first charge on revenue but the NET profit after everything else is paid. The high street survived because it was not as greedy as a lot of the big firms, but even more because of the diverse range of services it offers. All the eggs are not in one or two highly profitable but vulnerable areas.

7. Read. Now is a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in management info and texts. To actually understand your own accounts and look at the areas in which your firm operates – and more importantly – where it should operate.

8. Train. Yes, I know that CPD has been binned for this year. Viewed by many as a premature decision and pointing up the conflicts between being a regulator and a provider, it may be justifiable in relation to affordability and group meetings, but if ever there was a time for the profession to get online it is now. As an honorary member of the Canadian Bar Association I get regular e-mail info which is not just jurisdiction-specific.

9. Prepare for a return to relatively normal conditions. Communicate with staff on furlough. Communicate with clients. Anticipate demand areas and levels. It has seriously disappointed me over the last decade how few young solicitors see private client as a sensible career choice. Remember the ‘private client is for losers’ manta from the big firms 23 years ago? That worked out well, didn’t it. Even before the current tragedy the demand for ambitious private client lawyers was multiples of supply. Death and taxes fellow professionals.

10. Relax. Back to the difficult bit for most of you. This is (hopefully) a once in a lifetime opportunity for you to get significant quality time – whatever that may be for you. Filed under do as I say, rather than as I do, because as someone who has had only about 10 fortnights since 1978, chilling is not my strong suit. And I do remember my years in private practice when I would yearn for a quiet week. Then you would get 2 or 3 less frantic days…and start to panic. But even a pathetic workaholic like me cannot feel too guilty if, ultimately there is no work to do. So whatever it is do it. Reruns of Borgen, The West Wing, Better Call Saul. The garden. Dog walks. Dickens. Conrad. Go for it. You will never get another chance. Make sure that you got the most out of the lockdown and that when the spike of catch up comes along you are refreshed and ready to go.

With thanks to Gordon Cunningham of MTM for his helpful suggestions.

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