Law: A matter of motivation and management: The legal profession is midway through a revolution in the way that it organises itself, writes Sharon Wallach

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The Independent Online
British law firms are increasingly following the practice of their US counterparts in the use of paralegals, according to Stephen Whybrow, managing partner of the London firm McKenna & Co.

In today's world where firms pitch for work as a matter of course, offering quotations in which they are expected to name those who will actually do the work, they are taking into account that many tasks traditionally handled by trainees can be done more cheaply by paralegals, Mr Whybrow says.

The firm is better off with someone who is on a fixed-term contract and can stay on the case, unlike a trainee solicitor whose work experience must be varied and broad. There is also increased resistance by clients to paying for trainees, whose costs are treated as overheads.

Paralegals are useful in a number of areas. They can update libraries, for example, or handle property work traditionally carried out by the more expensive legal executive. McKennas uses paralegals with scientific backgrounds to staff the firm's environmental law hotline service and to input documents in support systems.

The work of the 60-partner McKenna & Co is predominantly corporate commercial. How has it dealt with the problems brought by the recession? 'We are going through immense changes as a profession,' says Mr Whybrow. 'A few years ago, lawyers were rather more cushioned than most other commercial businesses and probably a number of other professions too.

'What happened in the early 1980s was that all the large, and some small, firms geared themselves to deal with transaction work rather than run of the mill stuff. So, when a downturn in work came along, there were no more bread and butter cases to get stuck into.'

Further changes were brought about by various initiatives of the Thatcher government, and the rules allowing law firms to advertise. 'The whole culture was jolted,' Mr Whybrow says. 'Newspapers began running columns about the finances of law firms, where nobody took a blind bit of notice before.'

The current recession has had an even bigger impact on the legal profession he believes. One important long-term trend is that they are now treated as providers of legal services rather than professionals. 'We are having to be transparent on how we charge,' he says. 'This means we have to accept, as we come out of the recession, that we can't ever again operate in the same way. The effect is that firms are having to be far more efficient than was the case previously.'

The legal profession is also midway through a revolution in the way it organises itself. 'It still comes as a cultural shock to most of us,' Mr Whybrow says. 'We used to deal with problems by throwing money at them or hoping they'd go away rather than tackling them. We are becoming much more management-oriented. We are recognising the inconsistencies between the partnership structure and managing a business, and that there are lessons to be learned from the US. Many firms are looking at structure, for instance new ways of sharing profits.'

Costs and quality are considerations that reflect on career prospects. 'Clients are less prepared to pay high rates for young lawyers,' Mr Whybrow says. 'Consequently, salaries are coming down and promotion prospects are reduced. In the 1980s, lawyers developed their careers in a very different environment. Now, they feel unlucky. People from here, however, will always get jobs, possibly in smaller firms, because of our good name.'

The firm has also had to become more efficient in its use of staff. 'We have dramatically reduced the ratio of secretaries, who are a heavy cost to business. We can no longer afford to turn a blind eye when they do not have enough work to do.'

McKennas puts a high priority on motivation. 'The traditional way of looking after staff was throwing drink at them,' says Mr Whybrow. 'So much more can be done with a bit more thought, and possibly even for less money.' Part of the process is examining how to apply the concept of TQM - total quality management - to the business. 'It's a way of involving people, making them understand the problems,' Mr Whybrow says. There is a tendency for lawyers to assume they exist to apply technical advice, and that the way of applying it is not important, he believes. 'Now, the ability to apply technical advice goes without saying. The way of providing an effective service across the board is the important thing.

'We also need to explain, at least to fee earners, the economy of running a business. If they are given more information and a better understanding of why decisions are made, they do a better job. We do a lot more than the basic compulsory continuing education. We have invested in marketing training for all our lawyers. We do training in presentation, negotiation and various other skills, and we are also looking at doing training on a wider basis.'

The traditional division between partners and the rest needs to be addressed, Mr Whybrow believes. 'I think that to run an efficient business, there must be much more of a team operation between lawyers and non-lawyers, and partners and assistants. Look at the US, where there is much less division between partners and associates.'

'The problem is the tradition of 'gentlemanly practice',' Mr Whybrow says. 'If something goes wrong we expect people to take a gun and go next door and shoot themselves. We have never learned to criticise.' The key, he says, lies in 'getting people to be direct. Not telling the truth to staff is an inefficient way of using them. We have moved a lot, probably more than some other firms, but we are trying to change deep- seated cultural issues.'