Practice management is subjective

practice management
16 May 2022

A personal account of how I define practice management

Nothing fully prepares you for being a lawyer. Nothing.

Sure, you study law, either doing a BCom Law, BA Law, or straight LLB at university. But let’s be clear, learning about law and practicing law are two different things. Vastly different things.

It’s kind of like the quote “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

I believe most of us start off with an overly optimistic, rosy-eyed view of the world, or at least I did.

When I started studying law, I believed that I could help people, that I could change lives. All for the better (my own included). I believed that being a “lawyer” meant I belonged to a higher purpose, that I needed to always do good, and that was pretty much it. How I would go about doing those things was still a little “up in the ether” for me.

I didn’t really give it much thought – “practicing law” – much of a muchness I thought, and I was pretty confident that I could “wing it”.

I was wrong.

My “rosy-eyed”, naïve view of practicing law changed as soon as I started Law Clinic, something you had to complete in your final year of studying law. This involved going to legal aid clinics to complete a certain number of hours of community service. We were told that all we needed were our brains, our “smarts” (as my grandfather would say), a little street savvy (or so I thought), a professional (but helpful) disposition (cited as being paramount) and a killer (but professional) outfit (my addition). A little too simple, it turns out.

Arriving at the Law Clinic and giving out free legal advice, was daunting to say the least, and only gave us a teeny-weeny taste as to what it would be like in “the real world”. We all got offices and were assigned clients. We had to record time spent on a matter in a little clinic roster in order to complete our community service. And that was that. No real “pearls of wisdom” as to how the practical side of law would be.

But, with cap, gown, and degree(s) in tow, we were set forth into the world to become “Legal Eagles” – shining examples of recent university graduates determined to make the world a better place.

But that was 15 years ago.

Alice down the rabbit hole

How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another,” said Alice.

It’s no wonder, my favourite books of all time are Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. They explain my working life perfectly. I often felt like I was tumbling down the rabbit hole or a guest at the seemingly endless Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.

Always feeling like I couldn’t quite fit through the door – too big. It would seem. Not knowing which way was up. And advice from characters like the Cheshire Cat (my favourite character) and the Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar seemingly were very close to reality for me. And still very (much) unhelpful.

Except for the one sensible thing the Cheshire Cat said – “If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there.

Because that’s the truth of it. Learning how to practice law is a bit like stumbling around trying to find your way in the dark until you locate the light switch.

But let’s start at the beginning

It seems like a good place to start.

First day of serving my articles (or what is now called practical vocational training) saw me arriving bright and early at the law firm, bright eyed and bushy tailed, leather briefcase on wheels (a graduation gift from my folks) in hand, hair slicked back into a neat ponytail, white blouse, black pants and responsible, sensible(ish) heels.

All set and ready for what I thought would be the first day of “crushing it”. I had two law degrees (intellectual arrogance at play) – how difficult could this all be?

Spoiler alert – it was.

Serving my candidacy was more like jumping into the deep end of a very, very deep (think Mariana trench deep) pool, where sharks (excuse the offensive comparison) the size of JAWS (“You are going to need a bigger boat!”) would swim underneath my feet. A feeling most candidate attorneys must undoubtedly feel – like they were simply, “chum”.

No amount of watching Ally McBeal or Law ‘n Order or Suits aptly depicted what working in a law firm is really like. Except for maybe a few scenes of the “over-worked and underpaid” attorneys seen in the movie “About Time”.

TV and movie references – they always work.

Running from one court room to another (seemingly like “headless chickens” – again forgive the gruesome comparison), filling papers, serving papers, paginating court documents, prepping for trial, opening case files (manually) – running, disappointment, sweating, crying, and limping (because your heels were not as sensible as you thought). Natural (and to be expected) side effects of the practicalities of law.

It was a little snackaroo of what “Hell” could be like. So, you behaved. Just to be on the safe side.

But the two years of articles went by in a whirlwind, in a blur and all that was left behind, was a shell of a person – sleep deprived, stressed, and utterly disappointed. Quite simply because I did not serve humanity or work for the betterment of humankind. Silly thought really. In reality.

At the end of the day, it was my time that mattered the most. And accounting for it, even more so.

I’m late, I’m late for a very important date

Being a lawyer, I have learnt over the years, is all about time.

Running late, being on time, billing for time. It’s all about time. As most things are.

Time. Time. Time.

But in a lawyer’s case, it is about billing for that time. Time being your most valuable asset (as it always is, it would seem). Because that is what we are selling (besides our expertise).

Lawyers sell time spent giving advice, time spent corresponding with opposing counsel and advocates. Time spent prepping for trial. And time doing research finding out the answers to our client’s many “why’s?”.

Those are our wares.

The funny thing is, when studying law, you are not taught this. At all (except perhaps if you take Philosophy). You are taught every nuance that makes up what law is all about – but the practicalities of it. Nadda. No hint that time will be your most valuable asset.

It’s quite a shock. Believe you me. What was all that studying for?

Much more muchier

Before divulging my understanding of what practice management is, let me say this – a legal practice management course/ training was not around when I was studying, doing articles or even after I was admitted as an attorney (which seems like a lifetime ago). How we managed our practices was sort of “learnt on the fly”. Our principals did their best to instil knowledge about how to run a practice but again it always seemed to come down to what you were billing and how you were billing.

I’m a lawyer for goodness sake, not an accountant!

If you asked me 14 years ago what practice management meant to me, I would have said, rather stupidly, “how a lawyer manages or runs their practice”. An obvious thing to say, but what that actually entailed would have been completely beyond me, because I simply didn’t know. Yet. And I wager, there are many legal practitioners that feel the same way.

I know this because I have worked in various law firms, moved to corporate, been in-house counsel, been head of legal and regional counsel. I have run my own legal consulting practice and have now found my home in writing. Vastly distinct roles in very different spheres.

But I have found that the one constant in all these different roles has been change. Funny that. And with each change, how my time is billed and how I manage my practice (i.e. what I do) has changed with it.

How I operate in the various functions, what is expected of me and what I believe is crucial (and important for my own role, legal department, or practice) has changed over the years. And it has been different every single time.

So, AJS’s previous article on Practice Management being Subjective is spot on. I wholeheartedly agree, because it very much is. What you do and what is important in one role, is not necessarily important in another one. It is all subjective and all depends on where you are and what you are doing. And that will affect how you see and how you define practice management. Because it depends entirely on you. A huge revelation!

If you ask me now what I consider practice management to be I would say that it is “the management of your time in a way that you are able to effectively provide services to clients whilst still being able to manage your accounting and reporting in a manner that is efficient and simple”.

Practice management, I have discovered, involves a host of other “to-dos” like marketing your practice and managing your brand. It is an all-encompassing thing with you in the very centre of it all. It sounds a little self-centered but that’s the truth. Practice management is all about what works for you.

Sure, legal software assists. But at the end of the day, legal software won’t help you if you don’t know what is important to you or what makes your practice tick.

And let me be honest about this – in my personal experience there is practice management and then there are “software tools” that are touted as “practice management or legal practice management systems”. But they aren’t.

Most of these systems are useless, for the simple reason that they only provide you with a rigid set of business rules that force you into a certain way of “managing your practice”. And that is the exact opposite of what I want and what I expect from legal software going forward.

Change is inevitable, we know this. And that means your systems and legal software needs to be flexible enough to roll with you (your “ride or die” companion) as you make these changes. Adaptable, flexible and optimising your practice. Three key words I believe should sum up the type of legal software you use and rely on.

So, my ultimate take-away from law school, from articles, from years within law firms and my companies is this – know what you need in order to operate, and then work backwards from that.

It sounds simple. And it is – if you grasp the fact that you make the whole thing run.

Retain your muchness (paraphrased from the Mad Hatter) – it’s all you, my friend. It’s all up to you!

See also:

(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)
Alicia Koch

Alicia Koch is an admitted attorney with over 10 years PQE. She has worked in law firms, has had her own legal consulting company and has been an in-house legal... Read more about Alicia Koch


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