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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

Be prepared

Be prepared


Law firms need to get into training to tackle the changes facing the profession. Andrew Towler reports

With major changes afoot in the legal profession after the recent publication of the Legal Services Bill, solicitors up and down the country are being proverbially grabbed by the lapels and told: 'Do something about it!' And as Tesco is setting out to provide cut-price legal services and estate agents to carry out conveyancing work, the time to act is indeed nigh.

It is here that training companies can really prove their worth, offering guidance to solicitors who know they should be preparing themselves for the biggest change to the legal profession for a hundred years, but are not quite sure how to go about it.

Legal trainer CLT has led the way with a course covering the two big shake-ups for high street solicitors '“ the Legal Services Bill and the advent of the home information pack (HiP). The 'HiPs '“ Challenges and Opportunities' course ran for 15 courses, ending last week, but another batch of seminars is already booked for October, according to CLT programme development consultant Janet Baker. The course examines what HiPs are, what technology is needed to benefit from them and related practice management issues such as working with local estate agents and developing a niche practice. 'We are all aware of the Legal Services Bill and how competition will be entering the market through Co-Op and Asda and we are trying to help solicitors build their conveyancing practice to make a leaner and meaner model to compete with the big players,' says Baker. 'It's really a double whammy for conveyancing solicitors, helping with HiPs and the new shape of the legal market. Hopefully, it can help them find their way through the fog.'

Attendances for the 15 sessions have been good nationwide, so solicitors are obviously clued-up on the changes, and Baker hopes the response will be the same when a course on attracting external investment is launched next Spring. The new course, run by Professor Stephen Mayson of Nottingham Law School, will focus on how firms should position themselves to attract an injection of cash from investors and prospective buyers and identifying who these buyers might be. The take-up for this course will be a good reflection of how lawyers are reacting to the changes.

The need for lawyers to run a more stream-lined business is catnip to training firms like Altior, which specialises in management and skills courses. 'We have never tried to be one of these providers that does 1,001 legal update courses, our niche has always been to train lawyers in skills they weren't taught at law school,' says Altior CEO Mark Loosemore. 'People are looking now more for qualifications that will set them apart from other solicitors and are far more aware now of management and 'soft' skills than they were.'

Among the courses on offer are sessions on 'Time and stress management for lawyers' - 'one of our most popular courses' according to Loosemore '“ and 'Marketing yourself and your firm'. Altior also conducts a course on 'How to buy into partnership', telling lawyers what they need to know to be a partner and how to negotiate their way into a business. 'As a result of smaller firms merging and amalgamating in the market, more partnership opportunities are arising and the interest in this course has increased accordingly,' says Loosemore, highlighting that training providers need to respond to market changes just as much as lawyers.

'The legal market is becoming more competitive and I don't see it letting up,' says Loosemore. 'These are the kind of skills solicitors will increasingly need if they want to stay at the top of their game.'

Change is not limited to firms' business structures '“ there has been growing support for the increased use of mediation at an early stage. Michael Lind, managing director of Bristol-based company the ADR Group, believes handling conflict this way can help law firms conduct business in the new corporate environment. As the preamble to the company's course on 'Practical Business Training' says: 'Negotiation, facilitation, mediation and conciliation are all techniques that every effective business manager needs be familiar with and should not be confined to lawyers.'

'Lawyers can do legal work, but that does not necessarily make them good managers,' says Lind. 'Increasingly, within small to medium law firms, there is a need for good management and they are under more pressure to perform as a unit. Learning how to deal with people within the firm, as well as clients, can only enhance a firm's commercial standing.'

Lind says that, although 90 per cent of ADR Group's clients are lawyers, most legal professionals still do not see mediation as a core business skill. 'It is still a huge obstacle for us to overcome,' he says. 'Mediation can prove enormously beneficial for non-mediators within businesses.'

Looking ahead, ADR Group will be launching a course on the 'Integration of corporate and social responsibility', which Lind says more and more law firms are taking seriously. 'If you get this structure right within a firm, it helps attract the right lawyers and clients,' he says. 'It also represents a strong move towards law firms behaving more like corporations.'

The fact that legal training companies have starting providing such courses means there is a demand '“ law firms are starting to adapt for a new way of working. This is positive news, but should also come as a warning to those who haven't yet taken such steps. The help is available for those willing to take the initiative.

Andrew Towler is news editor of Solicitors Journal