Squaring the circle: office space and other management challenges
Lawyers are taught about the law, sometimes about business, but not about running an office; now would be a good time to change this, says Russell Conway
A client asked me the other day who taught me to manage my firm. Initially I thought it a bit of a daft question, but, on reflection I realised that despite a university degree, the LPC and a two-year training contract, none of that gave me any basis for undertaking management, HR or IT. These days, managers in law firms have to be on top of any number of issues. They need to be very onpoint in relation to IT and the challenges of cybersecurity. And HR throws up a huge variety of challenges: how do you make somebody redundant, deal with workplace bullying, encourage diversity, and have a robust system of appraisal in place? A few weeks ago I was told that my landlords are redeveloping the building in which my offices have been for the last 13 years. Since then, I have been caught up in a scary office search nightmare. Searching for new offices can feel tantamount to trying to square a circle: you have to match up space with what you have, think about whether you are expanding or contracting in the next five years, and then try to make sense of whether the new space can work for you. Does it look too grand? Does it look too shabby? Is the rent affordable? Do you want to pay service charges for a gardener, odd-job man and building receptionist? Should it be open-plan? Do you need partitioning and if so which of the 50 types of ‘standard’ partitioning do you go for? Are the business rates acceptable? Is the office easy to find, close to a tube station and will it be wired up for BT and Virgin Broadband?
Then come the negotiation of the lease. Negotiating a new office lease is full of bear traps. Even before you have agreed heads of terms, it is as well to know that office rents are a bit like haggling over a rug in the bazaar – it is all up for negotiation. The amount of the rent, the amount of the service charge and whether the service charge is capped or not and finally and, perhaps most importantly, landlords are very keen to do a deal and offer sometimes quite significant ‘rent-free’ periods to ensure the new tenant signs on the dotted line. Will there be a rent deposit? Can we do alterations without a formal licence? Can we have keys to the new space before we complete the lease? These are all terribly important questions.
ON THE HOOF LEARNING
So who trained me to deal with this? Curiously, it has to be said, no-one. I have been a partner in my firm since 1984 and I have picked things up on the hoof. I have seen how my former senior partner dealt with issues and perhaps learnt from his mistakes. But it has all been a little ad-hoc; nobody taught me these skills. I have no Certificate in Office Management. Yet dealing with these issues is so very crucial to the successful performance of any practice. If your HR is poor you are likely to have a toxic atmosphere in the office and you will eventually be tied up in a succession of tribunal claims.
If you don’t understand anything about IT but just hire somebody that does, you may find that before long you are completely out of the loop and the IT person is effectively managing the office. So should we think a little bit more about the mechanics of good management when training new lawyers? Is it simply enough to teach them the law? Many lawyers will run a mile from the responsibility of management. But many, as they become more experienced, will be drawn into the senior leadership teams of their firms. Good management is the key to running a successful legal practice. No matter how many wonderful lawyers you have, if they are not part of a successfully managed firm the practice will, sooner or later, fail. Legal education is much spoken of at the moment and there are changes afoot. Now is a great time to address the issue: we need to start teaching lawyers to be managers