The Business Side Of The Legal Profession With Lisa Dawson 

August 1, 2018
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LBL Lisa Dawson | Business Of Legal Profession

 

Unthought of by many, there is business to every profession. In this episode, Lisa Dawson of LJD Management talks about helping legal professionals with the business side of things. She mentions providing advisory services to law firms and law firm leaders who are struggling to identify how to solve issues and concerns. Lisa shares her insights on how to mitigate risks and why it is important to integrate new strategies and technologies to help ease the workload in the office.

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Listen to the podcast here:

The Business Side Of The Legal Profession With Lisa Dawson

I have Lisa Dawson from Vancouver. What does she do? She works with law firms to be able to help them with the business of law. Lisa, thank you for being on the show. How are you?

I’m very good, Ben. Thanks for having me here.

Let me set the stage. What we do is we try to find out what do you do. What's special? What's unique? What's interesting that you do in a special way that you communicate with your customers? They understand your value, they understand not only what you do but why you do it and how it benefits them. Let's talk about LJD Management. Let's talk about what you do? Who you do it for? Tell me your story, about the company, and yourself.

LJD Management is the name of the company. Essentially, I provide advisory service to law firms and to law firm leaders who either know they have an issue, concern, or improvement that they wish to make but don't know how to get there. They don't know what it is that they need and they need a look under the hood. I usually start my conversations with law firm leaders whether they be sole practitioners or one of many partners with the conversation, “What keeps you up at night?” I’m trying to see if they can articulate what it is that’s important to them to either relieve themselves hands-on. Move them away from the management of the day-to-day or the project or whatever it might be that is keeping them up at night. How to get it resolved whether it be in technology issues, people issues, profitability issues or compliance issues.

Some firms have called me up because they know that they've got to trust in it coming up. For those of you that have ever encountered an audit of any kind, it’s a bit daunting when you have the expert come in and start rifling through your accounts. It's trying to discern what it is that law firm leaders need. Sometimes it's one thing and it ends up being another. Sometimes their concern is a symptom, it's not exactly the problem. It's about chatting, getting to know, putting them at ease that my 23 years plus of law firm administrator experience, primarily in small firms. Small firms allowed me to wear many hats. I've got the finance profitability side under my belt.

I've got the Law Society compliance and what's happening in the industry in terms of regulation top of mind. I've got law firm marketing and social media experience and most importantly the people side. The human resources from recruitment to termination and all their workflow in between. I have to say with all the hats I wear, my strengths lie in operations and the workflow and what it takes to be more efficient to be better at profitability. To keep the people happier, that are your employees and that's my strengths, the HR side. I've been doing it for over 23 years. Prior to that, I did have a previous life outside of the legal industry in hospitality management. Managing people for another fifteen years prior to that is where my Human Resources skills came from.

We're talking to small medium-sized businesses. They're experts in what they do, they’re lawyers. They spend a lifetime learning about the law, talking about the law, educating themselves about the law. When it comes to running a business, that's not what they do, that's not what their expertise is. I'm sure like any other type of business, they can get in trouble quickly for not understanding the things that they need to know to keep their business going. It's the operation initials, it’s the human resources issues. It's the law society issues. I'm sure those things creep up every single day within the legal profession as they do in other professions. Having somebody that can be there, that can help them on a consulting basis has real value.

One of the things that sets me apart that's more valuable to the law firm leaders, as I refer to the partners and the sole practitioners, is I leave tools behind. I leave my checklist. I leave informational sheets or instruction sheet. I'm hands-on. For that, it's not prescribed philosophy that I'm chatting about or talking with the members of the firm. It's practical application and that's what sets me apart from others in my space. It's not unique to have individuals do what I do. What is different is I do care for the legal industry and the offices that have many dedicated people working hard. I make their lives easier, that's the bottom line. I make their lives easier and for the law firm owners, make them more profitable. Every decision has that component to it.

It is helping them succeed in the long term. Once you've completed your task, once you've gone through the process and you've helped them do what they do, you walk up the door and let them go on with their businesses. You gave them the tools that they succeeded. You haven't fished for them. You've taught them how to fish.

In a current contract, I can relate the fact I wasn't looking for issues or problems. By the way, I move into a firm and do a business analysis and go through the operations, I find things by happenchance. It's satisfying being able to either work with something that is of a challenge to them. You're finding a way to move them through to the next level or alternatively find things by happenchance or by the design that I moved into the role. When I come in in operations, I have a methodology that I go through. If I do find something that hasn't been discussed then, “All the better.” These tools that I can leave law firms with, help them go through. I refer them to mostly checklist. It’s not as intense as an audit but certainly, it's a list of questions that I have to ask the firm. How they set up their workflow for checks and balances, for security, to mitigate risk. That's what sets me apart.

You have a checklist when you walk into any client's office. You have a series of checklists and say, “Let's take a look at you operationally. Let's take a look at you from a human resources point of view. Let's take a look at you from a compliance standpoint.” You'll have checklists to say, “Have you done this?” I'm sure that probably opens up some uncomfortable conversations and some major holes at times. The trick is how do you mitigate that when you all of a sudden were brought in to do one thing and you open up this can of worms that nobody was expecting existed?

Fresh eyes from the outside does miles for all businesses. Click To Tweet

Sometimes, I have to focus on what was the original intent. What brought me there in the first place, rather than saying, “This is what I found, how do we go about it?” Certainly the priorities from here, the priorities of the law firm leaders, leaving them with a little fat to chew on, doesn't hurt. Rome wasn't built in a day. Not everything that comes out of the audit or the checklist, is tackled right then and there. Sometimes I've even been brought back when they see the implication of their workflow not leading to perhaps the best outcome. We chat about it a little bit later down the road.

You could assess whether your brakes have failed. It's a little sticky but it's not a big deal. It is something you should address in the next couple of years. It's not a 911 problem. You're able to help people prioritize the things that they should be focusing on.

Particularly when it comes to lease agreements, being alive to the fact when things renew and perhaps sometimes it's a five-year lease. We've got some time to think about it. That's the thing that I'm talking about. If it's in your face though and you're battling it every day, you’ve got to do something about it.

We all have those issues that all of a sudden we can't figure out why are we having this problem? Why does it keep hitting us in the head? Sometimes it takes somebody from the outside looking in to sit there and say, “There's the pain point right there.”

You hit it on the nose there because fresh eyes from outside, it does miles for all businesses to have a third party take a look and be right there. For me, I do work with a lot of other third parties. I'm not a technology specialist, I'm certainly not an accountant. When I see something that isn't working and I know what has been the resolve with other firms, I'll bring in an outside person, a third party person.

That's the role of a good consultant to sit there and say, “This is my expertise, this is not my expertise.” Either I'll work with someone you're already using or I have people within my Rolodex that we can bring in to work on this particular problem. It's not having the fact that you have to own every single problem. You have to be aware of what the issue is, you have to be able to articulate. On the other hand, you may not have the expertise. In a lot of cases, none of us have the expertise to do it, but we know people who do have that expertise. To be able to take that problem and run with it. There's some real value in that.

I recall in many of my contracts, one of the most interesting things is getting to know the people in the operation. Working in small law firms which is my sweet spot. You'd be surprised at the knowledge and information that you can get by interviewing everybody in the firm. As a law firm leader, it's hard to be on the ground and know what's going on. Who's suffering from what pain point or who knows the answer to something but doesn't have or hasn't thought about bringing it up to management or isn't in that committee. Sometimes it's talking to everybody to get the real dig on what the problem, what the core issues are. Better yet, the ideas that come from collaboration is amazing. It's kudos to any business that promotes committees from within their own business to help problems.

The more people I can talk to within the organization, the more open that conversation is, and the more things you discover. Nobody keeps all the information, nobody has all the information at their fingertips. Sometimes the principle of the company thinks they do. There are things that go on in the day-to-day workings, the phone calls that get answered, and the day-to-day stuff that people deal with. They don't tell other people, they deal with them. There could be major sticky points that these people know about, but they don't feel that they have to mention, “This is all, take care of it.”

Even worse is when something has been allowed to be ignored for long period of time people don't bring it up anymore, they live with it. Whether that be a technology glitch, whether that be a human relations issue, it doesn't matter. That's the worst-case scenario because then you don't know you have an issue, it's sort of underground and festering. For that, I would say that added to my checklists or incorporated into the things that I look at. That interviewing everybody within the firm to, “What's the best part of this place? What are your challenges?” It's enlightening. I love it, it's never the same twice.

They’re those little things that fester, that cause companies to either go out of business or lose an enormous amount of money. All of a sudden, there are staff turnovers and people don't understand why. Files are not as profitable as they should be or there are a hundred different things that should be happening that aren’t. It can be little minute things that if they could be fixed could make the company extremely profitable or a lot more profitable. Those are the things that internal people because they've lived with it or they ignore it. They're not going to talk about it. Having somebody from the outside come in and say, “What about that?” That helps companies get better and that's a real value. I can see that being a real value provided.

Sometimes the issues have brought to light are numbered one to ten. It's all about creating a plan around those. I don't necessarily have to stick around to be the implementation specialist. Sometimes the implementation specialist is in one area. It doesn't matter to me, I'm there to provide a service of getting people on track even if they've got projects that have lapsed. Bringing somebody in to initiate them, coordinate them, follow them through, beholden to deadlines and make it happen.

LBL Lisa Dawson | Business Of Legal Profession

Business Of Legal Profession: The ideas that come from the collaboration is amazing. It's kudos to any business that promotes committees from within their own business to help problems.

 

We've talked around the issue. Let's talk about specific to the issue. What are some key things that would cause businesses to want to call you? What are the hurt points that companies would be facing and they would realize and they would sit there go, “Something is not right, better call Lisa.”

In this day and age, it doesn't matter what business you're in, you're trying to create a lean machine. It's typically when everybody's busy and they know that they need to make an office move or renovation, a merger, an expansion, rebranding or name any change. Let's not forget technology, let's not forget bringing in a document management system moving to the cloud. How about a new telephone system. It doesn't matter what it is operationally. You don't have the bandwidth normally in a small law firm or small business to have someone with bandwidth in the firm to do that.

You can't do any of those things off the side of your desk.

To your point, in a nutshell, lack of bandwidth, not enough bench strength to pull off moving your windows folder structure into a document management system, how to go paperless. All the different projects I would say would be part and parcel of why I parachute in. I've done many recruiting efforts that have ended up being more than recruiting. They've been more to do with human resources management and setting up policies and procedures. Working with individuals in the firm to improve retention. Sometimes, it starts down one path such as lawyer succession planning.

That is often morphed into operations improvement. The actual firm is in a better position two or three years down the road for the sole proprietor to consider transitioning away from. Sometimes it starts off as one thing but it ends up as another. I get my hands dirty, it doesn't matter what it is but you have fun doing it. I love collaborating with people, especially people who are interested in moving through their issues and moving through change. They don't know what it is going to be like, they don't know what it's going to take but they're appreciative of being able to get through it.

You touched from one thing about your standard operating procedures. Do you find that they're lacking in most companies?

In terms of articulating them, yes. The standard operating procedures are the way we've always done it. That's our standard operating procedure. That's definitely the norm.

You find that they're not codified in a lot of companies. I find that you bring in a new employee, someone goes on back leave for six months, there's been an upheaval and they need to bring in temp staff. Chaos ensues because a lot of the knowledge in the company is between the ear lobes of the person who's no longer there. Whether that be for a day, a week, a month or a year. It must be challenging to all of a sudden be in a position where, “How do we do this?”

There's never an end to that. There's never an end into those kinds of surprises when someone resigns or someone goes on that leave, even the vacation of three weeks is a tough one.

That can cause all sorts of chaos if they're the only person in the company that does payroll. All of a sudden that person's gone for three weeks can create extreme chaos.

Much of my work is centered around mitigating risk for businesses. On a human side, those resources are valuable and it's all about creating some backup system. It's not telling your members that they're dispensable. It’s saying, “We want to support you so that you can go away for your vacation. Come back and not have 250 emails to contend with.” That's a simple example of a checklist item in terms of mitigating risk and figuring out what to do about it.

As a leader, you'd be surprised at the knowledge and information that you can get by interviewing everybody in the firm. Click To Tweet

Do you advocate a lot of cross-training?

Yes, I do a lot of that. In order to do that successfully, there has to be standardized practices. That's tough. Even with technology using whether it be a document management system or time billing system or even Outlook for email everybody uses it in a slightly different way. That's something I met with and I'm meeting with all the time. How can we best create a uniform way of working here that allows individuals some flexibility but allows the support staff to be able to be interchangeable and cover each other? It's not easy. I don't work with cookie-cutter solutions. There are some best practices and from my experience over 23 years in this specific space. From my experience tool kit, things that will lead me in one direction or another. I'm always keeping the people top of mind. What is the culture here all about? How can we make it work here?

You may have ideas of how changes need to progress within a company. Until you get into the company and you roll up your sleeves and see how they do business, those perceptions can change. They can change in a heartbeat. Every company has to be managed in the fact that, “You're different from company X, was different company Y, different from company Z.” Each one has their own particular way of doing things. How do we help you and your people be as efficient as you can based on your culture, your brand, your philosophy and the people that you have within the office?

I have to say entering in this space, I'm talking a small segment of a law firm community. The demographics were similar from firm to firm. It's busted wide open. It used to be that the partners would move on to their retirement golden years at 65. Some of them planned for 60 and couldn't wait. You've got partners and employees that are from 21 to 71 under the same roof and a broad spectrum of demographics in terms of cultural backgrounds and richness. The things that used to work a long time ago have changed and some of it for the better. Others, it's sometimes it's difficult to get everybody on the same page. Somebody that's been working 30 years doing the same old same old. You've got some newbies coming in saying, “When can I do this?” The plan is a bit more long-term for them to be doing one thing to learn it well. My clientele has changed dramatically.

It's probably more interesting because of that.

In some ways, having a blend of demographics meaning ages and ethnic groups. Look about the women, we've got women lawyers. In my opinion from my experience, it helps provide the perspective that the firms need women in leadership, help provide a different perspective on the day-to-day on the human element and it's the way it is.

It's diversity in general. The more diverse a firm is, the more different thoughts and points of view that they're drawing from. Better that they can support their clientele. I'm a firm believer whether it's law firms, accounting firms any type of company. The more diverse your board of directors is, the more diverse their viewpoints are. The better you can serve your actual audience and there’s truth to that.

All our audience to that note has changed as well. Look at Vancouver, it behooves our firms to promote a diverse group of individuals to better serve our clients, for sure.

Let me ask you one last question. When you walk out the door of a meeting and you get in your car and you drive away, what's the one thing you want people to think about Lisa and LJD management when you're not in the room?

I'd like to think that they've had an authentic communication with me. That they feel a good sense of trust and integrity and how I'm going about working with them. That I've left them with something that they didn't know before. I certainly always, regardless of whether I end up having a contract with a law
firm or not, enjoy the conversation and always try and leave something on the table for them. It's my passion. Maybe I'm a glutton for punishment but it is the industry bit. I have the knowledge in and I love to share it.

It's being able to add those little bits of value and always sit there and be focused on the client. If you're focused on the client and focused on the client's needs, everybody wins. Lisa, you've been an absolutely wonderful guest and I'm going to say goodbye to everybody and I'll be right back.

Thank you, Ben.

I hope you found that as interesting as I did. Lisa is full of energy. She's wonderful and she works with her clients to understand what makes them different and helps provide unique solutions that are going to make them more efficient.

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About Lisa Dawson

LBL Lisa Dawson | Business Of Legal ProfessionAs a law firm owner, what keeps you up at night? According to my informal survey, 87% of the time the answer lies in your Business Operations. With over 20 years law firm administrator experience, I can help you sleep while I go to work: listening, communicating, learning, teaming, finding, solution building, championing, testing, adjusting, implementing, organizing and smiling.

My 10 professional guiding rules:

  • Strong Leadership: To partner with law firm stakeholders; define a vision that facilitates, guides, and mentors individuals and groups towards that vision.
  • Communication: Both verbally and in writing, messages are crafted to be understood. Understanding the essence and subtleties of communication leads to engagement and success.
  • Resource Utilization: Effectively work with your greatest cost centre, human talent. Also financial and client data. An analysis of financial resources helps us build a plan and achieve organizational objectives.
  • Conceptual Skills: Identify and analyze situations and problems such that viable solutions are found.
  • Professional Community Focus: Membership and involvement with industry associations is high on my business development checklist.
  • Results-Oriented: I partner with firm leaders to plan and establish courses of action for successful outcomes.
  • Systems Thinking: Alive to the interdependence of organizational systems and stakeholder needs, I consider the “whole” in the formulation of solutions.
  • Team Focus: Strive to understand perspectives of team members, synthesize with my own expertise, and presenting a convincing point of view, aids to resolve conflicts and build trust.
  • Time Management: My work considers a conscious control over the amount of time spent on specific personal and group activities, especially to increase effectiveness, efficiency and productivity.
  • Mastery of Change: I encourage acceptance of new initiatives and champion the implementation process among team members.
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