Daniel Hickey – operations director at PLS Solicitors – asks: A Big Firm Approach to a Small Law Firm?

I joined PLS Solicitors last July as operations director. PLS is small: around 100 staff and offices in Manchester and central London. Traditional in the general sense that most staff, including its two MDs (both, like me, from larger firms – in their cases Eversheds, and Pannone LLP), are fee earners. But not high street: its clients are national, and it specialises - in all things property, and litigation and insolvency. It’s just small(ish), or perhaps I should say niche.

My previous roles - in legal process design and implementation and operations generally, though usually also requiring my property lawyer hat - have been in large firms. Not magic circle or international, but well known SRA law firms (Pannone LLP, Irwin Mitchell LLP) and the largest mover conveyancer (MyHomeMove).

Probably over the last 15 years, and more so following the Legal Services Act 2007, larger law firms became more interested in big business methodologies such as 6 Sigma and Lean processing, and many non-lawyer personnel were brought into legal operations. I’ve viewed this deliberate trend partly with typical lawyer cynicism and partly with excitement as I inherently like careful legal process efficiency. But if an area of law, say conveyancing, isn’t ready for true Lean processing - all stakeholders must be involved for it to truly work, and a property agent or client can ruin your lean ideals if an anxious client insists on a phone call every day - then arguably you’re not at an advantage in a larger firm in this respect. However, I doubt that I would have been exposed to these important concepts in a smaller firm and there are certainly high level elements you can apply across most legal processes. I’ve recently discovered it’s much easier to do that in a small firm without the large firm change by committee approach.

Large firms strive for consistent processes, viewing it almost as essential. I wonder if there are pros and cons? Consumer clients especially can want differing types or levels of service. Then larger firms may look to become more sophisticated by providing differing offerings to their differing clients. But maybe the smaller firm is flexible anyway by default and due to a lack of regimentation. Also I haven’t experienced a firm where, despite its size, the personalities providing the service haven’t mattered. Try to commoditise a property process to the hilt, but Mr Buyer still wants a relationship with his own dedicated conveyancer. If that area of law is still so much about the individual personalities, does a larger firm have an advantage? Arguably not, on that issue at least.

Do larger firms care more about the processes and systems and less about the people? Or is that an inevitable consequence of having more people and more systems? Does a smaller firm have to care more about its people? Does a larger firm stifle good people or do good people feel happier and more valued in a well organised business with solid systems and structure? No doubt it depends on the circumstances. Good staff may well enjoy a smaller firm, where they are, or perhaps feel closer to the business decision making, and perhaps may have a more varied role.

A large firm has the infrastructure to look after all areas of the business, including the business itself, and I can easily imagine some smaller firms always putting the law first and business second. Large firm systems help ensure that everyone is properly trained, monitored and supervised, that every piece of work is timed and accounted for, and are consistent, well produced, and accurate. Any departures from house styles, quality, and service levels are found out. Paradoxically, you can’t hide in a big firm.

So what, with my “big firm experience”, do I bring to this smaller firm?

Lots if we want to become big. And if we want to stay small? So far: more case management workflow; an IT developer (but with me having first dibs – and thankfully no IT ticketing system yet); internal MI and visibility; the ability to walk across the smaller floors and see real time performance at a glance - call stats, conversion rates, client feedback.

To follow: targets with incentives, ongoing formal performance management; continual competition nurturing; appropriate process consistencies; and so on. But I wonder if there’s a threshold where the systems must be contained to prevent them taking over this small firm’s identity and personalities. I also bring the confidence and comfort that the large firms don’t always have all the answers and don’t always execute their ideas well.

And what will I leave behind? Hopefully, the wastage and consequent cynicism which I’ve sometimes encountered from grand HR initiatives as well as wieldy appraisal processes and the like. I’m hoping we’ll bring only the intended benefits, more sensitively and accurately.