The dynamics of managing a 21st century law firm is constantly evolving. While there are certain fundamentals and parameters for measuring the success of a modern law firm, there are also clearly defined characteristics that determine a firm’s growth and development in a highly competitive legal market – these can be established via its structure and practice management.
Modern practice management is currently influenced by market realities, firm orientation & culture, vision, structure, leadership and business development. It also addresses strategic growth and developmental policies – all in a bid to become effective internally and more competitive in the marketplace.
With this paradigm shift, commercial lawyers have embraced strategic business models required to give them a competitive edge in the market and take their legal business to the next level. To this end, practice management has been institutionalised, so that administrative, organisational, supervisory and other management roles in top commercial law firms are being handed over to non-legal professionals. This includes experts in business, admin, Human resources, Accounting, Taxation, etc.
In this interview with THEODORA KIO-LAWSON, Lanre Odeyinka, Practice Administrator at Babalakin & Co. speaks about the dynamics of law firm management and the evolving role of an administrator.
Q: Tell us about managing a Nigerian law firm and a large one like Babalakin & Co.
A: The law firm I manage has 3 offices in Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. We have about 60 lawyers, some 10 youth corpers and about 30 or so interns both from Law school and other law faculties who end up with us from time to time in a year, not to talk of the 40 or so support staff.
By any measure this is a large organization to manage and you have to take into account that you are dealing with lawyers who are very opinionated people by professional orientation and also easily irritable. To be able to deal with them as my own personal experience has shown, you have to be on top of your game. You have to be very conversant with trends in the industry over and above sound administrative principles that must apply. I am fortunate to be working with a management that gets this and that has encouraged my continued professional development and that also invests very heavily in technology. This is how I have been managing the firm.
Q:What are some of the rising trends in the legal profession?
A:That is an interesting question. The legal profession has changed markedly in the last 25 or so years. Once upon a time we had the legal profession where essentially one lawyer did everything from commercial to chieftaincy to lands to human rights and so on. Today, the emphasis is on specialization because the economy is opening up. If you look back 25 years, we did not have a telecommunications sector, we had just NITEL. 25 years ago, we did not have an electricity sector, we had just NEPA. 25 years ago we did not have broadcasting sector we had just NTA and Radio Nigeria. That is changing because of privatization and liberalization. To this end, we are having to develop legal skills to cater for these emerging sectors.
Globally, the emphasis is less about the local firm and the solo lawyer, and more about the international law firm, and so you are seeing a lot of mega mergers between huge law firms across the globe, so the idea of the “local bar” in some sense is disappearing.
The philosophy now appears to be ‘big is better’ and I suspect this is where the Nigerian law firms will be in the foreseeable future. It’s just a matter of time and it is already even happening. Also non-legal entities are now being allowed to offer legal services in some jurisdictions. Take Tesco in the UK as example. In some sense, tradition is giving way to modernity. Rules, laws and guidelines around the legal profession are being tweaked to accommodate these realities. Another example, law firms are now able to advertise in jurisdictions that did not allow this in the past. The law firm is looking more business-like and less professional and competition is bound to be stiffer and only efficiently run law firms will survive.
Q:How did you get into the profession? What was the catch for you?
A:I guess it was my fascination for the legal profession and also the fact that my husband is in the profession. That notwithstanding, I found real passion and drive working with this set of highly intellectual and equally driven individuals. The experience has been well worth it for me.
Q:Is there any real value in having a Practice Manager, considering the cost implication for a law firm?
A:From my previous answer you will see that I said legal practice traditionally is a profession, today it is a business that needs to be tended to, developed, grown, sustained and passed to the next generation. You require special skills for this, not the same skills that you use to win your cases in court. Just the same way you have engineering principles, just the same way you have accounting principles, just the same way you have legal principles is very much the same way you also have business administration principles on how to manage man and materials.
So for a lawyer who barely has time outside the client he is servicing and does not have any training in business principles, a Practice Manager or if you like, as it styled in my own firm, an Office Administrator is very desirable to help organize his business while he concentrates on servicing his clients.
You have to realize that the legal business is a service industry. Lawyers barely have time for themselves. It will surprise you to note that in average law firm lawyers work nearly 24/7. Sometimes they sleep in the office. They meet impossible deadlines and this leaves them with literarily no time to monitor the health of their own business.
Q: I am aware that there is an Association of Law Practice Managers in Nigeria. What are the objectives of such a body?
A: We feel the time has come for us practice managers to come together to exchange and share experiences and feedback in a way that allows us to improve and sharpen our skills. I suspect I am probably the longest around. When I entered this business about 14 years ago, I was pretty much at sea on where to start from because whilst it existed outside Nigeria, it was a new concept in Nigeria, there was no role model to approach but I got a lot of support from my management and since I was a Chartered Secretary and an MBA holder it all came together for me preparing manuals and developing policies, procedures and processes. I had also had a stint in the UK in a managerial position. I realized that not everyone would necessarily have a business background. For such people, they need not go through what we went through so part of what the association hopes to achieve is to provide guidance and support for new entrants. A lot of people have shied away from interesting job offers as Practice Managers just because the job description is seemingly not clearly definable. I have to say that it feels good to be working with like- minded people in this new association as we are determined to make it work. Presently there are quite a lot of things we are looking at to help move the legal business in Nigeria forward and at the right time the public would know.
Q:What is the intensity that comes with practice management and what sort of skills are required for this role?
A:From what I have seen, each firm seems to have a specific role for its Practice Manager based on things like the structure and size of the firm and the vision of the Partners. But I think managing resources remains at the core of the job description.
It is very tempting for this reason to say that you need a business qualification. In my own case while that has helped, it is not necessarily a criterion. I know of some of my colleagues that were formerly bankers. I also know of others who trained as lawyers while others did humanities in school. They have all brought immense value to their various firms.
In the end, you must realize that this is about managing man and materials and you must be very efficient, very sound and very familiar with business principles and the legal industry irrespective of your background.
Lanre is a Chartered Secretary and member Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators, United Kingdom. She has served in various managerial roles and currently, Office Administrator of the law firm of Babalakin & Co., a position she has held for 14 years.