Remember that book “101 uses for a dead cat?” Despite being a cat lover (I have four) I found it funny. What I find less funny is what is happening to large numbers of personal injury lawyers at the moment. Yes, of course there are some bad PI lawyers, as there are bad apples in every barrel. But the majority of PI lawyers are good people, who trained hard, have years of experience and simply want to get people who are hurt and injured their fair due.
I know this because I have worked with personal injury lawyers for well over a decade – as sole practitioners, as boutiques, within High Street practices, at medium sized regional firms and at the largest national firms. I even spent a number of years supporting APIL during its formative years. And I have tried my very best to help them adapt to the changes in the personal injury market (since the original claims farmers came on the scene, through document automation, the removal of Legal Aid and right up to commoditisation) as well as to the current fast changing post-ABS legal market. It’s been tough.
And now I usually decline to work with PI lawyers. Because it’s just too sad to see what often happens. It goes something like this:
- Their work flow starts to dry up and fees go down
- They work harder and harder to earn less and less
- Their partners get impatient and start implementing “cost cutting” measures – and apply more pressure
- Work sources continue to get more expensive and the flow of instructions dwindles further
- They try to develop niches and adopt more efficient practices
- Their partners lose patience
- The personal injury team is annexed
As a business strategy consultant, I understand the need to take hard commercial decisions. And I applaud those who have the commercial strength to grasp the nettle – too many firms let the “PI department problem” fester and worsen and leech profit from better performing teams. But I also ask to see a little moral courage too – to consider some of the other options before ruthlessly pulling the plug on those loyal and often long serving colleagues.
It just seems a rather tragic waste of good lawyers. Think of all that money spent in recruiting, developing and promoting those people – gone to waste. Think of all that skill and experience – gone to waste. Think of their fit with your firm’s culture and their commitment to your practice – not an easy thing to find – gone to waste.
I think too of the clients – ultimately they might have only the faceless, mindless efficiency of a law factory that speaks only through a call centre, treats them as a number (if they meet profitability targets) and possibly provides less than great legal advice.
So rather than simply throwing out your “dead” PI lawyers, think about some other uses for them:
Give the PI lawyers a break. Rather than beat them up, pull their resources and try to get them to conform to the template established for other legal teams, give them a real chance to come up with a properly prepared business plan and marketing strategy. Let them explore different ways of generating and delivering their legal work. Let them evaluate niche strategies and let them explore a significantly lower cost base operation using a stunningly different business model. Let them get whatever help they need from the relevant internal or external experts. Give them the benefit of some dedicated senior management time to explore the issues and find creative solutions. Give them some time to develop a new lease of life. Once they have had this chance, let the Board decide whether they are prepared to invest. If they have worked through the numbers and explored every possible angle and found the business case doesn’t work, chances are that they will have found a different way to earn their keep. Many firms lack a proper process for research and development for new markets and services – the PI team can be the pioneers.
Assuming that your PI practice hasn’t existed entirely on bought in cases through referral fees, they will have a variety of good links with people in the market – medical experts, accident experts, insurers, local businesses, consumer groups, occupational groups, unions, special interest groups, charities and so on. Whilst these relationships have been considered purely from a PI perspective, might they also have some value if considered from a broader viewpoint? Relationship management is the life blood of any professional firm. Might those PI lawyers play a valuable role in redirecting their attention with those existing relationships to see what other needs and value they might find? How about positioning themselves to pick up the PI cases that are not served well by the law factories? Or dealing with professional negligence cases that have been served poorly by them?
Many firms will simply do the calculations for a redundancy agreement and wave goodbye to their PI lawyers. Leaving them to sort out for themselves where – if anywhere – they go next. It would be kinder – and potentially more profitable – to find a way to negotiate a deal with another firm who might take the entire PI team – lawyers and current cases – where they can make it work more efficiently due to their greater focus on the market and their more significant investment in case management and/or work generation. Negotiating a “transfer” deal such as this will preserve the relationship with those PI lawyers and may even net the firm some sort of payment in return. Alternatively, if the PI lawyers are happier to live with lower margins than the rest of the partnership, how about helping them to set up as a separate unit somewhere – passing back anything that is beyond their scope as personal injury lawyers.
Most firms have well developed human resources facilities who know the strengths and weaknesses of each lawyer. They’ll know which lawyers are good at people management, technology, knowledge management, training, administration, change management, marketing, business development, pitching, speeches and so on (and if you don’t know this about your people, then you should!). You are likely to have other legal departments which are held back for lack of those very skills. Or that may be compromised if they don’t develop the necessary skills in areas likely to be increasingly in demand in the future – for example, project scoping, project management, negotiation and pricing – and your PI lawyers could be trained up in these. How many of your existing lawyers in other teams are not seizing new business development opportunities because they lack the time to do so? How could you earn new and additional revenues through clever deployment of knowledge management that would succeed if given the relevant legal skills to develop? Couldn’t the PI lawyers provide extra capacity either to take on the low end work to release the seniors in other teams or do the bulk of the work in generating the new business? Couldn’t PI lawyers be redeployed into those other areas rather than shown the door?
PI folk are litigators. Usually with excellent litigation skills. They are also pretty good at managing long term relationships. Can’t they be retrained to provide litigation services in another part of the practice? Yes, it will take a bit of time for them to learn the ropes and get up to speed. Yes, their fees may take a hit for a while. But given time they can become valuable members of a different legal team. In one firm we harnessed the significant knowledge of some PI lawyers to make a focused attack on a specific element of the insurance industry. It worked. From consumer PI services to commercial insurance sector legal services. A good result.
Everyone in the legal market is having to get to grips with new business models and new ways of working. Why can’t the re-use rather than rejection of personal injury lawyers be the starting point for considering this in a structured, sensible and sensitive way? After all, it’s the personal injury lawyers leaving in droves today – who knows what type of lawyer will be on their way out tomorrow?
PS I’d like to thank the senior lawyer (formerly a top PI lawyer) for feeding me scrummy cupcakes whilst persuading me to commit these thoughts to paper/screen.