From good to great: how boutique firms can stand out from the crowd in 2023

When Tom Wormald, managing director at Quill, presented ‘Boutique Law Firm of the Year’ at Modern Law’s awards ceremony, he found himself asking what makes a ‘great’ law firm stand out from the crowd.
A smiling Black man wearing a navy suit, white shirt and blue tie accepts an award in front of an applauding crowd.

Award-winning greatness

Legal awards exist to showcase ‘greatness’ in law. But greatness means different things to different people, even if in very subtle ways.

Even so, most people would agree that one facet of greatness is continuity.

After all, you can't be great for one day each year and good for the remaining 364. Your business model should be capable of achieving and sustaining greatness day in, day out.

When judging for the Modern Law Awards, we looked for demonstrable exceptional performance in strategy, growth, financial results, employee development, diversity and training, client care and professionalism.

Greatness, then, is something that’s manifested across the board: both client-facing and behind the scenes.

Let’s not forget regulatory compliance either.

Law is a heavily regulated sector, so it’s a given that great firms must comply with legal accounting rules, data protection legislation, anti-money laundering regulations and other governing principles.

Finally, greatness can be copied. What you do great today can be emulated by those aspiring to the same high standards.

Stand still for long enough and prepare to be usurped by your competitors, even in the niche marketplace where most boutique law firms choose to reside.

Spotlighting boutiques

With the interpretation of greatness now a little clearer, let’s look closer at boutiques.

To be great, you must be able to compete effectively with multi-practice counterparts who service clients across all business functions outside of your own specialism.

That’s no mean feat – especially as many boutique firms are much smaller, with less internal resource and a prospect base narrowed by operating in specific areas only.

Interestingly, narrowing down your prospect base may seem counterproductive when market share is at stake.

In fact, the opposite is true. A focused prospect base allows you to:

  • segment and target your audience with pinpoint precision
  • find and recruit the right talent renowned for their unrivalled prowess in your specialisms
  • provide the highest quality services that bring repeat and referral instructions
  • assume a lead position in your corner of the market

The combination of these factors can help secure the move from being a ‘good’ boutique law to becoming ‘great’ when measured against your counterparts.

Being a competitive force to be reckoned with, by using a unique combination of strategic and tactical plans, is what empowers your business to survive and thrive in today’s challenging legal marketplace.

Boutique law firms within the wider industry

More generally, boutique firms are similar to many other business types in that they have a product (legal services with people and technology to deliver that service) and customers (receiving legal advice).

In some ways, I can parallel law firms with Quill.

We have a range of products, namely practice and case management, and legal accounting software at one level, through to outsourced legal cashiering, payroll, typing and post room services at the next level.

Our entire solution portfolio is designed to make our clients’ lives easier and their processes more efficient in parallel to law firms' striving for happy clients and sustainable turnover.

So, is the greatest boutique law firm one which has the best people?

Is it the one which uses clever technology and outsourcing support the most effectively to perfect its legal service delivery?

Is it the one with the best internal processes and smartest methods of operating?

In fact, it’s none of these in isolation. Greatness is well-rounded and is the combination of these elements… and more.

Team spirit as a winning force

The ‘more’, in my opinion, is a huge dose of spirit.

Distilling this spirit must start with the leadership team, within which there needs to be a culture of trust, openness and honesty.

In striving for overall greatness, it helps to understand people’s different characteristics and how they interact to make an award-winning firm.

Individuals possess different technical skills, mindsets and traits. You can find information about identifying the characteristics of your team on the Training Rock website.

When it comes to your next recruitment at the top table, decide which characteristics are best for your team to get the balance right and engender strong team working.

Business guru Jim Collins likens strong leadership teams with getting the right people in the right seats on the bus. Doing so takes time.

With your senior leaders in situ, you’re ideally positioned to set out your goals and share them with your entire practice so everyone understands the part they play in getting there.

You may wish to communicate your objectives annually at your AGM, and continually appraise and reward your staff of progress towards set milestones at regular bimonthly meetups.

Your business’s goals are bespoke to you.

At Quill, ours centre around growth, product adoption, giving back to our community, customer engagement and satisfaction, and employee engagement and satisfaction.

With clear measurable goals, you can track your practice’s performance, and ascertain what's working and not working.

Of course, measuring staff buy-in, or engagement, is crucially important.

Engagement equals success

Ken Blanchard spoke about the importance of connecting the dots between individual roles and the organisation’s goals, so staff “feel the importance, dignity and meaning in their job”.

Engaged staff give you more. As a services-based business, this is pivotal to success at any law firm.

You need to know how your employees feel about what you’re doing, and consistently fine tune and hone your strategy.

One popular engagement measurement tool is Best Companies.

In achieving Quill’s rating as a two-star Best Companies employer, we’ve picked up some tips on increasing engagement along the way.

Equal opportunities, professional development and career-progression pathways, combined with having fun at work, build the strength of connection employees feel toward their work, their colleagues and your firm.

Investigate options around becoming a real living-wage employer and join the 220 firms in the legal industry who are currently accredited. If possible, use a competency salary framework to ensure that salaries are seen to be transparent and fair across all levels of your firm.

Working collaboratively ensures buy-in. Our leadership team worked with employees to revise our benefits package. We launched a benefits and wellbeing platform that can be personalised to each employee’s individual preferences.

As managing director, I meet all new starters and reinforce the company values of remaining committed, open and honest, respectful and supportive, and efficient.

Ensuring your leadership team is accessible to all staff is key to an engaged workforce.

Internal communications can be a challenge even in smaller firms. We hold company-wide ‘news, views and eats’ meetings quarterly to update staff on business and give them space to raise questions or offer views. All staff receive an allowance towards their lunch.

Staff at Quill tend to stay – the average tenure is eight years. If you look after your staff, they will look after your clients and that’s a win-win for any firm.

About Quill

Quill, the UK’s largest privately owned supplier of legal practice management software and outsourced legal cashiering services, has launched its cloud-based MyQuill software.

Developed in close collaboration with UK law firms, it offers unrivalled scalability, ease of use and value for money to all Law Society members.

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