“Be prepared to do anything and everything”: a practice manager speaks

Steve Bradley won the 2020 Practice Manager of the Year Excellence Award. He explains why he moved away from fee-earning and what a practice manager needs from lawyers to help the firm succeed. He also provides tips for applying for this year’s awards.

En empty modern office

I’m the practice manager at specialist debt recovery practice Greenhalgh Kerr (GK) in Wigan, Greater Manchester. I’ve been a practice manager (PM) for almost 10 years; for just over two at GK.

Our clients are primarily asset finance and leasing finance lenders, and local authorities.

I was a fee-earner for eight years, before moving up into a team leader role at a large firm, managing a team of a dozen solicitors and fee-earners.

After three years, I felt the next step in my career was to join a small firm as PM. Here, I could use my planning and organising skills, added to my understanding of the work lawyers and team leaders do and what a law firm needs to do to succeed. 

I enjoyed fee-earning and team leading, but I really feel at home as a PM – I enjoy making sure the day-to-day running of the practice goes as smoothly as possible and using my experience to offer input into strategic change. 

I have enjoyed operational roles in firms large and small, and found the latter to be more rewarding – I can have more of an impact, and more swiftly. I can speak to the directors in person, at any time, and get decisions made or suggestions approved.

So, what does a practice manager do?

A typical year in the life of a PM includes key milestones vital to the continuing success of the business, such as:

  • navigating the professional indemnity insurance renewal
  • demonstrating performance at the Lexcel standard to achieve renewed accreditation
  • reviewing all policies and procedures to achieve best practice and regulatory compliance

One of the great pleasures of my role is also one of its challenges – the diversity of tasks and responsibilities.

I can be:

  • seeking external advice on a query
  • responding to a recruiter
  • offering guidance to a team leader
  • collating information for a director
  • monitoring a compliance issue
  • badgering a facilities supplier
  • updating social media
  • resolving a confidential HR query
  • checking we have enough coffee and milk in the kitchen cupboard

All of this might be in one morning, on a routine day.

I also appreciate the autonomy – I’m trusted to get on with it, to prioritise then re-prioritise, and be ready for unplanned events. An experienced PM knows to expect the unexpected, because all plans for the day can be disrupted by a sudden problem.  

The responsibilities of a PM can include anything and everything – anything that must be done and everything that nobody else will do. In all my years as a PM, I haven’t yet used the phrase “that’s not my job” or “this is not in my job description”.

As the PM at another firm, I have managed pest control (setting rat traps, positioning mouse poison) and even hoovered up maggots getting into the office from an undiscovered dead body next door. I don’t recall any of these assignments being in the job description, but the reality is that the job profile must include: “be prepared to do anything and everything.” 

What do practice managers need from lawyers?

Follow the rules. Maintain compliance. Recognise that things you are asked to do that distract you from fee-earning are for the benefit of the business as a whole.

Key non-fee-earning tasks will enhance our people and the business:

  • attending training
  • supporting compliance
  • developing software
  • revising operational procedures

Such efforts add value, manage quality and protect clients. Improving client service, demonstrating improved quality controls and enhancing our people’s abilities all underpin the continuing success and profitability of the firm.

As a former fee-earner, I know the demands of managing a caseload, keeping clients happy and achieving targets. As a former team leader, I understand the pressures of handling all this whilst recruiting, motivating, developing and performance-managing a team.

I hope my professional experience helps me to be approachable, empathic and supportive of the fee-earning teams at GK.

Tips for the Excellence Awards

I was delighted to be awarded Practice Manager of the Year 2020 at the Law Society Excellence Awards.

If you are considering applying this year, ask yourself: what have I done that has made a difference to the business? By this I mean, the things that only a PM would do.

Explain your achievements and positive changes in your submission, and ensure you shine a spotlight on the benefits you have brought to the most important aspects of running a law firm – clients, compliance and profit.

Here are some examples of the evidence I provided as part of my Excellence Awards submission.

  • I designed and launched an app for staff – an exclusive cloud-storage resource library for documents, training guides and precedents. With staff having secure access to these documents, we’re supporting development of fee-earner knowledge and providing a reference resource for off-site meetings with clients and counsel. 
  • I authored new compliance policies to meet the rigorous expectations of our FCA-regulated clients and to secure our approval by the Financial Services Supplier Qualification System, used by banks and other regulated lenders. This speeds up the process by which clients can assess our compliance, then instruct us to act for them.
  • I delivered our workplace wellbeing programme, with support from an external supplier for mental health training and biometric health checks. We implemented policies supporting physical activity, mental health, healthy eating, plus advice on drinking and smoking. We’ve been assessed and accredited by the Workplace Wellbeing Charter and plan to revisit wellbeing activities when restrictions are relaxed.
  • Having reviewed our telecoms setup and overseen an update, all staff now have a mobile app to easily divert office calls to their own phone. This enables a smooth transition when working from home – particularly beneficial during the lockdowns of the last year.
Entries are now open for the Law Society Awards 2021

It’s never been more important to celebrate the outstanding work of our profession. Now more than ever, all your hard work deserves to be celebrated.

This year you can choose from 20 categories, including four new awards for 2021. The new awards are designed to showcase best practice in ethical standards, practice promotion, the rule of law and practice management.

Whether you have a high-achieving business development strategy you want to shout about or have made strides in your diversity and inclusion work, there’s a place for everyone to shine.

Find out more about the Law Society Awards 2021