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The Dirty Word In Family Law?

I got to spend some time this afternoon having a great Sunday afternoon catch up with a colleague and friend.

Between mouthfuls of Christmas tarts, we got to talking about various law firms. She made a comment about a particular firm’s reputation as being “overly commercial”. Rather than meaning it was heavily focused on commercial law (which it is), “overly commercial” in this context meant that it was heavily engaged in budgets, forecasts and ensuring the performance of the firm. So, I instantly surmised, it is doing what it needs to do to be a successful BUSINESS but, for some reason, this business focus is seen by others in the profession as being worthy of criticism.

It got me thinking about how as family lawyers we often view the B-word (business) as unspeakable or a dirty word.

We talk of our “practices”, not our businesses. Yet that is what they are - businesses. Many of my colleagues would run screaming from a spreadsheet and rather un-jam a photocopier all day than undertake a business development strategy session. We rarely come together to discuss the challenges and stresses of running practices in a fast-changing business environment. A couple of years ago, I spoke at a family law conference about the need for change if we are to maintain viable, client focused businesses. In hindsight, it is the first time I have ever heard mention of our “businesses” at a family law conference. Yet, when I scratch below the surface and speak with colleagues, invariably they have a business concern or challenge of one sort or another.

Why is that many family lawyers struggle with the notion of being “in business” and, dare I say it, making a profit?

Some of this aversion to the b-word may have been inherited from our predecessors’ view of law being “a calling” to be of service to others. I remember, as an impressionable junior, speaking with a much older lawyer who told me that when he set up his practice it was to be of service to people. He didn’t like what he saw as the loss of this in favour of a commercial and profit focus by lawyers.

Our thinking about the value of being profit or business focused may stem from having had our own altruistic reasons for entering family law. Family lawyers don’t enter this area of law to make millions. Many of my colleagues entered family law solely out of a desire and concern to help others, particularly the vulnerable in our communities. The values they operate under are such that they may hold, often subconsciously, restrictively negative views around business and making money.

Negative connotations of “business” among family lawyers could simply arise because Business101 isn’t in the law school curriculum. Somehow, we are supposed to leave law school, able to talk at length about some man on an omnibus and a snail in a ginger ale bottle and be expected this and our other collected legal knowledge will see us through weathering the practical, financial and emotional challenges of running a business. As a result, many lawyers don’t know or understand business. It can seem hard and mysterious (and it can be, even for seasoned business people!). Many do what humans seem to be prone to doing when faced with strange, unknown things – regard it as bad and to be avoided.

Law is a profession steeped in tradition. As a result, we often have very narrow and restrictive views of how we should operate our practices. If someone steps outside the confines of “how things are done” in our businesses, they can be regarded by some as a rogue or (shudder!) “out for the money”. But what if they are simply smart and innovative? What is actually so wrong with making money or wanting to make money?

Most family lawyers value being of service in our work. We want to help our clients. But there is nothing in that which is antithetical to operating a thriving, profitable business. In fact, the success of our business is the difference between being able to offer our services to the world or not. This does not mean valuing money above all else. Nor does it mean putting profit before the people in our workplaces (indeed, to do so, isn’t smart business). It does not mean refusing cases for those who face impecunity.

Let’s not shy away from being “overly commercial” – let’s embrace being in business, our strategic planning, entrepreneurial thinking and moving outside the traditional business models.  I am increasingly seeing signs of change towards family lawyers beginning to embrace their business roles, particularly among overseas colleagues who are being entrepreneurial and applying outside-the-box thinking to their businesses. Let’s celebrate being business people because doing so allows us to be lawyers and to help others.

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