Internet Newsletter for Lawyers
September/October 2006, by Delia Venables

Scott-Moncrieff Harbour and Sinclair
by Lucy Scott-Moncrieff

Scott-Moncrieff Harbour and Sinclair

There are only two things that differentiate Scott-Moncrieff, Harbour and Sinclair (Scomo),, from a conventional practice: nearly everyone works from home, and nearly everyone is self employed. Apart from that it's business as usual; we have an office manual, fee-earners are supervised and appraised and their files are reviewed regularly.......and we have office parties.

The differences arose from our desire to make a legal aid firm that was not only good for its clients but also good for its staff. Although we never could have imagined quite how tough legal aid practice would become, we could see that cutting overheads to the bone was the secret to contented partners, and giving freedom to fee-earners was the way to maximise the likelihood of long-term job satisfaction in fields of practice which are both stressful and badly paid (for lawyers).

How we work

Our main client groups are detained patients, long-term prisoners and vulnerable children and young people, most of whom cannot come into the office. Because our fee-earners (including partners) work from home, they can be close to their clients, which saves on travelling time and costs and optimises our client base: we have fee-earners in Devon, Bristol, Oxford, Berkshire, Nottingham and Manchester as well as all over Greater London. Also, because people work from home, we have no restrictions on expansion; we never have to wonder if we should rent bigger premises to expand, or whether we can cram in extra desks for more fee-earners and support staff.

Our office consists of a couple of rooms in Kentish Town, accommodating 4 support staff and 2 trainees, in a suite of serviced offices that we rent by the month (so we have no business rates or utilities to pay, and we can move at a month's notice if our circumstances warrant it). When we moved here in 2001 there were about 6 of us. Now there are about 50, and we have managed this by moving from one room in the building to two.

As far as office management is concerned, we do it by the (Law Society's) book. All the post comes into the office and is checked by a partner or delegated solicitor before being sent, faxed or scanned to the fee-earner. We have monthly unit meetings which offer an opportunity to discuss cases, keep up to date with the law and have some specific training, sometimes provided by outside professionals from other disciplines. Everyone, including any fee-earning or support assistant that a consultant may employ, has a contract with the firm requiring compliance with the office manual, which means that they are all covered by the firm's PI insurance when undertaking the firm's business. At the moment file supervision is done on paper files, randomly selected by the office and handed to the unit supervisor at the monthly unit meeting, but when our new case management system kicks in, replacing our current out-of-date one, it will be possible for the supervisors to review files on-screen, at any time. Our case management systems have always been tailor-made; our accountancy package, Lawbyte, is off the shelf.

Freedom for fee-earners means freedom from billing targets and the freedom to pursue other interests, which is achieved through self-employment. Our consultants are free to teach, sit, work for other firms (including competitors), write, advise foreign governments, garden, go to school plays, stay in bed.......... whatever. We don't (can't) have billable hours' targets, and because consultants are self-employed they are paid when they bill, so the partners are spared not only the anxiety of enforcing billing targets, but also of having to deal with cash-flow problems caused by matters not being billed.

We have ordinary conflict of interest procedures in which the office runs a check on the name of every client or interested party, and we believe that the new conflict rules make it even less likely than previously that any conflict could arise from our fee-earners doing work for competitors. Inevitably potential conflicts have arisen, but they have always been internal, as could happen in any firm, and they have always been identified and dealt with.

It may surprise people to know that neither our insurers, the Law Society nor the LSC have had any problem with this way of working. They all want to know that we have robust financial/client care/quality systems in place, but they have been very flexible as to how we provide and monitor those systems.

Getting the life balance right

Of course there is a downside for the fee-earners; no holiday pay or sick pay, no hierarchy to ascend, no office politics to enjoy (?), but we have a very low drop-out rate (and our drop-outs have been known to drop-in again), so I guess that the freedom and autonomy, as well as the friendliness and co-operation that are a feature of the firm, outweigh these financial insecurities. And, actually, there is something very satisfying in knowing that if you want more money for a particular reason (our consultants get 70% of their billed profit costs) all you have to do is work harder for a bit, rather than trying for promotion or trying to persuade your boss that you deserve a raise or a bonus. I have worked on this basis for over 25 years, and wouldn't have it any other way.

The 30% retained by the firm pays for the general overheads, including insurance, and fee-earners pay for their own overheads, including practising certificate fees and secretarial support, out of their 70%. We all use digital dictaphones which allow us to email our work to our secretaries, so fee-earners in the expensive south of England have the opportunity to use secretaries in areas where rates are lower, to the satisfaction of all parties. We tried sending our typing to India, but this way works better for us.

This method of working is particularly attractive to men and women with family responsibilities which don't all fall into evenings and weekends, but it is just as good for younger people who don't want to tie themselves down, or older people who want to have a bit more freedom at the end of their careers, shedding the responsibility of partnership and management to get back to doing what brought them into the law in the first place; working with clients.

It so happens that our work is almost entirely legal aid (probably we wouldn't have thought of it without the constraints imposed upon us by legal aid policy in recent years) but last year we opened a (non-legal aid) personal injury unit which is going great guns, and we would love to have an employment unit, particularly one that focused on discrimination issues, which are very dear to our hearts.

I can't see any real limit on this way of working, other than that provided by the number of people who would want, and would have the self-discipline, to work like this.

Um.......are there any employment lawyers out there, maybe thinking of returning to work after a career break, maybe wanting to go part-time, who would like to join us?

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff,

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