The Practice Management Directory
Links and resources for start-ups and small practices
Before you open your doors
Once you are up and running - Complying with professional obligations
Advertising and marketing your business
Keeping up to date with the law
Attending professional development
Keeping up to date with management issues
Maintaining health and well being
Before you open your doors
The Law Society publishes a Small Practice Kit (for members). It includes material (and a number of useful checklists) on establishing a practice; business planning, finance and insurance; business development and marketing; human resources; information technology; professional obligations and resources; and health, wellbeing and practice management in the event of illness or death.
Registering for tax
One of your early decisions will be about how to structure your practice. There are some financial and tax implications of a decision of this nature so you will want to get the advice of your accountant. But here are the basic options and some considerations.
For Law Society members , the Small Practice Kit also includes useful checklists and helpful advice on business structures .
Tip: Whatever structure you choose it is wise to contact the Law Society as early as possible, advise them of your intention to start a new practice. The earlier they know, the more they can help.
You will need to get your business properly registered for compliance with taxation laws. The Australian Government Business website
provides clear advice on
- the requirement for a TFN (Tax File number)
- registering for an ABN (Australian Business Number) or an ACN (Australian Company Number)
- registering for GST (Goods and Services Tax)
- registering for other taxes - for example PAYG (Pay As You Go) tax, Payroll Tax (if your business intends to employ staff), Fringe Benefits Tax, etc.
You will need to name your business. If you intend to use a name that is not your natural or corporate name you will need to register a business name with ASIC.
Tip: Before deciding on the name for your business - see what a Google Search brings up. There are some hilarious stories of Australian businesses choosing a name that means something VERY different in another language.
You may also want to register your domain name
at this early state – in order to secure it. Your domain name will be your website address on the internet (eg: www.lawfirmname.com.au ) and provide you with an email address
Registering a domain name is simple and inexpensive. There are a number of retail domain name providers. Just google ‘domain name registration’ and select one. You can then search to see if the name you want is available and, if it is, and register it on line then and there. You can also check on domain name availability at the domain name wholesaler AusRegistry.
Tip: Register your domain name early – even before you have registered your business name. (Sometimes domain names are grabbed by commercial operators as soon as they know someone else is interested.) It’s a also a good idea to know the domain name is free before you register your business name – otherwise you may find you can’t use your business name as your internet address.
It is also worth having a look on the IP Australia website
- check your preferred name or logo is not already in use
- decide if you want to register your name or logo as a trademark.
One of your early decisions is whether you intend to run a trust account. Not all law firms do. The best place to go for this advice - and for all things Trust Account - is the Law Society
. Their experienced staff know this information inside out and they are keen to help. They also have lots of trust account information on their website, publish a number of useful documents (Trust Account Handbook, Trust Account Compliant Receipt Book, Trust Account Fact Sheets), and run Trust Account workshops. For Law Society Members, the Small Practice Kit
also includes trust account information.
Tip: If you decide you are going to run a trust account buy a copy of the Trust Account Handbook early – and, if you can, attend one of the Law Society workshops BEFORE you open your doors.
Each practising lawyer in your firm will, of course, need a Practising Certificate
. An ‘incorporated legal practice’ is not itself required to hold a practising certificate.
Each lawyer (and each conveyancer) in your firm will need to be insured through the Legal Practitioners Professional Indemnity Scheme
. If your practice is an ‘incorporated legal practice’ it will also need to be insured through the Scheme.
PI insurance through the Scheme covers you for claims up to $2m (inclusive of defence costs). So, in simple terms, if you are successfully sued for more than $2m (inclusive of defence costs) you will have to pay any amount above $2m yourself. If you think a claim if that size is a possibility you may want to consider additional (or ‘top up’) insurance
Tip: If you are starting out, and are not confident about your earnings, you can apply to be treated initially as a ‘low fee earner’ (a lawyer who expects a gross income of less than or up to $30,000 per financial year) for the purposes of PI insurance. You then pay a lower premium. This of course does not restrict you to a low income. But as soon as you render bills for legal work for more than $30,000 you will need to alert the Law Society and pay the full premium (plus interest).
Limitation of Liability Scheme
Another option is to participate in the Limitation of Liability Scheme (LLS). This is not insurance. It is an optional statutory scheme that allows practitioners who are members of the Law Society to limit their liability. You will need to consider whether this is suitable
- for your firm (bearing in mind there are some exclusions to the scheme) and
- for your clients (bearing in mind that some larger clients, for example banks, will not instruct a lawyer with limited liability).
The Law Society can give you detailed advice on the LLS.
Remember that if you are participating in the LLS and your practice is an ‘incorporated legal practice’, your practice will also have to participate in the scheme. And if you have participated in, or been exempted from, the LSS through a previous employer you may need to change this for your new firm.
Now is also a good time to consider the issue of insurance more generally. If you are going to be self-employed you may like to consider income protection insurance. You may want insure your premises and contents, your vehicle, your equipment. If you are taking on employees you will need Workers Compensation insurance. You can even take out fidelity insurance to cover employee dishonesty. An insurance broker can give you the details of all of these insurances, and more, and provide a quote.
For Law Society members , the Small Practice Kit
provides useful information on insurance and includes an insurance checklist.
You know the old saying: if you fail to plan, you plan to fail
. Every good business needs a good business plan. There is no magic to planning. It is really a matter of
- considering where you are now - usually done by reviewing the current environment (political and economic conditions, market conditions, competitors, etc) and doing an analysis of your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (a SWOT analysis)
- deciding where you want to be – usually done by developing your mission, vision, values and objectives
- identifying the strategies and actions that will get you there and
- identifying how you will measure success.
Here’s a simple Law Firm Strategic Planning template
you might find useful.
The Australian Government Business website
also has some useful information including
- business plan template and business plan guides
- a free business planning tablet app, and
- a series of business videos.
And for Law Society members, the Small Practice Kit
also has lots of information on business planning .
The options are many: buy, rent, share, work from home or used serviced offices. If you opt to work from home, or if you are a country lawyer, remember the Law Society has conference rooms that members can book for client meetings.
Law Society members might also like to look at what the Small Practice Kit
says about premises. It includes a Premises Checklist.
The Australian Solicitor’s Conduct Rules
include a provision on shared premises (rule 39). You need to be sure that your clients are very clear with whom they are dealing. Clear signage is important.
Tip: Running a business from home can be an appealing option (low cost, easy to establish, some possible tax deductions) but it’s not all plain sailing. You will have to think about how you will manage your clients, maintain your privacy and safety, manage WH&S issues, etc. The Australian Government Business website publishes some tips for home based businesses.
You will need to consider your one off start-up costs. Here’s a list
of things you might include in your considerations.
For Law Society members, also have a look at the Start Up Expenses Checklist in the Small Practice Kit
You will also need to prepare a budget. Here’s
- a template for calculating income
- an Excel cash flow template
- an Excel annual Practice Budget
- an Excel Practice Budget – month by month
For Law Society Members, see also the Small Practice Kit
Your budget may reveal that at times you outgoings will exceed your income (particularly during your start up years). You may therefore need a loan, or a line of credit. CPA Australia has produced a guide Access to Finance – Tips to Guide SMEs
that gives some useful advice on how to approach this. The Small Practice Kit
also includes information on finance (for Law Society members).
Once you are up and running / complying with professional obligations
The Act, Regulations and Rules
If you are going to open your own practise you will need to familiarise yourself with
These regulate your profession and your behaviour – and the responsibility for compliance rests with YOU.
Appropriate management systems
Every firm will decide for itself what management systems it needs in place – and how it will deliver them. This is especially important for those intending to practice as an ‘incorporated legal practice’. Section 8 of Schedule 1 of the Legal Practitioners Act states that an incorporated legal practice must have a ‘legal practitioner director’ who is responsible for the management of the practice – and must ensure that ‘appropriate management systems’ are implemented and maintained. This aspect of the business, along with others, can be audited by the Law Society.
Practice management systems
One of your early considerations will be whether you buy a practice management system (PMS). These software products vary in content, price and pricing structure. They generally include the following functions
- matter management
- finance and accounting
- time recording and billing and
- document management.
Some also include functions to help with
- marketing – enabling you to mail out to clients, track attendance at functions, etc
- precedents – enabling you to automate document completion (and in some instances actually providing you with suites of precedent documents)
- workflow – allowing you to bundle common tasks into automated or semi-automated processes.
Here is a summary of the functions available at some of the commonly used PMS
systems as at 1 January 2015.
Policies and procedures
If you don’t buy a PMS you still need to manage your practice. That means establishing systems – and ideally documenting those systems in a set of policies and procedures or an office manual.
Each practice is different and each will have its own needs. Here are some resources that might help you determine what you want to put in place.
- Law Claims risk management materials include a comprehensive list of the policies and procedures (and other documents) that a prudent law firm might consider putting in place. Small firms will not want all of these – but it is a useful starting point.
- The Law Claims Small Practice Resource Kit has a number of useful example policies (matter opening and conflict search policy, email and internet policy, re-submit/brought forward policy); forms (new matter form, change of contact details form, court attendance form, file note form, file transfer form, delegation form, performance review form) and checklists (close file checklist, transferred matter checklist, delegation checklist).
- The International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) publishes a Guide to practice management for small to medium sized practices. This is created for American accountants but is remarkably relevant for Australian law firms. It includes a great sample office manual (at Appendix 1.4); some sample office forms (application for leave, bank account details, employee appraisal sheet, travelling expenses claim form, overtime sheet, re-imbursement expenses form) and some valuable checklists.
- LEAP, the legal software provider, publishes a free Small Law Firm Practice Management Guide as a downloadable pdf. While it has an obvious Victorian focus it includes some material useful in all jurisdictions.
If, having read all that, you are still wondering where to start here are some example procedures to get you going
Tip: Rather than create a bulky hard copy ‘office manual’ or ‘policy and procedure’ document just prepare a series of short specific documents and publish them as ‘read only’ documents on a shared drive, or on your intranet if you have one. This makes them easy to find, and easy to update. Simply update the one on line copy and alert staff to the changes.
Limitation of Actions
If you are litigating you will need to make sure you are identifying and recording limitation dates. Law Claims recommends that you do this in at least three places (for example, in your practice management system, in your personal diary and on the face of the file). Law Claims publishes the very helpful and comprehensive SA Schedule of Limitations
for calculating limitation periods.
You will also need to keep on top of your finances. Your budget (particularly your cashflow budget) will help with that – but it is also wise to establish a set of financial indicators to help you understand and improve your practice, and monitor trends. These might include
- total billings and collections
- actual versus budgeted costs
- WIP (work done but not billed)
- accounts receivable and aged accounts receivable (work billed but not yet collected)
- average ‘lock up’ (the time it takes from doing the work to billing the work)
- average debtor days (the time it takes from sending the bill to being paid)
- write-downs and write-offs
- unbilled disbursements
- ‘realisation’ or ‘recovery’ rate (rate actually collected versus rate billed)
- utilization (percent of time actually billed)
- billable hours
- client trust account balances
- a profit/loss summary.
The CPA publishes a lot of useful material on financial matters – including a very helpful Financial Guide for SMEs
Most law firms now rely heavily on Information Technology (IT). Here’s a checklist of IT issues to consider. For Law Society Members also have a look at the chapter on IT issues in the Small Practice Kit
Some small businesses have obligations under the Privacy Act. The Office of Information Commissioner publishes a Privacy checklist for small business.
Verification of identity
For law firms doing conveyancing work, the SA Government publishes a verification of identity policy
that sets out the steps to take to verify the identity of a party to a conveyancing transaction.
Advertising and marketing your business
Probably one of the first steps in marketing your services is to get your business listed with the Law Society Referral Service
. Make sure your listing states all the areas in which you practice.
Creating a LinkedIn
profile will also people find you. It’s free and it’s easy – and it enables you to ‘connect’ with people you already know, alerting them to the fact you are in business.
Tip: Your LinkedIn profile usually turns up when someone ‘googles’ your name – so include your phone number and email address early in the profile. It is also useful to know that you can turn off the function that notifies your connections when you change your profile. That is worth doing in the early days – when you might be amending your profile a bit in an effort to get it right.
Yellow and white pages
All businesses with an ABN get an automatic listing in the yellow pages. White pages listings have to be paid for. This entitles you to an entry in the telephone book and accessibility through White Pages on line.
Tip: White pages listings are often provided on an opt-out basis – so if you don’t advise them you no longer want the service you will be listed and billed for your listing.
You will also want your business to appear on a standard google search. A good place to start is Google My Business
– which gives you a free google listing.
Search Engine Optimisation
If you have a website you will also want to think about Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)– that is, maximising the chances of your business appearing when someone searches for a lawyer using a search engine (for example Google). Talk to your website designer about how best to manage this.
You can also run paid advertising on Google – through Google Adwords
. This is a pay per click arrangement. You can either manage this yourself, or use a broker. If you manage it yourself, Google will give you lots of support and advice, but remember they are also selling – so take the advice with a pinch of salt.
TIP: If you use a broker consider using a Google Partner (that is an agency that has been certified by Google as someone they trust). These agencies are regularly reviewed by Google, and have to know their stuff to achieve certification.
The Australian Government Business website
publishes marketing advice and information including a Marketing plan template.
The Law Society
website includes marketing information and opportunities. The Society’s Small Practice Kit
(available to members only) also includes a chapter on marketing and business development.
The Australian Solicitors’ Conduct Rules
include a provision on advertising (rule 36) explaining what you can and cannot say – particularly in relation to specialist expertise.
The Law Society
also publishes (for members) a Legal Services Advertising and Marketing Guideline. This includes, amongst other things, information on the ethical issues raised when you publicise your business through social media, testimonials, etc.
Keeping up to date with the law
On line subscriptions
There are three main legal publishers
All three offer on-line publications and all three have special packages for small and start up practices – that can be tailored depending on the sort of law your practice.
There are also some smaller publishers.
- The Family Law Book – for all things family law. (Subscribers also get access to a family law helpline!)
- Kidd’s Law Publications – a SA based company that provides services on workers’ compensation law, motor and traffic law, personal injury law and damages, industrial and WH&S law, etc.
TIP: These publishers want your business; their success depends on yours. The big suppliers are therefore sometimes willing to do special deals – try before you buy, discounts, extended payment terms, etc. It is always worth asking!
Loose leaf services and books
Some of the publishers have loose leaf subscription services too – for those of you who prefer hard copy. And don’t overlook books! Remember them? They are often cheaper than subscriptions (even taking into account that you have to update your edition every few years).
Tip: Publishers often have sales at the end of the year and the end of the financial year. If you can wait you might be able to pick up a bargain.
Free on line services
There is also a lot of free legal information available on line. For cases
For court rules
- Austlii - of course
- There is also Jade. This is a magic little service created by lawyers for lawyers. It includes the latest cases from courts and tribunals. There is an easy-to-use case citator search. And there’s a useful video on how it all works.
- Courts Administration Authority publishes the rules for the Supreme, District, ERD, Magistrates and Youth Courts. You can also find Practice Directions and Court fees on their site.
- The Law Handbook is an overview of SA law published by the Legal Services Commission. It is in plain language and designed for the general public – but can be a very handy starting point.
- And last but certainly not least Foolkit - the lawyers’ toolkit , an incredible resource for lawyers and the public alike with links to legislation, courts, other agencies, articles, checklists , you name it - sorted by areas of practice.
TIP: Publish these links on your intranet, if you have one, or set them up as ‘favourites’ – for quick and easy access.
Some of the legal publishers include, as part of your subscription, a personalised alerting service – advising you of any changes to the law (new cases, new legislation) in the areas in which you practice.
There are also a number of free alerting services:
- Jade allows you to customise by subject and by court – meaning that you will get notified whenever a case is decided in a court, or on a subject, in which you have indicated an interest.
- Lexology provides useful and timely summaries of key cases or changes in legislation. Again you can customise to your areas of interest.
- Lexis Nexis has a free customisable content notifier of law reports and journal articles. You will need to source the reports and journals separately – but the alert keeps you informed about current topics.
- Similarly Thomson Reuters has Journals Talk where you can also sign on to a free alert. Again you will need to source the actual articles separately if anything takes your interest.
Attending professional development
The Law Society publishes full details of your CPD obligations
including record keeping. You have an obligation to complete 10 ‘units’ of Compulsory Professional Development (CPD) activity each year – including at least one unit each in practical legal ethics, practice management or business skills, and professional skills. One CPD unit =
- 1 hour at a seminar, workshop, or conference
- 1 hour viewing, listening, preparing recorded material
- 1000 words publishing, editing, refereeing an article
- 2 hours attending meetings.
The CPD year is measured from 1 April to 31 March.
There are a number of providers that run seminars or conferences (or both) either aimed at or relevant to lawyers. They include the Law Society
, Legal Wise, Australian Institute of Company Directors
(relevant to corporate lawyers), and Australian Lawyers Alliance
(for plaintiff’s lawyers).
You can also run sessions in house – either using your own staff, or getting in external speakers or trainers. The Law Society have copies, and in some cases audio recordings, of previous papers for sale.
On line providers
Points can also be obtained by viewing online material. TV Education Network (TEN
) provides webinars, recorded webinars, and videos on legal topics.
At the end of each CPD year you are required to complete a certificate of compliance. This can be audited (by the Law Society) for up to three years. If your attendance is audited you will need to provide proof of the CPD units you have claimed. This can be an invoice for the session or notes provided in the session. If you don’t have these make a contemporaneous note.
Tip: A lot of lawyers waste a lot of time trying to re-construct their CPD records at the end of the CPD year, so keep good CPD records from day one. One simple way to maintain records is to set up a non-billable time entry code for CPD - and record attendance in the same way you record all your time.
Members of the Law Society have access to the Murray Library and its subscriptions services. That is often a good place to start. The very helpful librarian, Lorna Hartwell, can search the collection for a precedent that suits your needs and email a copy to you for a nominal fee.
Some practice management software systems include a suite of precedents, or make them available as an optional extra.
On line subscriptions also commonly include the services such as The Australian Encyclopaedia of Forms and Precedents and Hutley’s Australian Will Precedents. Or you can buy the books.
Court document precedents can be found on the relevant court websites.
Retainer letters etc
The Law Claims Small Practice Resource Kit contains a number of useful precedents including
- A retainer cover letterThe LSSA standard costs agreement
- The LSSA standard cost agreement for sophisticated clients
- Draft billing notices – Your rights in relation to legal costs A non –engagement letter
- A close file letter.
Advanced Care Directives
An Advanced Care Directives form is available free on the Law Society website (for members). Non-members can find it here
The Law Society website also provides access to a suite of standard property documents
(for subscribers only). The Real Estate Institute
sell their standard Contract for Sale and Purchase of property and Form 1 – again to subscribers.
Mediation and arbitration
The Institute of Arbitrators and Mediators publish a set of arbitration, mediation, conciliation and expert determination standard clauses
Other precedents for sale
You can also buy precedents and suites of precedents on line.
- LexisNexis has precedents for sale – topic by topic.
- SmokeBall sells precedents and practice guides – again topic by topic – for both federal and state jurisdictions.
- Thomson Reuters publishes a range of Australian Commercial Precedents available by annual subscription.
The Australian Government Business website provides good information on your obligations as small business employer. For Law Society members, the Small Practice Kit includes a chapter on human resources and a number of useful templates and checklists.
A position description helps give some clarity to both you and the employee about exactly what it is you want them to do (which helps avoid problems down the track),
helps with performance evaluation and development
and, if a staff member leaves, assist with recruiting.
A position description template is available here.
Letter of offer
The Fair Work Ombudsman publishes a lot of very useful templates including an offer of employment template.
Managing staff well is not about having good ‘performance management’ or ‘performance appraisal’ forms, it is about having good conversations. It starts by sitting down with each staff member, asking what they want to achieve and learn in the upcoming 12 months, telling them what your expectations are, agreeing a set of actions and writing them down. Those actions need to be monitored during the year. And at the end of 12 months, you and each staff member need to review progress – and set fresh goals. A simple form template for this purpose can also be found on the Fair Work Ombudsman website.
That website also has many other useful templates related to the employment (and termination) of staff.
The Legal Services Award applies to clerical and administrative staff, law graduates and law clerks. You will need to read the award carefully to determine at what level each staff member sits. The Fair Work Ombudsman publishes a pay guide for the award. Pay rates increase on 1 July each year. Lawyers are award free. The Law Society has published a guideline on the remuneration of law clerks and GDLP students.
The ATO provides good information on PAYG obligations – including what you need to before your employee starts, what you should do on their first day – and what records you need to maintain.
Generally, if you pay an adult employee $450 or more (before tax) in a month, you are obliged to make a super contribution. (Employees under 18 years old must also work at least 30 hours.) The super rate is 9.5% and is paid quarterly. The Australian Government Business website has more information. Employees are entitled to choose their own super fund. If they don’t have a fund in mind they might be interested in the legal industry fund Legal Super. And don’t forget to look after your own superannuation needs.
If you employ staff you will need to register with ReturntoWorkSA and pay a premium so that your staff have protection if they are injured at work. If you employ more than 30 staff you will need to appoint a Return to Work Co-ordinator.
SafeWork SA publishes Work Health and Safety information and resources for small businesses.
Don’t forget to let the Law Society know of your new employee. They will advise what you need to do in relation to PI insurance, etc. If you are participating in the Limitation of Liability Scheme your new employee will also need to be signed up to the scheme.
With staff comes the possibility that someone else is going to be handling your money – and with that the potential for dishonesty. CPA Australia publishes a useful guide Internal Controls for Small Business.
Keeping up to date with management issues
The Law Society has lots of information for lawyers – both on the law and on management issues – and an active Small Practice Committee which meets regularly and runs events aimed at sole practitioners and small firms. You may also consider joining ALPMA – the Australian Legal Practice Management Association. They have some great on line resources, regular meetings and run a wonderful annual conference. The Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) publishes a lot of useful material for HR material for members. Business SA provides members with resources and training - particularly in relation to employment issues (rates of pay, awards, safety, etc). They have membership programs tailored and priced to suit sole traders and small businesses.
Smoke Ball publishes a blog on practice management issues called Law in Order. For financial issues you might find Cameron’s Profit for Partners blog useful. If you’re interested in innovation in the law you might enjoy Law21. Lawyerist is also useful and entertaining. The Australian Professional Liability Blog is good on professional negligence issues.
Joining local business networking groups can be helpful and can provide opportunities to meet other small business owners – who are likely to be facing issues similar to yours. There are some on-line communities too. For example, Flying solo provides free membership and (through that) access to forums, articles, meetings and introductions.
Enterprise Adelaide (an initiative of the Adelaide City Council) offers free business advice, support and training for city businesses. (You can subscribe to their newsletter to be kept up to date.)
Maintaining health and well being
Practicing law can be a bruising business – so you owe it to yourself, your clients and your family to look after yourself both physically and mentally if you want to be in it for the long haul.
The Law Society provides a very good counselling service, LawCare - giving members access to an experienced counsellor (Dr Jill - a GP who has dealt with lawyers for years). The Society bears the first $250 of cost (where no rebate is available or a gap payment is required). The name of any participant in this service is not passed on- so it is completely CONFIDENTIAL.
The Law Society also manages the Young Lawyers’ Support Group (for young lawyers seeking independent guidance from experienced colleagues), the Lawyers’ Support Group (for assistance with personal and professional problems including assistance across all fields of practice) and the Lawyers Complaint Companion Service (to support members who are the subject of a formal complaint). All these services are free.
The Law Society website also lists a number of other resources relating to physical and mental wellbeing. The Society’s Small Practice Kit (for members only) also includes a chapter on health, wellbeing and practice management in the event of illness or death