A law practice in Queenstown might sound like a lawyer’s dream – particularly if they are lawyers who enjoy the bountiful offerings of the famous resort town. But enjoying a legal career mixed with recreational opportunities only goes so far.
No matter how world-beating the scenery and facilities, the job of running a law practice still requires certain basics, whatever the location, and Graeme Todd’s law practice GTODD LAW has benefited from smart use of technology, robust financial management , great staff and a varied and diverse group of clients who favour the firm with interesting and satisfying work
Graeme Todd set up his busy boutique law firm in April 2011 with one staff member and some distinct feelings that his mid life adventure in hanging out his own shingle could ultimately be his undoing.
Indeed he sighted an email he was not intended to see from a senior lawyer and former partner who suggested that the legal executive who had agree to join the brand new practice was mad to have done so .
Today, GTODD LAW is a busy and progressive general law practice focusing on resource management and property lawmatters with a slew of clients across the region and the country, as well as internationally. A recently opened Frankton office complements the main Queenstown office with three lawyers and two legal executives handling the work.
Graeme Todd enjoys strong Queenstown connections having lived in the town for 34 years and having being a regular visitor for 15 years before that . He arrived in 1981 with the intention of staying a year but never left.
Most of that time was spent working with Macalister Todd Phillips where he made partner after 18 months. His major client then was as the Queenstown Lakes District General Counsel, but times were changing.
“It looked to me that times were changing with Council and they would go to panel of legal service providers. It was my strong view that in a district this small you either did it all or none.”
While other partners wanted to continue providing legal services as part of the panel, he thought better of it and sought something different to do.
Having found well furnished offices he set his budget, which he doubled in the first year with “a couple of major instructions”.
The firm’s growth is based on high levels of service and Graeme’s practice of seeing clients regularly.
The Queenstown office has been outgrown, hence the opening of the Frankton office where the town is expanding with both commercial and residential development. Because of the high use of technology files are easily transferred and access and parking issues have diminished for many clients
Technology and Management Issues
Part of the business plan was to minimise set up costs and ongoing operating expenses. As an “IT illiterate” he nevertheless knew that the way ahead was to use Cloud-based trust and business accounting and client management systems.
Fortunately, one of his early clients was the founder of Actionstep Legal, the late Mike Holloway, who assisted in the process of providing the systems he used.
As with many lawyers, the technology learning curve can be as off-putting as it is steep. However, conquering that mountain can also be the key to success – and not necessarily as difficult as many might imagine.
“I have had a sharp learning curve in terms of technology, practice management and social media (we are very
active in that sphere) as in my previous firm someone always looked after that. I am now fully mobile with all emails going to my iphone and iPad and we can log into Actionstep through a dedicated app on both devices or any remote computer.”
But keeping an eye on the finances and costs is one of the keys to his success.
“I run a very tight financial model and on average we have less than $20000 debtors owing over 30 days . We bill every file immediately a task is completed and for ongoing instructions with over $100-00 time recorded by the 30th of each month and 99% of bills are emailed.
“We would normally expect 25-35% of our monthly accounts to be paid within 1-4 days . Because the business accounting system is up to the minute it is so easy to monitor what is going on within the financial side of the firm.”
As for staff management, Graeme runs an “open book” in terms of the firm’s financials and staff receive regular bonuses.
To build the team spirit necessary to operate a profitable and progressive business he also tries to have a few days away with the staff and their partners with a decent Christmas party, which was Melbourne last year and is the Gold Coast this year.
For someone with a practice as busy as this can there be time for decent holidays?
“Travel is one of my passions and I have had minimum of 8 weeks away from the office a year for last 3 years. I always do 2-3 hours work a day when I am away and try to ensure I keep on top of emails and other issues back at the office . The phone is always on although I normally get few calls from either clients or staff .”
Again, the smart use of technology and communications makes the ‘away time’ almost seamless. “Often clients comment they did not realise I had been away. My most interesting experience was editing through the night in Africa final submissions that were due to be filed the next day back home “
He is also trying to work 4.5 days a week, although there is often reading and correspondence either at night or in the early part of the day.
Interestingly, in keeping again with the times, there is relatively little formal communication.
“Seventy per cent of my work is done by email. The firms postage bill, including couriers, would be less than $700
per annum. I do very few formal letters – maybe three or four a week. I also try to see clients, especially those out of Queenstown, in their homes or places of work.”
The service-first mentality applies to client communication , however. “I try to answer every email I receive within a few hours and clients know they can call me at night or at weekends.”
Like any efficient and effective practice principal, he realises his greatest asset is his staff.
“They are a great team and everyone gets on very well . They are extremely loyal and hardworking which I appreciate and hopefully appropriately recognise in terms of compensation and time off.”
Graeme Todd enjoys his work and his life. “I want to keep working as long as my health stays good. In addition to regular time away from work and Queenstown, which can be very claustrophobic physically and socially, I enjoy playing golf, following all sport and struggle to keep up with a very energetic wife and our adult children’s interesting lives.”
As a solo operator with a busy practice, Graeme Todd appears to pretty well have it made. Four and a half years on his business turnover is five times what he achieved in his first year. It’s hard work, but made less difficult by embracing technology, a high service ethic and rewarding staff for the combined effort needed to create a great work and client experience.
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