It’s fair to say that my vision for Travis Schultz & Partners four years ago (or Travis Schultz Law, as it was then known), was of a boutique law firm focused on expertise, creating unmatched value and managing growth to consistently exceed client expectations.
The plan was simple; to combine industry leading expertise with a lower fee structure. I set out to try and avoid competing in the same market as the corporates — a small player could never compete with their big brands and multi-million dollar advertising budgets.
I was probably much like many start-ups — keen to stay agile and to instil a culture that was familial, resulting in no regimented procedures and little by way of documents, inductions, training programs and processes. I was, however, confident that there was a gap in the market and planned to self-fund growth to a point where the firm would support 7–8 people — and I allocated capital on that basis.
And then, remarkably it all happened so quickly! There was little time to reflect on our growth. Inexplicably we reached the planned size within the first year and the growth continued and continued (four years later, we are still growing). It soon became clear that the gap in the market was never in question, it was the size of the gap that I had misjudged.
Soon we found ourselves constantly onboarding new team members in order to adequately resource ourselves — now not only to continue to exceed our clients’ expectations, but also our own.
The pace of our growth resulted in us chasing our tails. We had no time to document our training and we lacked the systems to support our size — our impressive practice management software was under-utilised as we lacked training time and had no processes to share knowledge in a systematic way.
A number of innovative ideas for business development fell by the wayside without capacity to plan and implement strategies; and our cash flow strained as growth ate up our capital reserves. We constantly outgrew our office space with fit-outs based on our expected size in maturity being exceeded within months of completion, resulting in redesigns and retrofits that impacted on both our profitability and productivity.
The laser focus on maintaining and growing expertise saw areas like admin, branding, finance and community engagement under resourced and the sheer scale of operations meant that one lawyer Principal could no longer effectively lead the team. At the same time, it became evident that growing into a multi-site firm also presented risks to culture – especially as the Covid work-from-home model changed the status quo.
While our exponential growth was surprising — leaving one, at times, feeling a little giddy — it was unexpected and therefore unplanned. Having gone from a team of five to almost 50 in four short years, we needed to reprioritise and refocus in order to keep our professionals at the leading edge and most importantly, to ensure we continued to deliver for our clients.
Looking back, I have made plenty of mistakes along the journey to this point so these are just some of my learnings.
Learning 1 – Conduct thorough market research: I failed to properly understand the size of the gap in the market and I grossly understated demand for our unique offering. Do your market research thoroughly, test it and when you set yourself up, do so in a way that enables you to pivot when circumstances change, e.g. fit out flexible spaces.
Learning 2 – No matter how small you start, implement systems that capture data to track your growth: For cultural reasons we decided not to time cost or even time record but as a result, the most obvious data point wasn’t available to track key metrics. Implement a means of capturing reliable data sets that can be tracked to better forecast your trajectory. This can include everything from referral sources, enquiry origins, enquiry numbers, new client conversion data, matter durations, milestone comparisons, financial metrics like fees, outlays, etc.
Learning 3 – Capital constraints can damage your practice: I had set aside a chunk of capital to fund the venture but with a rapid increase in size came far higher costs. Make sure you use your data sets to forecast the need for capital as running short is stressful and, if you can’t fund essentials it can damage the practice.
Learning 4 – Founder dependence can be risky: As I planned to have a small boutique practice, I used my personal brand when naming the firm – first Travis Schultz Law and later Travis Schultz & Partners to ameliorate the issue – but it meant that as we grew, clients wanted the Principal and were often reluctant to work with another highly skilled professional. If you think you might grow beyond a boutique size, consider ways to manage the goodwill in the founder’s personal brand and raise the profile, both internally and externally, of the other senior lawyers in the firm.
Learning 5 – Balancing growth with strategy: Unexpected growth meant we had to prioritise – focussing on professional development took primacy, so systems, procedures and marketing suffered. Know your strategy, test it, review it regularly, but keep one eye on the resourcing required and the organisational and structural impact of growth.
Learning 6 – Through the strain of growth, stay focussed on training and investment in your people: To ensure that we kept our professionals at the leading edge, we hired a research assistant and wrote a 350-page book on the assessment of damages in Queensland, summarising every single personal injury case in Queensland and superior courts of other states since 2003. This has been a game-changer — both for expertise and culture — and an invaluable asset to keep our team ahead of the pack.
Learning 7 – Cultural challenges: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, so remember that growth means new personalities, backgrounds and interests and having multiple sites can further exacerbate a lack of team cohesion. Make sure that as you grow, the team is well aware of your vision and purpose – take time to share the back story enabling the new team members to fall in love with the ethos of the firm. In the meantime, manage out any internal terrorists.
Learning 8 – Fatigue: Growth takes energy and long hours — growing workloads put increased pressure on the team and can negatively impact mental health. Using data points to project and plan for growth and resourcing it in advance will avoid anxiety and cultural damage. Plan to regularly take the temperature of the staff room, do one-on-one informal catch-ups with the team and make time for fun as a team, while also looking after your own health. There’s no point being the most successful person in the cemetery!
Learning 9 – Succession planning: It might be nice to have a successful practice that’s profitable and financially rewarding, but if you want to de-risk the firm and provide meaningful career paths to key players, you’ll have to consider succession planning as you grow. It’s fine to have a one principal small practice but a medium-sized practice is at cultural and structural risk if senior lawyers decide to walk unexpectedly or the founder becomes impaired for practise. So, as you scale, have a plan to de-risk both loss of founder and loss of key personnel.
Learning 10 – Finding ways to add value to our community: Giving back is an important part of the journey. Find worthy charities or community organisations to support, share professional development with the industry or launch a graduate program to provide opportunities for the young guns.
In summary, my latest iteration of a professional services firm has largely enjoyed exponential, but unplanned growth; and we’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. But we’ll learn from them – and hopefully sharing them means that my colleagues can benefit from them as well.
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