fish files

Fish Files – part 2

Fish files: the longer you leave them the more they stink. that’s why they are called fish files. In my previous post I introduced the concept of fish files   and explained how to make a start on dealing with the blighters. But they do require some more advanced techniques to master them.

  • Take the pledge: on Monday make it a promise to yourself that by Friday, the dreaded matter will be dealt with.
  • Prepare to make your move. This file has been chipping away at your confidence for a while now, and it won’t go down without a fight.  You are going to tackle it every morning, for two hours before 9.15 , so clear your diary of other twaddle. Give yourself the interior pep talk on the commute to work. Do not get led astray by the demons of distraction. At about 9.12 am some random part of your brain will try and make you, “Do some shredding”, “Just deal with this divorce application”, “Make a start on the stationary memo you promised your boss”. Don’t do it. You  can do that stuff later.
  • Get the file. The papers will be horrifically disorganised (somehow that is what happens to fish files) so tidy stuff up. Use plastic wallets or something to bring order where once was chaos. Untidy files are depressing; also tidying up will allow you to become familiar with the paperwork. You are now 1-nil up .
  • Day 2; read the letter or fax that last sent you screaming for the door. It is likely to be a mean one, insisting on your urgent action and probably sent to you at 4.55 pm on a Friday. By now there will be a follow up letter. You only need one copy so shred the spare.
  • If the letter is really mean, then take a copy of it. On the copy use a large black marker to eliminate all that is not part of their question or demand. You can rid of all the “We are extremely disappointed to note” guff. You will probably be left with something like, “File statement, you’re late, threatening costs, act now”. Without all that disappointed/ dismayed/ disgruntled* shouting from the other side, you can think about what wants doing. Get rid of their noise. You are  2- nil up.
  • The reason you are sweating is that you probably are a little bit late in dealing with this. You’re a trainee and your job is complicated and difficult isn’t it? And now your client might be in trouble because you’ve been rubbish and your not very good at your job and anyway you hate work and they might sack you over this…and so on. It is very easy to lose heart. ” Too difficult, I can’t”, I hear you thinking.  You may concede a goal at this point as you wander off to do something less taxing. Take a half time break, remember how good you will feel on Friday when this isn’t hanging over you.
  • Back into the fray. Can you hold them off? Do a holding letter, give yourself an extra week. then take a deep breath and call the client to get your instructions or to arrange the appointment to get them in. If the client queries the urgency, just be straight. You overlooked it or your workload simply did not permit you to deal with the matter at the right time. Yes, they may wish to raise it with your superior, but that is OK, right now you need to get the tardy work out. In reality, the client is more likely to understand and just be glad you are getting on with it.
  • Now tackle the work. Make it happen. First do a skeleton draft response with what you think is the answer, then get an opinion from someone helpful, then the final draft. If you need supervision then make sure you have scheduled this in to yours and your supervisor’s diary. Do not let it drift.
  • Press send, stuff it in the envelope, file with the court. It’s 3- nil. The perfect hat trick; left foot, right foot, header.

Fish files come in lots of varieties. Sometimes it is a difficult client, sometimes it is a difficult technical issue, some it is the other side who are the problem. Don’t think it is just you –  senior partners have fish files too ( but bigger, think blue whale carcass ponging on a pristine white beach) .

Once a file has gone fish, it must be sorted out. And every time you successfully sort out a fish file, you will have grown as a lawyer and a professional. Tackling difficult correspondence or positions in litigation is part of why you are hired . It doesn’t get taught on the LPC and it is one of the hardest skills to master. The difficulty is often unacknowledged and you may not have a mentor who can build your confidence around these soft skills. But practice makes perfect.

* I heard a rumour that an eminent firm play “diss bingo”. Each family team member has a firm. Whenever anyone gets a ridiculous letter from that firm that has diss-words in it, that firm edges ahead on the diss bingo board. First one to a hundred wins.


frayed rope

Stress-head and fish files – part 1

For many people, working in family law as a junior minion is remembered as one of the most stressful periods of their professional life.You are expected to progress cases for clients – but everything seems to take you three times as long as it takes the others. Is any of this familiar?

  •  It feels as if you need to look up everything before you can do the work.
  • When you do achieve work, it needs to be cleared by the supervisor before it can go to the client.
  • Your supervisor doesn’t have time to go through the difficult stuff with you, so it sits and festers on your desk.
  • if you have child care/ home obligations then you do not have the luxury of staying late and catching up
  • The “to do” pile grows and grows.

Try not to be too hard on yourself. When I began working as a family paralegal I had a permanent knot of worry in my stomach . I worked the whole day but often had nothing to show for it. Everything was difficult all of the time. At 2pm I would start to panic as I knew I had to leave at 4pm or I would pay extra for the child-minder.

What did I say when my principal asked if “I was Ok?/ how were things/ how are you getting on?”- did I say ”  Actually, I am really behind and I need extra help” – no, of course not, I nodded and smiled and said it was fine.

I got busted when I took some leave and a client called in which led to the discovery of the monster pile of undone stuff on my desk. A colleague went through the pile of work –  but of course words were had when I returned to work. It was a real wake up call about how stressed I was and how quickly things can get out of hand.

All in all it took me about a year to settle down as a useful, target meeting member of the firm. Here are some of the things that really helped me get there and I hope you find them useful too. Lets take it from the point where you walk in on Monday morning, and at 9.30 your post arrives and it has increased your terrifying to do pile by ten new things to sort out.

It’s ok if you feel physically shaky and heart-racey. Well, it’s not OK as such, it is a sign of quite serious stress and you adrenaline system is kicking in. Fight or flight response etc. So you are now going to do something about it.

  • Take every piece of paper and lay them out, by client file name, across your floor in a line.
  • Get out the files from the cabinet and match them up to the paper.
  • Print out the emails that need dealing with and get out their files.
  • There should not be a single bit of paper on your desk, related to a client matter, that isn’t with its file and on the floor. I think my record is 27 files on the floor.
  • Then get the non-client stuff . Put it in one pile. Go through it and ascertain how long you can ignore it for.
  • Go to your supervisor. Negotiate some “clear my backlog ” time. Explain that clients must come first and you hadn’t realised that you had quite so much on. Try and get a least a week where it is agreed you can be let off seeing new clients or being given new stuff. Negotiate a period of secretarial support. Make it clear you are not empire building, but just need a bit of the firm’s resources. Subtly remind people that it could be a “compliance issue” if you do not get on top of things. Best of all, get an agreed period of time where you be unavailable on the phone to clients.
  • Deal quickly with any non client really urgent stuff. It will shut people up and then you can get on.
  • Pile up the client files into three separate piles (you can’t leave them on your floor, people will keep asking you annoying questions). I assume that all the work is relatively urgent.
  • Pile 1 is quick and easy (ish)
  • Pile 2 is long and tedious but easy (ish)
  • Pile 3. These are the fish files. A fish file is a file that you don’t know how to progress. First you ignore it for a week. Then you realise you have ignored it, you are late in progressing it and anyway you don’t know where to start. It grows eyes and starts looking at you when you are in your office. The longer you leave it the more it stinks. That is why it is called a fish file.

In my next post I will discuss how to deal with fish files as they require special ninja techniques. We also need to talk about time management and coping with stress at work. I won’t leave it too long as I know you want help with the fish files – but make a start on piles 1 and 2 and you will feel better by lunch time, I guarantee it.



The Magic of Money and Commercial Awareness

Do you remember when you were swotting up on “commercial awareness” so you could impress at interview and you went round asking your mates/Mum/ tutor, what that actually means…?

Well this post is about that. Commercial awareness may mean high falutin’ understanding of the clients’ markets (You understand derivatives? Good for you, now give up law and go work in the City) BUT to your average law firm (even your exceptional law firm) it is about money.

Specifically the money you make for the firm.

Take a look at this… you can see that, extrapolating from the current data, half the firms that answered a call to the SRA to show them some basic financial data, were NOT in excellent shape. If that is extrapolated across the profession then the number of firms in at least some difficulty (shall we go so far as to say “trouble”?) is unexpectedly high.

For good reason, most firms are concentrating on cash flow. This is because it is the flow of cash that pays you, the rent, the support staff etc. You do not want to be paid in “WIP” do you? Well your firm would prefer you to make money, not just stop at making WIP either…

You may have a target to meet on a monthly basis as a trainee; even if not now, then it will come eventually, so the earlier you get your head around it; the better you will be at meeting it.

I think the 3 connecting factors to making money for your firm in a family department are time, pipeline and execution. Let’s look at them in turn:


It really pays to start early in the seat to try and bill in your own name, not least because it takes practice and a head start helps you with this. Let’s say you do an hour’s work on a file and it is worth £150.  Hopefully you will time record it into the system as fast as possible, preferably in 24 hours.

Then the next delay is the WIP falling into a bill. As a trainee this may not be in your hands all the time. However, smaller bills or fixed fees may be bills that you are tasked with doing. Get the bills out to the client at the right moment. For example, as soon as you have completed their whole case or reached an appropriate stage. I am not a big fan of billing just because it is the end of the month because it causes unnecessary delay between the work you did and getting paid for it.

However, don’t let your £150 wait for too long to travel to the billing stage, watch out for old WIP and start thinking about billing it.

Then, actually turning a bill into money can be tricky, especially if there is no money on account. After waiting 30 days to travel from work to a bill, you may find that you are bound by payment terms of 30 days and in any event, the client pays you when they want to. Consider stopping work on the file until it is paid.

The whole cycle from work to WIP to money can easily take as long as 120 days. Law firm managers call the amount of this non-money ” lock-up” and they HATE it see this link for a good analysis.  Part of your job is to keep the cycle as short as possible.


Your fees in 3 months are generated by the pipeline of work you are starting this month. It is important that you do not neglect to take on some new clients every month; otherwise your work will dry up further down the line. Getting a balance on this can be tricky and take a certain amount of boss management.

It is not unusual, especially in family work, for a client who saw you for a first meeting not to return for nine months. So continuing to see people is important, without neglecting your current client work.

Don’t forget your pipeline is made up of time. Many trainees work like dogs and then can’t seem to bill well but don’t understand what they have been doing all day. The answer is to time record better. New lawyers forget they are entitled to charge for work that progresses a case – looking up the law, considering the position, spending some time working out the answer to a problem. These are chargeable (but do not double count your time if a partner is doing the work too). Try and record more time and your bills will improve.


Whether you like it or not there will be a system for making the money go round. Become as one with all of it; specifically;

  • The accounts department. They may be a bit mean to you (“Quail mortal before the  queen of cheques- you innumerate minion and buffoon”) you need to find out how they work. How can you get the bills sorted out, or mistakes rectified, money and costs transferred? Ask yourself what biscuits they like and how many trainees they have eaten before you go in to see them. Find out how you can make their life more pleasant and you shall be rewarded.
  • Ironing out client issues with bills. If your bill is not being paid, chase it and find out if you have made an arse of the numbers on the bill or need to reduce the bill for some reason. It is better to knock of £50 and get paid now than dilly dally. Pick up the phone to the client and find out what is the problem. You cannot promise anything to them but you can promise to see your boss to discuss it and then get back to them.
  • Legal aid – it’s been a long time since I did legal aid billing. All I can say is that the time/pipeline/execution factors apply triple to legal aid bill. My memory tells me that at all times the aim of the government is not to pay you. That is why the system is so Byzantine.

People will notice you bringing the bacon or at least looking like you are appreciating how important it is. You will win brownie points which can only be a good thing…

Next time I explore something a lot less financial but just as important – managing the stress, the time and the fish files…