Increased competition, downward pressures on fees and elevated client expectations require lawyers today to respond faster while maintaining high quality. Law firms and individual attorneys need structural aids to improve productivity and assist in quality control. Systems let lawyers spend more of their time on the high-level, challenging work they enjoy most. Following are some of the reasons why systems matter:
1. Get more efficient by delegating more.
If you bill on a flat-fee basis, your profits go up as your time invested goes down, so identify what can be handled by someone at a lower rate than yours. Even if you bill on an hourly basis, you lose money if you spend time dealing with administrative matters like setting appointments, opening new client matters, filing, invoicing, paying bills, managing payroll, talking to technical support and archiving closed matters. You also lose money if you have to write off some of your time to keep the aggregate bill within client expectations, when you could have been more efficient or a lower-paid person could have done some of the work.
2. Delegate more by developing systems.
Often, lawyers don’t delegate something because it takes too long to tell someone else how to do it. Once you develop a documented system, the system can guide your staff and less experienced lawyers on the proper processes to implement. That reduces or even eliminates the time you invest in instruction, supervision and review. Delegating what you dislike also lets you focus on more interesting work.
3. Systems improve quality.
Systems reduce errors by providing step-by-step procedures. Less experienced people don’t have to guess what is needed, based on inadequate knowledge or understanding, when the system tells them what to do. Even you and the experienced staff members are less likely to forget a step when it is documented and systematized. You’ll sleep better when you don’t wake up in the middle of the night worrying about whether something fell through the cracks.
4. Become more system-dependent than people-dependent.
When you have a clearly defined system with documented procedures, your office doesn’t come to a grinding halt when a valuable staff member takes a vacation, gets sick, changes jobs or gets hit by the proverbial bus. Other staff members or even temporary personnel can fill in to keep the office functioning. Equally important, everyone else can function without your input while you travel for business, focus your attention on more complex matters or take a well-deserved vacation.
5. Reduce costs by becoming more system-oriented.
With systems in place, you can keep your expenses down because you can engage less experienced people. Your processes and procedures guide neophytes in how to do the job. You also avoid increased expenses for expediting fees and overnight deliveries when your system accounts for typical time frames required.
How to Employ Systems
Now that you have been persuaded that it would be worthwhile to develop and document some systems, how do you get systems in place and how do you use them? You’re probably already struggling to get all your own work done or trying to cut down your nonbillable time. How will you ever get around to creating systems?
1. Have each staff member create a desk manual.
Ask them to spend a few minutes each day documenting the tasks they do repeatedly and the steps involved. In a couple of months you will have a manual, without extraordinary effort on anyone’s part. The manual should include:
• Lists of software and online programs you use.
• Instructions for equipment (especially phones, copiers, scanners and anything else used multiple times per day) or location of user manuals (digital or paper).
• Screenshots or videos with circles and arrows explaining to a temp or new employee procedures and schedules for regular tasks.
• Usernames and passwords (appropriately protected) for software and websites necessary to do the tasks.
• Links to online tutorials for your software and equipment.
• Instructions to remind your assistant how to do infrequent tasks or use uncommon software features.
• Contact information for vendors and repairmen.
• Troubleshooting tips for quirky equipment and software.
• Suggested scripts for answering the phone and greeting clients, including how to handle calls when you don’t want to be disturbed.
• Steps for opening a new client file or archiving an old one.
• Filing conventions for digital and paper documents.
• Procedures for handling mail, email and messages.
• Protocols and time frames for creating routine legal documents and correspondence.
2. Stop recreating redundant letters and emails.
All lawyers have forms as starting points for longer documents like interrogatories or purchase and sale agreements. Many continue to prepare common emails and letters from scratch, however. Even if they will need some customization, design forms for frequent letters and emails. Begin with one you have already written, or the next time you write one, save an extra copy of it in your forms folder. You’ll be able to whip out future emails more quickly, or let your assistant do the first draft for you to edit. Email forms can be saved in the drafts folder in Outlook (or another email program) for a quick copy and paste into a new email.
3. Checklists help prevent malpractice.
Reviewing a checklist will remind you and your staff about pesky little details like sending out a notice or ordering certified copies in time for a closing. A thorough checklist can also help you budget the proper amount of time for the matter. Create a checklist for each type of matter that you handle repeatedly. Again, this can be accomplished on an as-you-go basis for future use. A closing document index can function as a checklist for transactional matters. Your prefab checklist will help you be more efficient, stay on track and avoid slip-ups. You can also have more confidence that your assistants have handled their assigned responsibilities when the matter file contains a checklist with their initials beside the completed items.
4. Use client questionnaires.
Have a general information sheet for contact information, invoicing instructions, conflict checks and other administrative data. Ideally, a new or prospective client would complete it in advance of the appointment to help with conflict checks and file setup. Alternatively, your assistant can take down the information when the client arrives. For each type of matter you handle, design a different questionnaire for the more substantive questions. Some lawyers have the client complete the questionnaires in advance, while others choose to use the substantive questionnaire as a reminder of important data to gather during the client interview. Either way, it will reduce the number of times you have to contact the client for additional information.
5. Prepare instruction sheets and FAQs for new clients.
Unless your clients are sophisticated users of legal services, they are often nervous, distracted or upset when they meet their lawyer for the first time. They may have difficulty remembering all that you tell them. To make it easier on them and to avoid having to repeat yourself, develop written materials that answer common questions and let the client know what to expect in connection with their legal matter. Transmitting copies to the client has the added bonus of documenting that you informed the client of all the information and caveats that you intended to provide.
Whether you work in a big firm where many administrative duties are handled for you behind the scenes, or you’re a solo practitioner managing everything, practice systems can improve your productivity and reduce your stress. •
Debra L. Bruce is president of Lawyer-Coach LLC , a law practice management training and coaching firm. She practiced law for 18 years and has been a professionally trained executive coach for more than 11 years. She is a frequent speaker and writer on law practice management topics, and has served as the vice chair of the law practice management committee of the State Bar of Texas. She welcomes questions and comments at 713-682-4353 or firstname.lastname@example.org.