Although the practice of law requires you to 'think like a lawyer,' it's tough to do substantive legal work or to focus well if you're distracted by piles of clutter in your office or anxiety about how you're going to get it all done.
One way to reduce anxiety and to bring back the focus is by creating systems. Not everything that is done in a law office (or, indeed everything that lawyers themselves do) requires you to begin from scratch every time.
Readers of Michael Gerber's E-Myth may be wondering how a law practice (or any professional service) can benefit from Gerber's approach to 'franchising' your practice. Although innovation, individual judgment and creation of legal arguments and strategies on individual matters cannot be systematized, there are many things in a law practice that can be.
Why systematize? Not only does creating a structure, systems and procedures for your practice help reduce anxiety, but it increase consistency and makes outsourcing and delegating much easier. If those systems/structures/procedures are also written, training new staff, associates, etc. becomes a much less daunting task - and it gives the new employee a reference to come back to when questions arise.
What kinds of things can be systematized in a law practice? Anything that is done repetitively can be systematized - at least in part. Systems can include checklists, procedures, templates and forms.
Some examples of tasks or processes that can be systematized within a law firm include:
- Potential client interviews;
- Conflicts checking;
- Obtaining medical records and/or other evidence;
- Day to day file handling;
- Billing and accounts receiveable;
- Closing files;
- Client contact;
For example, to create a system for intake/initial consultation, you might:
- Determine what information you need to obtain from every client (or every client in a particular practice area). Although every matter is different, you should know at least the categories of information you need to obtain from clients during an initial interview or consultation, the documents you'll need to obtain, etc.;
- Create a checklist or questionnaire for use with every client so you don't forget anything;
- Create templates or form letters to follow up with potential clients that haven't yet signed an agreement;
- Create templates or forms for your retainer agreement and engagement letter;
- Create a timeline or list of items to follow up on after the initial intake, and enter any deadlines or follow up dates into your calendar system for follow up. Part of your system will include WHO will do WHAT (i.e. perhaps the lawyer does the initial consultation, but a staff member enters the information into the computer, etc.)
Do you need to create systems if you have a case management program? Absolutely. Systems work hand in hand with case management and document management programs. In fact, those programs will be of limited value if you don't use them consistently and apply them consistently to all of your matters.
Where should you start?
One easy way to get started is by working on your procedures as you're working on an individual case or matter; as the case progresses, keep track of the steps you (and others) take on the matter, and the things you need to remember. Create the checklists, templates, etc. as it goes along. If it's easier for you to dictate as you're working, dictate the steps and have it transcribed into a written procedure.
Don't keep your systems to yourself
Share your systems and procedures with others in your office so they can provide their input and update the procedures and systems as necessary. When everyone knows who is responsible for what and when, your office will run much more smoothly.