The practice of law is a high-pressure endeavor, replete with emotionally overwrought clients, exceedingly unreasonable deadlines, difficult adversaries and challenging judges. Some of the pressures in a busy law practice are unavoidable, but many difficulties are self-created. As the saying goes, failure to plan means planning to fail. So what does “planning” mean in the context of aiming to avoid unnecessary stress in the practice of law? It means one thing: Systematizing. What needs to be systematized? In a word, everything.
Creating systems in business eliminates the need to reinvent the wheel. It saves that qualitative higher-order processing time for things that really matter—i.e., constructing creative, viable solutions to complex legal problems and defending claims asserted against members of society. Creating systems makes the way of doing things habitually. How often do you forget to brush your teeth or cover your mouth when you sneeze? Not often. Practically speaking, that means that those tasks are less likely to be forgotten. They are hard-wired. In the practice of law, dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s” can mean the difference between success and malpractice.
While everything should be systematized, three areas, in particular, will benefit from systems: hiring, workflows, and communications.
Most lawyers put more time and energy into choosing their next car than choosing their next employee—even though the latter acquisition can mean the difference between success and a bar complaint. Hiring should entail more than simply placing an ad, having 1-2 interviews and picking from the best of the lot. It requires deep insight into what the role is needed to do—now and in the future—and most importantly, what mindset is needed for the person hired to evolve with the role as the business changes over time.
Hiring requires a process to increase the likelihood that a high-quality candidate will be selected. This process must vet information with an eye toward discernment. Start with your values and define how you want this person to function. Spell out the mission-critical components of the role (as to aptitude and, most importantly, attitude). Then, compare every piece of information you receive—resumes, phone interview data, in-person interview data, references, hiring assessment reports, etc.—against that list. If you find a misfit, keep looking. Compromising your values for fear that you will never find what you are looking for only ensures that you won’t.
Legal written work product often involves creativity and complexity, but not always. You can and should systematize workflows so that as much of the legal work product as possible can be drafted by administrative personnel, law clerks or associates before a more senior attorney becomes involved. Automation of legal document creation is revolutionizing the legal industry. Before choosing to hire, make sure you have reached full capacity in other areas of the business. Here are a few suggestions on how to automate your work product creation…
1. Invest in a legal technology solution.
Many legal document management systems offer templates, forms, and checklists that you can tailor to your specific practice area. Some systems are so advanced that a new client document can be created on a customizable PDF template, and the data used to prepopulate pleadings, motions, discovery, and correspondence to common actors (like adversaries, judges, and experts).
2. Create a master list of delegable tasks.
Create a master case list, noting cases in process, upcoming tasks, and an assigned responsible person. Require the list to be updated regularly, and check the list often to ensure that cases are moving through the system timely. Many practice management software tools, such as Clio, My Case and Practice Panther to name a few, include software solutions that can not only create documents faster, but also can enable you to outline the step-by-step actions on a legal matter, so that delegation becomes seamless and new hires can learn much faster than if a person had to sit and teach each step. Whether you keep this master list in software or in a simple spreadsheet, maintaining a record of what you have done and what is upcoming allows for better planning and financial projections in legal matters.
3. Systematize your systematizing.
One of the reasons many lawyers do not get around to creating systems is that it becomes one of the many non-urgent items on the to-do list that never ends. Instead of making this a stop-the-firm-and-bang-it-out procedure, create a firm culture where everyone knows their role is to document, review, seek approval of and revamp systems that do not work. In that way, those performing the work can not only save the owners/partners the time of learning and documenting every process in the firm but in time they will feel empowered to own their roles and improve its functioning without simply complaining to those in charge about the issue.
The number-one bar complaint stems from attorneys’ failure to communicate regularly with clients. Some clients require more communication than others because their lives are unfolding (and many times, unraveling) through the legal process. They seek guidance on everything from true legal matters to mental and emotional matters. Here are some tried and tested strategies to manage these communications effectively:
1. Institute a formal written communications policy for clients.
Clients should be told in writing when and how to communicate with their attorney. Will you primarily use telephone, email, webcam, texting or other forms of communication? How often should the client expect you to initiate communication? When they initiate a communication, how long should they expect to wait before speaking with the attorney? Will these client-initiated communications be scheduled? (Hint: they should be; see #3 below.) What constitutes an emergency that supersedes the usual wait time?
2. Set times for internal communications.
At the beginning of the year, establish a calendar of staff and attorney meetings to address issues in the firm. These meetings should be planned far out in advance so that attorneys can avoid scheduled court appearances or client meetings at these times.
Paralegals and secretaries often require direction and delegation from attorneys. To optimize paralegal billing and secretary efficiency, a set time should be established no less than weekly (likely more frequently), to assign projects, review work product, address client concerns and efficiently move matters forward.
During a weekly attorney-paralegal meeting, touch-point communication should be sent to clients. A short, non-billable FYI email each week goes a long way to stave off complaints of non-communication and to demonstrate additional value to clients when and if a bill is ever challenged as being unreasonable.
3. Schedule office hours for attorneys to communicate with clients.
Consider scheduling office hours for all attorneys in the firm—a set time when calls can be scheduled by staff for client communications so that attorneys are not perpetually interrupted. This can look different from firm to firm, but basically, the attorneys are required to schedule two, two-hour blocks of time each week during which a legal assistant can schedule calls with clients. This cuts down on interruptions so that attorneys can work on larger projects, such as motions and settlement agreements. This dramatically decreases the time it takes to complete the tasks, but it also creates a better experience for clients overall.
Attorneys are scheduled in advance for calls; have a synopsis of the issue placed on the calendar, and can be prepared for the client’s query. In addition, the client is not sent to voicemail or told they will receive a call back; rather, the client is told to expect to be scheduled for the attorney’s next available slot of office hours, decreasing their anxiety during the wait time.
Systematizing a law business is the one true way to create freedom of time and reduced anxiety in law practice. Start small and expand as the firm expands. Bring in the employees to help. When the firm runs on systems, it becomes harder for team members to hide underperformance, easier for everyone to work seamlessly together, and in time, results in more profit for the owner and less stress for all at the firm.
About the Author
Allison C. Williams is the founder and owner of Williams Law Group, LLC in Short Hills, NJ, a boutique firm focusing on divorce and family disputes. She also counsels solo and small law firms on management, marketing, and strategic planning issues. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.