Nov. 15, 2017 – A process is “a series of actions or steps taken in order to achieve a particular end.”1 A system is a “set of principles or procedures according to which something is done.” When lawyers establish processes, they can achieve efficient systems.
But here’s a little secret: there’s a system hidden in every process, and systems can free you from the chaos that consumes your personal and professional lives.
Think of something as simple as making coffee. You certainly have a system for that, and it is based on a well-established process to achieve optimal caffeine levels. Maybe your process is visiting Starbucks every day. Or maybe it’s a 1:1 ratio of cups to scoops.
What if you could implement processes to create systems that will increase efficiencies, produce better work product, and empower you to delegate work, explore new business opportunities, and have better work-life balance? That sounds pretty good, right?
Here’s another way to think about systems and processes in your law firm: building processes that are not dependent upon a specific person helps you build a culture that is less about placing blame and more about problem-solving whenever an issue arises.
Blame the Process, Not the Person
First, let’s look at building processes that are not dependent upon a specific person’s presence to perform the tasks. It is easy to delegate responsibility to someone and then simply depend on that person to complete it, especially if that person has been performing a particular task over time.
com erogden ogdenglazer Erin R. Ogden is the managing attorney at the law firm of OgdenGlazer LLC, Madison. She provides business and intellectual property services to her clients. Her favorite way to market her firm is through teaching others about business, trademark, copyright, and contract law. Reach her by com erogden ogdenglazer email or by phone at (608) 561-2424.
com slruffi ruffilaw Sarah L. Ruffi is the founder and shareholder of Ruffi Law Offices S.C., Wausau. She focuses on the areas of business law, residential and commercial real estate, landlord-tenant issues, civil litigation, collections, copyrights, trademarks, succession planning, and estate planning. Reach her by com slruffi ruffilaw email or by phone at (715) 843-0800.
Let’s go back to the coffee example, because most can relate. It’s “Becky’s job” to make sure the office always has coffee available. But what happens when Becky is gone for the day, week, or – gasp! – forever? All of a sudden, there is a big gap in what had been a smooth operation, and likely a big caffeine deficit happening at your office to boot.
What if, instead of delegating and forgetting, you built a process that can plug in people as-needed? Yes, Becky usually takes care of the coffee, but when she’s on vacation, you can still make sure you are powered up. Perhaps this process is a series of flowcharts or checklists showing how and when coffee is ordered and made.
Or perhaps it is a few pages in an operations binder. If you are like many firms, there is at least one piece of paper taped to a cupboard explaining what to do.
Now, if this works for coffee, it can work for a lot more. For example, opening files and engagement letters: the process of obtaining the client’s information, checking for conflicts, preparing the engagement letter, and sending it to the client is not magic.
It probably happens the same way in your office. But is it written down? Would a new employee be able to follow the process without having to follow people around for three days, taking notes? If it is, the training time can be lessened dramatically.
In addition, if a process breaks down, it is much easier to track down what went wrong, address it, and prevent it from occurring again.
Processes, Processes, and More Processes
Coffee and engagement letters are low-hanging fruit, but there are lots of other processes and procedures within your firm that can be codified. In doing so, you will also likely find that those same processes can be made more efficient. Once you actually look at the processes, you will likely find that they can be updated and upgraded. Technology has forced some changes (hello, e-filing) and allowed others.
Processes can create efficiencies, but they can also help you avoid malpractice. Having a set system for ensuring deadlines are docketed can save a lot of heartache and confusion. The same is true for creating a process to report actions to clients. No more waking up in the middle of the night wondering if something got done. And if something didn’t go according to plan, you can easily track down where it went off the rails.
Second, creating processes can help you build a culture devoid of finger-pointing. If something goes wrong, you can step through the process and see where it fell apart.
Then instead of yelling at that person, analyze how it went wrong. Was the process set up to fail? Do you have the wrong person in charge of that step? Are extra steps or backstops needed to ensure this doesn’t happen or to catch it when it does?
If a person is failing consistently at a step, you can often determine if that person needs to find a new position and have concrete reasons why it is best he does.
Even better, you can have those involved in the process help create and improve the process. If someone continuously trips up on a step, she can suggest some improvements in the process. The process needs improving, not the person (or her co-workers). She can see what happens before and suggest what can be changed to make sure she is set up to succeed. In turn, she can see what comes after to make sure she is doing what is needed to ensure she isn’t the sticking point for later actions.
Additional Resources on Workflow Processes
Daniel J. Siegel, "Checklists for Lawyers", ABA Book Publishing (2014)
Irene Leonard, Checklists: The Basis for Excellence, www.coachingforchange.com
Nicole Black, How to Streamline Your Law Firm's Workflow, www.mycase.com
Darren Mee, Strategic Legal Process Improvement, www.legalprocessimprovement.com
Catherine Alman MacDonagh, JD and Laura Colcord, "Law Firm Approaches to Process Improvements," LeanLegalSigma.com (2012).
A Starting Point
Now that we have you sold on creating processes, how do you start? Don’t be afraid to start small. Coffee is a good place to start. Or something else that happens almost automatically already, such as opening the office each day. Just document it.
Then look around. Where do you start sweating just thinking about an end result? What causes you heartburn? Then what needs to happen to alleviate it? That’s called motivation. Another approach is to think about what process happens that seems to be locked in one person’s head. If that person leaves, what boats are now up a certain creek? There should be no black boxes. Or, think about tasks that are repetitive and generally delegated to the new person, but are still critical to the operation of your office.
Can those be reduced to a documented process?
Example: Engagement Letter. You know what information is needed, but do you have a form? Who fills out that form? Once you have that information, where does that information need to go next? How does it get there? That’s Module 1.
Module 2 likely is your conflict check. Who does it? What databases need to be checked? How is it reported out? How is the decision made, reported back, or appealed? If you are a flowchart person, you likely have some forks here based on the multiple options. Assuming no conflicts, the engagement letter needs to be created.
You already do this on a very regular basis. Now make sure everyone is doing it and doing it correctly. In addition to flowcharts, checklists make tasks with multiple steps easier and more uniform. Checklists allow you to save time by pulling out the checklist instead of reinventing the wheel each time you need the work done.
Checklists and flowcharts go hand in hand with standard forms. Any document that is used more than once can be customized. Anything can be turned into a form – letters, notices, contracts, etc. Forms allow you to leverage yourself by saving time in creating the document. For example, a letter forwarding a deed to the Register of Deeds can be standardized. This will reduce the time it takes to create the letter. It also allows anyone in the office to create a letter that sounds the same as earlier submitted letters.
Processes can help lawyers, especially solo and small firm lawyers, create efficient systems for everything you do. Once you start to analyze what tasks can be turned into processes – and all of them can – you will be able to implement systems that create efficiencies, produce better work product, and free your time for that thing called life.
1 The New Oxford English Dictionary (2001).