January 14, 2016
Editor’s Note: This series, Firm Resolutions, is written by small law firm consultant Jared Correia. For a jumpstart on your resolutions, request a free trial of Firm Central, Thomson Reuters’ practice management software.
Kris Kringle is known for making a list, and checking it twice. Lawyers avoid lists — and, when they do make them, often fail to check in on their progress, rendering them essentially useless. Law firms tend to lack effective processes, in part because lawyers have not traditionally been good about following through on their best intentions.
This failure of process extends to firm and calendar management. Advice like ‘seize the day’ plays well in the movies; but, for practicing lawyers, if all you’re thinking about is seizing one day at a time, you’re bound to become overwhelmed (and overstressed). Furthermore, mismanaging the law firm calendar can lead to ethics issues and malpractice complaints. (Miss a court date? Forget to file a motion? You’ve just prejudiced your client, perhaps beyond repair.)
The majority of attorneys operate in daily silos, hopping from one to the next, without recognizing the value of a holistic outlook for the practice. How many of us ever step out of the moment, to allow ourselves a chance to plan, to see how progress on one matter affects lack of progress on another? In consequence, law firm management is reactive, rather than proactive. But, attorneys who can proactively manage their workloads better understand the flow of their jobs, are more efficient and save time, money and client relationships.
If you’re that attorney who sets foot in the office and feels instantly beset, the way out may be simpler than you might have imagined. There are three basic tactics law firms can apply to calendar and task management that will release the tension.
- First, apply ticklers, or reminders, to events and tasks. A major stressor for lawyers is having something due/something to do that day . . . when you’ve only just become aware of the duty that morning. This problem is eliminated by the use of reminders. Reminders force you to look ahead, for upcoming events, and allow you to maneuver surrounding events and tasks to accommodate order of importance. It’s far better to nag yourself with three reminders that a motion is due, than to walk into the office on Tuesday, and have to have it completed by noon. If you use an automated legal calendaring program, like Firm Central’s Deadline Assistant which automatically updates your calendar with changes, then these reminders will automatically adjust whenever a court date/deadline changes.
- Second, build workflows. Workflows are aggregations of tasks, rather than individual reminders. You can create a one-time tickler, to remind you that you have a court date coming up; or, you can develop a set of reminders related to a major task — for example, if you have to submit a motion on that court date, you can utilize a series of ticklers attached to that task; subtasks may include: complete research, first draft, review draft with supervisor, second draft, etc. In addition to serving as staggered reminders, workflows allow you to create milestones, for breaking larger (potentially overwhelming) projects up into smaller, more easily digestible, chunks.
- Third, use checklists. Checklists for certain matter types will outline common tasks, to create a standard process for servicing similar matters. A sample matter management checklist for overworked attorneys is available to demonstrate. If your firm does the same ten things for every immigration case it takes on, those ten things should devolve to a tactical checklist for immigration cases. Professionals often feel as though they have advanced past the point of using checklists; but, Atul Gawande’s best-selling ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ proves that checklists can help even the most highly-skilled professionals to avoid simple errors.
Checklists can attach to substantive and administrative matters: conflict checking, client intake, legal research, drafting/formatting, cite checking, and negotiations/trial preparation. In addition to streamlining processes and adding to existing efficiencies, the development of matter checklists often offers lawyers a window into the full scope of the work performed.
An added benefit: at that point, the average attorney gets a better view of what she can delegate, and what she should keep for herself. Lawyers who delegate the right portion of their work effectively, keep for themselves the creative, high-value services that clients are most willing to pay for. Perhaps we’ll explore this in a future series.
To get started, use our matter management checklist for overworked attorneys to organize your legal work and streamline administrative processes.