If you want your law practice to run smoother, you need to start documenting workflows.
Documenting workflows will make it easier for you to leverage automation and outsourcing.
Having your workflows systematically documented will make it easier to sell your law practice when the time comes. It will make your practice more valuable, so you’ll be able to sell it for more money.
But let’s stay in the here and now, and talk about a 5-Step process for documenting your workflows.
1. Notice Repetitive Workflows
Pay attention to which workflows are (1) key to your law practice, and (2) highly repetitive.
Pick one process to document first.
As you go through the process in the usual way, pay close attention to every detail in how you execute every step in the process.
For example, civil litigators have repetitive workflows related to responding to discovery requests.
The workflow might be something like:
- Contact client and provide a list of documents to be gathered, and inform them of the deadline for gathering the documents
- Follow up with the client one week before the deadline to make sure those documents are provided.
- Review the documents for privilege or unnecessary duplication
- Scan documents into PDF format
- Transmit documents to opposing counsel via link to Dropbox
2. Document Workflows
As you’re going through the process, write down each step.
In the beginning, it’s best to use paper and pen to keep things simple.
Eventually, you’ll want to store your documentation in a cloud-based tool like SweetProcess. You need a cloud-based tool so that anyone in your firm can access the workflow documentation from anywhere.
3. Optimize Your Documentation
Once you’ve documented workflows in a checklist fashion, stop and consider if you have captured everything that needs to be done. Consider if there are situations that might require an alternate variation to be used.
If you have over five or six steps, see if you should eliminate some steps that are obvious or straightforward.
Always consider if any steps are missing that should be included.
Yes, this takes time. But it’s time well spent, and it’s something you’ll keep coming back to as the workflow documentation is used more often.
For example, with the “discovery workflow” described above, you might find that you need to make the follow-up deadline earlier than one week.
Also, it might not be enough to say “contact the client.”
Perhaps it would be better to write “First, contact the client by phone to let them know we’ve received a request, and then email them a PDF of the document request we received from opposing counsel.”
Improving the workflow is part of the process and provides the greatest payoff.
4. Test The Documentation
After documenting workflows initially, you (or someone in your firm) should test the workflow.
Anyone should be able to do the job by referencing the written workflow.
But don’t assume that everyone will understand the workflow that’s been written down. Don’t get frustrated if they don’t.
Remember, you will constantly improve every workflow that you document.
After the initial test, you’re ready to put the workflow into action. Share it with someone that’s likely to be using it and tell them to follow the process verbatim.
But give them permission to improve it. Show them how to update the workflow (in whichever cloud-based service you choose to use).
Let them know they now “own it.” Tell them “this is your job, not mine.”
Delegation is about more than just off-loading work to others.
You have to clearly define what you want to be done. You must also clearly establish your expectations (see e.g. the 5 Levels of Delegation).
Lawyer Case Studies
Craig Kahn started his solo practice in Ohio in 1996, and before long was managing a group of other attorneys, paralegals, staffers, accounting folks, marketing people etc. His firm handled hundreds of cases a year, but by the end he wasn’t involved in handling any of the cases.
He wrote a book called The Ultimate Law Firm (which I highly recommend) to describe how he extricated himself from the “billable hour treadmill.”
“There was a time when I did talk to every client and handle every detail of every file. That’s how I learned what it took to do things correctly each step of the way.
However, very early on, I began creating templates and systems designed to allow someone else to do the same thing as I was doing and to prevent any case from getting stalled or any task from falling through the cracks.
I then hired and trained the right people on these systems, and they could do the same things I was doing. And together, we improved the templates and systems over time.”
If you want to make your practice exponentially easier to manage, follow the path that Craig Kahn took and develop systems for your practice. Of course, he’s not the only attorney you can emulate…
John Fisher handles traumatic injury cases in New York State, and he wrote a book called The Power of a System.
He was a frazzled attorney “running around from one task to the next like a chicken with its head cut off.” He realized that he needed a solution to this problem — “a system for managing and operating a law firm.”
He documented systems for every aspect of his firm “from the financial payroll and goals to minutiae such as answering the phones.”
The result is his book, The Power of a System.
We must be systematic about how we practice law. If we don’t work systematically we’ll wallow in disorganization and chaos.
Every business needs to be systematic if it is to thrive.
After all, even manual laborers have detailed processes for doing their work.