How to Make a Law Practice More Manageable

I am speaking today to the CBA BC Branch Civil Litigation and Young Lawyers Sections in Victoria on “how to make a law practice more manageable.” A “manageable” law practice is akin to “work-life balance” – one of those lovely theoretical concepts which is invariably noted by a perceived lack of achievement thereof. With that proviso in mind, here are some humble thoughts in this regard:

1. Money

One of our lawyers is fond of stating the truism that “charity starts at home,” meaning that if we aren’t taking the right steps to stay financially afloat, then we will be forced to close up shop and will be unable to continue to serve our clients. Have all staff enter their time (billable and non-billable) at the end of every day so you can assess the overall efficiency of different practice areas and allocations of work. Once you have this info, remember that “loss leader” practice areas usually just mean loss. Lever work down to the most efficient level. Be disciplined about obtaining retainers and having a signed retainer agreement at the outset of every file. A client that won’t pay a retainer up front most likely won’t pay you at the completion of a matter. At month end, ensure that you run cash flow and lawyer and staff productivity reports to assess your firm’s financial health, and take swift action as required. The viability of the entire enterprise rests on it.

2. Systems

The pareto principle states that 20% of the inputs creates 80% of the outputs. Streamline, automate and outsource what you can so you can focus your efforts on what you are best at and most profitable doing. On a related note, “e-myth” your firm, meaning that you should organize and manage your firm like you intend to sell it. The purpose is to spend some time working on rather than in the firm so it runs more efficiently and profitably. One of the best ways to do this is to create a comprehensive office information and procedure manual. Our firm has one with the following categories:
– General Office Info & Forms
– Bookkeeping & Accounting
– IT
– HR
– For all practice areas, key knowledge management info, client handouts and questionnaires, checklists and precedents.

3. Technology

The biggest IT bang for your buck is probably technology to go paperless.

Why to Do It

Generally speaking, the benefits are:

– reduced file storage costs;
– the efficiency of having all firm information reside in once central digital repository. Also, a firm is better positioned to take advantage of new technologies such as document automation if client information is already stored digitally;
– better risk management as client conflict checks are more comprehensive and automatic;
– the ability to work remotely, enhancing work life balance (which can be a human resources advantage);
– often enhanced client service through increased speed of delivery of legal services; and
being paperless is green as thousands of documents are never printed out.

Issues to Be Aware Of

A firm has to be aware of potential issues of being paperless, including:

– the importance to regular and secure data back-up;
– security concerns; and
– potential staff resistance.

How to Do It

At the outset, a firm needs to be dedicated to the paperless goal and implement a well organized plan. It is important to get buy in from all staff, put firm policies in place and ensure adequate time and resources are allotted to planning, implementation and training.

Second, a firm must ensure its hardware is up to the demands of the increased amount of scanning, processing and storage. Network servers need the ability to store up to 5 GB per lawyer per year. Having a reliable backup system and testing it often is critical. A firm should consider installing scanners at every desk and have a central printer/scanner for larger scanning projects.

Third, a firm needs to put the required software in place. Adobe Acrobat is the standard for document exchange and is a good means for converting paper documents to legal files. A document management software program needs to be selected, which serves as an electronic filing cabinet. Finally, a firm may want to consider legal practice management software as well. Practice management software allows a law firm to centrally organize client information digitally, including accounting, contact and case data. Practice management programs often have document management capabilities built in, or you can link a third party document management program such as Worldox. Two popular examples of practice management programs are Amicus Attorney and PracticeMaster. We use Time Matters, but I don’t recommend it because LexisNexis has instituted a policy of mandatory annual fees, with penalties payable if you haven’t paid and need to upgrade, purchase a new licence or obtain technical support.

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