On the Beauty of Process: The E-Myth Attorney

Like many business books, the Attorney entry into Michael Gerber’s E-Myth series is substantively less revolutionary than it sounds.  But, it contains advice which, if followed, can be transformative.

What is an E-Myth Attorney? “In short, the E-Myth says that most attorneys don’t own a true business–most own a job disguised as a legal practice.  They’re doing it, doing it, doing it, hoping like hell to get some time off, but never figuring out how to get their business to run without them.  And if your business doesn’t run well without you, what happens when you can’t be in two places at once?  Ultimately, your practice will fail.” (From the Preface, xvii.)

The book is largely about transforming lawyers’ approach to their practices, so they think more like entrepreneurs.  There seems to be a cherished, romantic view that professionals, like doctors and lawyers, should somehow be above treating their practice as a business.  As if being called to the priesthood, one is called to the practice of law, and lawyers should avoid transforming this calling into a profitable enterprise.  I read blog posts and commentary that frown upon the notion that lawyers should build their law practice like a business.  That thinking is noble and all, until it comes time to pay off student loans or put a child through college.  Though we constantly confront media reports to the contrary, I’ve argued that there’s nothing mutually exclusive  about being a highly ethical professional, but also thinking like a business person.  This is exactly the premise of The E-Myth Attorney.

How should a lawyer think more like an entrepreneur?  The E-Myth authors focus heavily on the development of systems, ultimately a “system of systems.”  It’s not complicated.  Using the fantastic success of McDonald’s as a case study, the book discusses how that company “needed to turn pimply-faced, ADD, teenaged kids into productive workers in charge of multimillion dollar franchises.”  (64)  How did they do it? By developing a system for performing every task of the business which is imparted through meticulous training to every “pimply-faced, ADD” employee.  Figure out how to make the perfect hamburger or french fry, and train every employee to do it that way every time.  Starbucks uses the same philosophy, so I know a Grande nonfat latte in Toledo, Ohio or Montecito will taste just like it does in downtown Los Angeles.

Of course lawyers don’t make burgers, fries or lattes.  But much of the nuts and bolts of what we do–at least those parts that do not require our active thinking and involvement–are not too dissimilar from making burgers and fries in the sense of repeatability.  For example, a law practice that caters to individual clients, such as estate planning or family law, should develop a system for client intake, information and file management, calendaring and billing.  These aspects are required for every client, every case.  Most intelligent law practices already have systematic procedures for these tasks.  But there are other aspects of the practice that are capable of systematization, but which we tend to shun or put off systematizing.  Not only should we develop and use form files (they benefit attorneys and clients), but forms should be organized in a way that provides instantaneous access.   A practice which sees the same or similar claims or defenses over and over should have form discovery which goes out in every such case and which can be quickly tailored to fit unique or individual facts or claims.  Systematizing the familiar and repeatable parts of our practice frees us to direct our minds and attention away from the mundane, and toward that for which each of us are uniquely, and expensively, trained.

The book encourages attorneys to develop a manual about every element of the practice which can be given to a new employee.  Without this, the authors argue, the departure of a staff member becomes the kind of catastrophic event from which it takes months to recover.  And, the authors touch upon other points, including the notion of being selective in accepting clients, alternative billing arrangements, managing time and alternative marketing strategies.

But, for me, the E-Myth is ultimately about appreciating process.  I would argue that actively utilizing process and developing systems won’t just make our law practices more profitable and tolerable (what, take a vacation?!?), but it can help us do a better job as advocates.  I’ve seen the beauty of process first-hand, as my long time mentor is nearly obsessed with developing repeatable procedures for everything from answering an email from a client (must be the same day even if a substantive response is not immediately possible), to maintaining discovery notebooks for every case into which are gathered discovery, responses, correspondence about discovery and matrices of document productions in a single place.  I’ll confess that, after nearly two decades of trying to follow these procedures, it’s only now that I recognize that attention to process should appeal to everyone, not just the anal-retentive members of our profession.  It will make our practice better and our life easier.

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