My Newfound Obsession With Process

As the launch date for my solo practice approaches, I find myself obsessed in a way I never was before in my law practice about the subject of process. I have developed the belief that my own practice is far more likely to be both successful and satisfying if I establish a solid set of systems for how my business will operate.

This isn’t brain surgery, of course. I’ve been influenced by blogs I’ve read and the excellent law practice start-up books by Carolyn Elefant and Jay Foonberg. Specifically on the subject of process, however, I learned a lot from The E-Myth Attorney, by Michael Gerber, Robert Armstrong and Sanford Fisch.

The central notion of The E-Myth Attorney, about which I’ve previously written, is that law firms, whether a solo practice, small partnership or large firm, should adopt and meticulously implement specific systems for every single thing the business does, from greeting clients, to filing papers to making coffee. Ideally, under the E-Myth model, these systems will be reduced to a handbook that can be handed to every new employee as they walk in the door. As Gerber, et al. write:

“With the right systems, your law firm will . . . reflect your vision about practicing law. What is going to make your firm unique? Why should prospective clients pick your firm over all others? What special place will your practice occupy in the community?

In the beginning, maybe it was just about the money. Get the clients in the door and start generating as many fees as you can. But we all know that’s not a sustainable business model and, more importantly, will not ultimately serve you or your clients.

But when you implement systems, you create the machine that can work independently of you. You give your employees the roadmap they need to do the things that need to get done.

•  This is how we greet clients.

•  This is how we draft documents.

•  This is how we take a deposition.

•  This is how we prepare for trial.

•  This how we manage our finances.

•  This is how we generate leads and convert them into retained clients.

•  This is how we hire great people.

And so on and so on . . .” (Id. at 66-67.)

Applying this concept to my own world, what kind of systems am I developing for my new practice? First, a major priority for my firm is to be as paperless as possible while maintaining a reliable filing system. While litigators in California are still required to serve documents in paper by mail (in addition, perhaps, to email or fax service), I think this practice will soon be history. Already most courts I deal with do fax and electronic filing. Most lawyers I deal with prefer to receive documents by email. So, I suspect there will be only limited need to serve or hand-deliver anything in paper form before too long.

Embracing paperless practices, if done systematically, will reduce overhead associated with having a file clerk (or, gasp, doing it myself), and it will reduce storage space (and attendant cost). Using the system I’m developing will, moreover, make it easier to instantly access a document without the need to carry large, bulky files with me wherever I go. So, the system will be to convert any document I receive by mail, fax or email into a pdf file that can be saved–and is immediately saved–in an appropriate sub-sub-sub folder created for a particular client, matter, category (discovery) and sub-category (interrogatories). Again, I recognize that this isn’t rocket science, but it is one example of how I’m focusing lots of energy at the outset in developing systems for each aspect of my practice that can be reasonably systematized.

Of course, not everything can be done according to a system. Part of the reason lawyers are in demand and charge a financial premium is that we are taught not to think one dimensionally about a legal problem. In other words, the solution to a problem that best serves my client might not be the most obvious solution. It might require an innovative approach that is exactly the opposite of what our system would prescribe. But this is not an exception that swallows the rule. Rather, it is by subjecting tasks that are logically capable of systematization to a rigorous system, that we are freed up to devote time and mental energy to solving our client’s most complex problems in innovative ways.

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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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