General Practice, Solo & Small Firm DivisionTechnology & Practice GuideThe Compleat Lawyer, Spring 1996, Vol. 13, No. 2

Law Office Management Techniques for improving your work environment

BY PHIL J. SHUEY

Phil J. Shuey is president of Shuey Robinson, an international legal technology and management consulting organization. He is a past chair of the ABA's Law Practice Management Section. Mr. Shuey has lectured throughout the United States and Canada on matters of law office management and technology, and has written widely in the

National Law Journal, New York Law Journal, Legal Economics, Law Practice Management, The Practical Lawyer, Lawyer/Manager, and Trial Talk.

The issue of lawyer dissatisfaction reached major visibility when the ABA Young Lawyers Division published their At the Breaking Point study in 1990. One of the major conclusions of that study is that some quality of life issues can be addressed by the use of effective law office management techniques. Lawyers who properly manage their time, clients, cases, technology, and law firm are bound to have more fulfilling lives and careers.

Abraham Lincoln correctly indicated that time is the lawyer's stock in trade. If the attorney can recapture control of his or her professional day, then the quality of professional life will be enhanced. For better professional time management, organize the day's activities at the start of each day. It is very easy to become swept up in the myriad of daily tasks facing the typical lawyer, thereby failing to prepare for what must be accomplished. Set aside at least 15 minutes each morning to evaluate the remainder of the workday. If necessary, start the day a bit early to preserve this evaluation and organization time.

All tasks do not have the same importance; hence, some organization of tasks by importance must also be accomplished before any work commences. The lawyer must distinguish the important from the unimportant and the urgent from the nonurgent. Urgent matters require immediate attention, but may or may not be important. It is critical that each item be prioritized.

Some tasks are genuinely unappealing but still must be accomplished. Plan to reward yourself regularly after completing such tasks, or even significant portions of such activity. Take a break, get a cup of coffee, walk around the office, or just relax for a moment to acknowledge that an unpleasant chore has been completed.

Establish at least two quality blocks of time (each a minimum of four hours) per week. This time can be used for any tasks that require complete concentration and large blocks of time, such as drafting complex documents or trial preparation.
  • Organize the day
  • Prioritize tasks
  • Reward accomplishment
  • Set blocks of time

Managing Your Clients

Today's legal market is a buyers' market, so clients exercise greater demands than ever upon their lawyers. Even so, a lawyer must institute procedures that control the client, rather than allowing the client to control the lawyer. Allowing the client to arbitrarily control workloads and timelines removes any possibility of time management.

At the initial conference, the lawyer should clarify the client's expectations on such matters as the review of documents and/or fax transmissions. The latter has become a very abused area, because faxes imply that immediate attention is required. While prompt attention to a client's needs is good client management, hasty reactions will not deliver the quality of service that the client deserves. Worse, such haste will expose the lawyer to the possibility of errors. A cursory review harms the client and creates potential mistakes. Adequate time for review, reflection, and exercise of professional judgment is essential to good practice management.

Another client management area involves the use of the telephone. Advise clients of the firm's policy regarding returning telephone calls at the initial conference. The policy should promote a timely return of nonurgent calls within 24 hours. When taking a phone message, office staff should request the best time for the lawyer to return the call. This approach conveys recognition of the importance of the client's call, but also emphasizes the inability of the lawyer to be available for all calls.

If possible, plan to return calls at times when the length of the call can be controlled. Even when the client is billed on an hourly basis, unnecessarily lengthy calls can adversely impact the lawyer's ability to perform other work. The best times to call? Just before lunch and at the end of the business day. In both cases, the client will be motivated to limit the call to essentials.

Ensure that the firm fee agreement or letter of engagement indicates that the client will be billed for all time, including telephone calls. Billing for all calls, preferably with a fair minimum charge for every call, will assure that telephone calls are managed by both the client and the lawyer.

Often, a telephone call does not require the personal involvement of the attorney. If appropriate, delegate telephone calls to legal assistants or others in the office, if that delegation helps you manage your time and also benefits the client. Naturally, do not put the legal assistant in the role of having to deflect requests for legal advice.

Often, clients will "drop in" for a meeting with their lawyer. Certainly all clients should feel welcome in the firm's office, but clients must understand that appointments will help ensure that the lawyer is available for a meeting with the client. Discourage drop ins and encourage appointments, even if the appointment request is on relatively short notice. In general, meet with drop ins only if it is a bona fide emergency, which makes the setting of an appointment impossible, or if the meeting will assist the lawyer in some pressing matter for that client. Establish an office procedure that will allow all appointments to be scheduled relatively promptly (ideally within a week), unless it is an emergency. Such prompt response may eliminate the drop in problem.

Much of the stress that affects lawyers can be attributed to troublesome clients. It is good management to assess current clients and determine if any should be "fired." At minimum, this assessment should determine whether to deny any client future representation. If "red flags" pop up when meeting with a prospective client, trust your gut reactions and send the person to another attorney with whom a better professional representation might be possible. In every case, listen to your inner signals--if it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't.
  • Set reasonable expectations
  • Manage the telephone
  • Discourage drop ins
  • Fire troublesome clients

Management of Your Cases

Unfortunately, the work flow in the practice of law is uneven. For example, in a litigation practice, there are times of intense activity and periods of relative calm. Planning will assist the management of resources so that peak, "crunch" periods can be met without undue frustrations. Lulls or lesser periods of activity can be used to accomplish some of the tasks necessary to meet critical future deadlines.

General project management approaches, including use of "at a glance" wall calendars with critical dates and blocks of time, will assist in the visualization of "crunch" periods. While not specifically designed for law practice, generic project management software can help plan for allocation of resources. Minimizing the peaks and valleys of the work flow removes stress for the entire law office staff.

Use of legal specific case management software will help lawyers maintain greater caseloads with less effort and staff assistance by providing convenient monitoring of the status of every case. This broad category of software usually includes components for controlling calendars, deadlines, tracking the names of involved parties and counsel, and uniform generation of correspondence and documents. For practices with high volumes or a few limited areas of practice, this type of software merits review and consideration.

Recent U.S. job growth projections indicate that generalists in any occupation are declining. The general practice requires special skills to survive and prosper. Identify the characteristics that make the general practice attractive to your firm and your clients, and then market them.
  • Use project management
  • Use case management
  • Sell the general practice

Managing Technology

The practice of law involves the capture of information and its storage, manipulation, and recall. Computers are ideal for all forms of information management. Shift the burden of such information management to computers, and remove that stress from the practice.

The lawyer may recognize that the practice can be improved by changes such as integrating new technology into the office, adopting new processes or procedures, or mastering new law. Unfortunately, even with that recognition, the lawyer may feel constrained by what I call the "time treadmill." Lawyers on the time treadmill feel that the press of meeting current practice needs restricts the possibility of stopping that work to adopt changes. The firm must commit to providing the time and support for lawyers attempting to bring change into their professional lives. In the case of technology, another lawyer might take on additional caseload responsibilities for a day or two while the lawyer receives training in new technology. Without that level of commitment, the lawyer will never be able to get off the time treadmill.

Use technology to become your "memory" in docketing and calendar control so that work flow remains even and critical deadlines are met.

Similarly, effective billing procedures can be supported by technology. Use technology to bill in a timely fashion, rebill as needed, and provide the information that assists the firm in management decisions. It does not enhance quality of life to be unpaid for hard work. Voluntary work is to be commended, and is essential to the effective delivery of legal services to those who otherwise could not afford them. However, refuse to get involved in "involuntary pro bono."

Use technology to capture and preserve the firm's most valuable asset--the existing work product. This technology should include document management software so that the preserved work product will be retrievable. Technology allows the firm or lawyer to track important client information and offer "personalized" service without additional strain and effort.

Technology can also preserve the firm's culture. Memory fades, so using computers to keep track of institutional memory can be helpful. A computerized firm manual will preserve decisions about the functioning of the firm, avoiding "ad hoc" inequities. In addition, this technology can capture important dates such as birthdays.

Consistent, quality work product will ensure happy clients, and will remove stress for the lawyer. Document assembly programs for the repetitious work of the firm aids in quality control. In all cases, review the firm's technology to evaluate if it allows the firm to deliver services better, faster, and cheaper.
  • Break the time treadmill
  • Use computers for information management
  • Use technology to bill effectively

Managing the Firm

As much as lawyers hate the concept, strategic planning allows the lawyer or the firm to plan for the future. Make sure that expectations are reasonable; no matter how well intended, if they are unreasonable, expectations will not be met.

Does the firm have a mission statement? It should be a short (less than one page) written statement that defines what the firm wants to be. Every law firm should craft a mission statement. This process will help the firm focus on what is important.

Target an acceptable number of "billable hours" for the firm that can be reached without loss of the joys of life. It is probably foolish, dangerous, or dishonest to assume that lawyers will work in excess of 2,000 billable hours per year--the equivalent of billing fifty 40-hour weeks and taking two weeks a year as vacation.

If the strategic plan does not allow for a reasonable number of billable hours, consider alternative methods of billing or value billing to see if goals can be accomplished with less hours. Time is only one ethical measurement of the value of the service provided to a client. It is fair to factor in the firm's unique skills, knowledge of the law, and experience when setting a fee. If an alternative billing method is adopted, make sure that firm representation agreements are modified to reflect the billing arrangement.

How does the firm administer the office? If you have more than five people in the office, hiring an office manager or an administrator might make sense. What is your time worth? Do you like to perform administrative tasks? What is the value of your time if applied to client work instead?

Delegation is an effective law office management technique that reduces stress and enhances the quality of life for everyone. Not all legal work must be performed by an attorney, so spread around the workload. It is a difficult skill to master, because most lawyers have been schooled that he or she is indispensable to every aspect of the process, but this is just not true. Learn to delegate and strive to be effective at it.
  • Create a mission statement
  • Evaluate billing expectations
  • Consider administrative assistance
  • Delegate, delegate, delegate

Sidebar 1: Beyond the Office: Take Care of Yourself

Work when you are at your best. Some people are "morning" people; others are "evening" people. Everyone has an inherent circadian rhythm, which dictates the body clock responses. Plan to complete critical work during your best time of day. Arrange appointments and important tasks for your peak productivity periods. Relegate routine or ordinary tasks to your "low" periods. Remember that the most skillful negotiators use every tool at their disposal to obtain the optimum results.

Professional and intellectual well-being can be enhanced by a consistent program of exercise and health care. When considering health matters, remember that moderation in all things is old but solid advice. If your health or life seems out of balance, you have violated this tenet. Identify and isolate the stresses in your life. It is naive to assume that all stress can be exorcised, but remember that stress shortens life.

Vacations or breaks in work help mental health. Budget for everyone to step back from the firm for rest and relaxation. Identify two critical personal goals for each year and commit to accomplishing at least one every year.

Exercise can be therapeutic. Exercise regularly at a reasonable and moderate level. Usually, the greatest success will come from exercise programs that become a habit. In addition, choose exercise that you enjoy. For example, if you hate racquetball, it is unlikely to become a habit.

Do not allow your strategic planning to be limited to professional goals. Use strategic planning for personal goals as well.

Finally, remember the adage, "You didn't create the world and you're not running it." As much as we would like to assume that the world will bend to our needs and direction, it does not, and it will not.

--P.S.

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