chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.

Law Practice Magazine

The Management Issue

Making the Walk Easier

Erik Mazzone


  • Law firm management is critical, and leveraging reliable tools is essential for success.
  • Categories of technology tools that aid in law firm management include shared task lists, project-based communications platforms and project management software.
  • Technology can serve as the "bicycle" to make management more efficient.
Making the Walk Easier

Jump to:

Steve Jobs famously compared a computer to a “bicycle for our minds.” He was musing on the idea that condors were the most efficient moving animals (using the least energy to cover a kilometer) on the planet, besting humans by a wide margin. But when a human was allowed to use a bicycle to cover the kilometer, the human became the most efficient animal, leaving the condor in the proverbial dust.

I promise that is the end of my Apple fanboying for this article.

Managing a law firm is a lot like walking to cover distance. At its core, it is a highly manual process. Law firms run (for now, anyway) on people power. The lawyers, paralegals and other professionals in the firm are still most of the firm’s machinery, or means of production, if you prefer a little Marx with your law practice management.

One of the highly regarded management gurus of the last century, Tom Peters, even coined a term, MBWA, or management by walking around. MBWA acknowledged that a substantial portion of people management happens in unplanned, serendipitous interactions between management and employees. The phrase itself beckons toward just how laborious the process is. Anyone who has ever managed a team of people knows . . . that stuff will wear you out.

Definitely more of a human walking thing, less of a condor thing.

There are bicycles available, though. Despite law firm management involving a lot of analog, human-based, hand-spun interaction, there is an array of technologies available to help lighten the load, to help the law firm managers compete with the condors. There is a manager’s tech stack, if you prefer to think of it in those terms.

I’m going to go through some solutions for the remainder of this article––not specific products, but categories of tools that might add some lift to your management efforts.

A couple of notes at the outset:

  • Do you already use Office software (like Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace)?
  • Do you already use practice management software?

If you answered yes to either of those questions, you already have and are paying for options that fill some of these categories. It is worth taking the time to inventory the options that you already have at your disposal. Underusing expensive and sophisticated technology is epidemic in law firms, and managing partners are no exception.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good as you go through this list. You don’t need the perfect solution; you just need one that works. Like the old advice you are likely to get if you ask a photographer which is the best camera, the best tech solution is “the one you have with you.”

Shared Task List

One of the most useful and simple bits of tech in the manager’s tech stack is the shared task list. Here I am referring to a digital task app that allows you to:

  1. Create multiple lists.
  2. Organize those lists with folders or tags.
  3. Share a list with another person (consider whether you need to be able to share outside your firm, with web designers or virtual assistants and so on).
  4. Delegate a task to a person with whom you share the list, so they know what they are responsible for.
  5. Assign dates, notes, reminders and other features that are common in most task management apps.

Being able to review the status of a task, or group of tasks, without having to exchange emails or set a status meeting is a huge time saver. Working off a shared list reduces the chances of miscommunications around dates, responsibilities and other significant details.

Project-Based Communications

Let’s face it. Your email inbox is probably a mess. And by probably, I mean definitely. And by a mess, I mean it should be on a show about hoarders. Unless you’re one of those Inbox Zero zealots. You can stack that up with CrossFit and giving up television as three conversations people insist on sharing with everyone that nobody else wants to hear about.

But I digress.

The mess of an inbox is not your fault. There are still way too many inputs coming into your inbox (which is astonishing, given how old email as a technology is) and if you’ve had the same email address for a while, the situation is likely to be getting worse over time. You hold old emails in your inbox to remind you of events and things you need to do . . . sometime.

You can’t expect that old mule of a technology to do all that and be a good place to keep communications going on important projects. You and your team will benefit from a dedicated resource to host these conversations, as well as a few ground rules for preventing that resource from turning into email inbox 2.0. Here’s a few suggested ground rules to get you started:

  1. Get your key project communications out of email.
  2. Use a separate communication channel that is just for the project.
  3. Only add the people to that channel who are involved in the project.
  4. Use a channel that allows people to share documents or other digital work products.
  5. Choose a channel that has a mobile app so you can easily check it from your phone.
  6. Spin up new channels for new projects.
  7. Sunset channels for projects that have closed.
  8. Rigorously keep conversation in the channel on topic.

Project Management

While we are on project-oriented solutions, dedicated project management software can be a boon to managers having to keep multiple plates spinning at the same time. Think of it as practice management software for the projects that aren’t your cases/matters. (You are using practice management software, right? Otherwise, put that at the top of your list for your firm to evaluate.)

Like practice management software, there is a wide array of options of project management software available, running from the simple and user friendly, like Asana or Trello, to the eye-bleedingly complicated that only a Gantt chart’s mother could love. I’m not going to call out the egregiously over-complicated options here but trust me, you will know them when you see them.

Project management software will give your projects and team structure for their work, allowing you to lean into different project management strategies, such as Kanban or Scrum. Or if you just need the basics (someplace to host all the important dates, deadlines, conversations, documents, to-dos, ideas and deliverables), you will find those easy to come by.

Anyone who has integrated practice management software into their practice finds practicing without that information to be like driving without a dashboard (and possibly steering wheel). Once you start integrating project management software into your workflow, you will feel the same way.

Meeting Facilitation

The final management tool in your stack to discuss today is a bit of a cheat––it’s only a technology in the broadest sense. But it is a tool that is vastly underutilized in law firms today: professional meeting facilitation.

There’s no getting around the fact that a huge portion of management involves meetings of some kind: video, in-person, phone or asynchronous. However you do it, it is the job of a manager to make sure that everyone on a given project (or in a firm) is rowing in the same direction. And there is no practical way to do that without checking in regularly with team members and occasionally convening the larger group to make sure everyone stays aligned.

Holding big group meetings is one of the most expensive things we do in law firms, once you account for the time spent on it. Managing committees routinely gnash their teeth over the expense of hardware and software purchases and training but the aggregate spend of firm meetings throughout the year likely towers above those expenses. It just doesn’t show up the same way in the spreadsheet.

Given how much time and money we commit to meetings, it’s a huge opportunity wasted to not try to get more out of those meetings. That’s where professional facilitators come in. They work with you and your team to understand your goals for the meeting and then help your group move toward those goals while injecting a little life, variety and hopefully fun into the process. Give it a try for your next firm meeting; think past the guest speaker and enlist a facilitator to help you make the entire enterprise more productive.

Managing a law firm is hard and important work. Lots of people depend on your fairness, diligence and reliability. With all those folks counting on you, do yourself a favor and enlist a few solutions and tools that you can count on, too.

Sometimes, there’s better ways to get from point A to point B than walking. Just ask a condor.