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August 27, 2019 Articles

To Grow Your Practice, Start with a Strong Foundation

The first goal in your business-development plan needs to be getting your practice-management foundation in order.

By Allison Wolf

You are working late nights trying to catch up on work, but no matter how much time you spend, you are always behind. You sometimes use a to-do list, but mostly you keep it all in your head. You are frequently chasing deadlines and not always meeting them. There are a whole lot of people with whom you are out of touch, including clients whose work has stalled, and you dread seeing a message from them appear in your inbox.

Sound familiar?

If so, the first goal in your business-development plan needs to be getting your practice-management foundation in order. If your internal or external clients are dissatisfied, they won’t come back. They won’t refer files. And you can’t bring in new clients and files if you don't have time to do the work. In short, you can't successfully grow your practice until you have a secure practice-management foundation.

The list of essential pillars for this foundation include a file list, a bring-forward system, a to-do list with subcategories, a weekly meeting with yourself, daily prioritization, the Run a Dash system, and space creation.

File List

Compile a complete list of active files. Running a regular review of the list and next steps on each file is an essential way of ensuring that nothing is forgotten.

Bring-Forward (BF) System

Developments in legal technology mean that almost all lawyers have a system for BFing important deadlines and limitation periods.

What most of these systems are lacking are BFs for smaller tasks. If you are fortunate to have a great assistant, you can work with that person to establish a BF system for the day-to-day work on your files. If you don’t have an assistant with the capacity to support this—and most lawyers don’t—then keep reading for alternative approaches.

To-Do List with Subcategories

It is essential to have a to-do list that you update weekly and revise daily. Many of us, including me, got in the habit as students of keeping our to-do lists in our head. The problem is that our brains aren’t great at maintaining lists or telling us that we need to do something at the right moment. We are more likely to get reminded about outstanding to-do items in the middle of the night, or some other time of day when we can’t do anything about them. Thus, it is important to have a robust system for capturing your deliverables.

I use pen and paper for my list. Many people like using to-do list apps like Todoist or Outlook tasks. Experiment. Find what works for you.

I recommend using subcategories on your list to help you with planning and prioritization. In addition to your general list, some of these categories can include “Stalled,” “Decisions,” “People with Whom I Need to Communicate,” “Coming Up,” and “Later.”

  • Stalled. This category includes bits of work that you are putting off. You can aim to get moving on at least one item on that list each week.
  • Decisions. This category includes the decisions that you are putting off. You might find yourself procrastinating about a task or leaving an email unanswered because you need to make a decision. Get these open decisions on your list to remind you to make up your mind and move on.
  • People with Who I Need to Communicate. This category is useful for remembering with whom you need to get in touch to update on the status of a file.
  • Coming Up. This category is where you can place items that are not immediately due. I use this to remind me that something needs to get started. I am writing this article well in advance of the deadline because I saw the due date coming up and decided to take the opportunity to start early.
  • Later. This category functions as your BF list of tasks that aren’t due soon so that you can keep track of them.

Quarterly Goals

Set goals for the quarter. This is great for business development. Take a look at your plan for the year and decide what you want to advance over the coming quarter. I have worked with many lawyers who carry out their business plans with ease because they move it forward quarter by quarter with regular, small steps. Get your next small steps onto the to-do list.

Early Start—with Small Steps

For everything on your to-do list, write down the precise next step. Too often work stalls because it can seem like a big block of time is needed. The truth is that most things can be advanced, or at least started, with a few small steps.

Weekly Meeting (with Yourself)

Another critical habit is planning. Sit down weekly—the start of the week is best—with the file list and the to-do list from last week and update your to-do list for the coming week. What deadlines are coming up that need your attention? What are the priorities? What can you delegate? Do you need to protect time on the calendar for getting something important done?

Daily Prioritization

If you have a weekly meeting with yourself, daily planning becomes much more manageable. You can determine your priorities for the day and what other smaller, less urgent tasks you can move forward with small steps.

Run a Dash System

Run a Dash (RAD) is a vital habit that I urge you to take up. It is about using small increments of time—five to 15 minutes—to get a task moving or done.

This is about using the time that is found in what I call the crevices of your schedule. Use the small break between one meeting and another. Ten minutes at the very start of the day. Five minutes before heading out to lunch. When you use these small increments of time profitably, a lot can get done.

Use the RAD habit to get started on a stalled item or to advance your business plan by emailing a contact to schedule a lunch. You can also use it for catching up on filing or sending a quick email to a client. Your to-do list will have many tasks to which you can apply RAD.

Space Creation

There are also those few tasks that are big and require a chunk of focused time.

I know one busy litigator who is writing a book. The book stalled until he realized that he needed to create a space in his schedule for it. It was never going to work during regular office hours. He is now using an hour in the morning from home for working on the book and, at last, is seeing some real progress.

You also need to create space for business development. One estate litigator uses her first 15 minutes of each morning for working on business development. She loves the feeling of accomplishment that this gives her.


What’s your next step? What do you want to implement from this list? Choose one thing to focus on and get it established before moving on to the next strategy or habit. A solid practice-management foundation is essential to business development. Take the time to strengthen yours.

Allison Wolf is an experienced lawyer coach in Vancouver, British Columbia, and founder of the blog

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