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October 2017

How old-school checklists can help you better serve clients

“Checklists allow you to improve the representation you give your clients,” says Daniel Siegel, a practicing attorney in Havertown, Pa., and founder and president of Integrated Technology Services LLC, a consulting service for attorneys. He and his paralegal, Pamela Myers, discuss ways to incorporate checklists into your law practice in the webinar “The Checklist Lawyer: Serving Your Clients More Efficiently.” The webinar is sponsored by the ABA Law Practice Division, Center for Professional Development and Young Lawyers Division.

Siegel and Myers list some how-tos and benefits of using checklists:

They can help streamline office processes. With a checklist, you’ll be more likely to

  • make deadlines
  • file documents correctly
  • obtain client consent
  • screen clients thoroughly
  • perform adequate investigations
  • document your work.

“You can’t take a thumb drive, stick it in your head and transfer the data,” says Siegel. A checklist makes your thoughts and work processes accessible to your co-workers, ensuring that essential pieces of the legal practice are done correctly every time. “As we get older, it gets harder to remember everything,” admits Siegel. He says the right checklist will keep your memory and your office functioning smoothly.

You can choose a format that works for you. “Don’t think of checklists as a list of items with a box,” says Siegel. Checklists can also take the form of a phone message or an intake form. Siegel cites these examples of checklists:

  • Read-do is like a “how-to” and involves reading as you perform the task
  • Do-confirm means checking off a task when it is completed
  • Pause points are checklists with built-in places in the process called “stops” that facilitate communication between all the members of your team or firm
  • Multiparty plans outline the involvement of different firms in handling a claim or case to guide the overall transaction. “You can have checklists that don’t require you to do anything, but remind you when other people are supposed to do things,” Myers says.

Siegel recommends using software to keep track of different checklists. “We have a lot of appellate cases… our software has the checklist of all of those items and since they’re based on a due date, the software automatically creates the to-dos for those people,” he says. Invite your co-workers to participate in finding out which type of checklist would work best for your office.

You can choose one that facilitates adaptability and collaboration. “Discuss your processes with others who perform the same tasks to be certain that everyone is performing their tasks the same way, and in the way your firm desires,” advises Siegel. This will spur conversations about different methods among your colleagues and foster collaboration in the office. “Once you start having these conversations about the processes by which things get done, you realize there may be inefficiencies. You may find things aren’t getting done in the most efficient way,” says Myers. Checklists shouldn’t come from upper management for this reason. “If you want your staff to be on board, you need to get them involved in the process,” says Myers. Inviting feedback from staff is a great way to determine the effectiveness of checklists.

You may need to tweak it. “You have to just start using the checklist and see how it’s working, because that’s the quickest way to figure out if there’s a step missing or where you need to tweak it,” explains Myers. To prepare for inevitable revisions, document where your checklists can be improved as well as any missing steps in the process. Myers recommends having a method of determining if people are using your checklists. “Use handwritten checklists that people have to submit to someone higher up, or a monitoring system,” she says. With means of accountability, it will become easier to determine whether mistakes are made due to a poorly written checklist or an employee’s failure to follow it.

Anticipate objections to using them. “Employees will claim that ‘if other people know how to do this, I can be replaced,’” says Myers. However, if you involve their feedback in the checklist process, they will understand that their job isn’t in jeopardy. “Oftentimes if they’re afraid that other people learning the processes makes them less valuable, you can use it to explain that they can use it like a training, and that you need to get everybody up to speed because they’re so good at their job,” explains Myers. She even suggests that making checklists required for everyone in the office, from secretaries to senior partners, will minimize conflict.

Ultimately, though, says Siegel, “there is no right or wrong, it’s what is right for you.”

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