October 23, 2012

Improving Your Performance with Checklists

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July/August 2010 Issue | Volume 36 Number 4 | Page 18

Simple Steps

Improving Your Performance with Checklists

Checklists can be useful in almost any human endeavor—including the practice of law. In fact, sometimes they might even save the day (or the transaction) by imposing order on potential chaos. Try these ideas for developing checklists for your practice.

The human mind is an incredible instrument, but research has begun to show that its capacity for multitasking is a myth. Instead of executing many tasks simultaneously, the mind leaps from one to another to another as quickly as it can. And, like a juggler with too many balls in the air, if you try to process too many tasks all at once, one or more of those tasks is bound to get dropped.

The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, M.D., is a fascinating study on this subject. Although it focuses primarily on how the use of simple checklists can reduce hospital infections and surgical complications, the book is really a study of how professionals of all types deal with the burgeoning complexity of their work, the sub-specialization this ever-increasing complexity drives, and how simple checklists can solve big, serious problems. So how can you use checklists to improve your law practice?

Dr. Gawande posits that there are two kinds of errors: errors of ignorance, which we make when we don’t know enough to do a job properly, and errors of ineptitude, which occur when we know how to do something but nonetheless botch the execution. Checklists aren’t much help for lack of knowledge, but they are quite useful in helping us perform a complex job better, especially a job requiring the contributions of many team members. Checklists make clear the minimum expected steps and help bring about a higher standard of baseline performance. Here are ideas to help you develop your own practice checklists.

• Select an area of your practice that you would like to improve. It can be anything from client intake to document review. A great place to start is to look back to examine a trial or transaction that you didn’t handle as well as you would have liked. Pick one area at a time to concentrate on.

• Determine the key steps in the process. Don’t list everything that can be done, just the most crucial elements and how the work of each team member must fit together to achieve a good outcome. What things must be done or facts known before you can move on to the next step? Focus particularly on those elements that might be overlooked if things get hectic.

• Reduce each key step to a simple sentence that conveys the essence of what you’re trying to accomplish.

• Determine your “pause points” and divide the list into no more than eight steps for each section of the list. When during the process is it appropriate to stop and check that you’ve met each step? For example, a good pause point in an intake checklist would be after you’ve done your conflict of interest check and some preliminary investigation but before you’ve signed a fee agreement with the potential client.

• Think through all the things that could go wrong, or have gone wrong in the past, at each crucial step and list them. Then develop a list of potential solutions to each problem. These potential steps to take in the event of a problem will become their own subsidiary checklists, to be pulled out in the event that the particular emergency arises. This type of checklist can be very useful in giving staff options to solve particular problems when you’re unavailable.

• Share the checklist with the other members of the team and revise it based on their input.

• Try the checklist in a real situation, get team input about what went right or wrong, and revise again.

Ideally, checklists should be short, easy to follow, and promote teamwork within the office.

About the Author

Laura A. Calloway is Director of the Alabama State Bar’s Practice Management Assistance Program.