This guest post comes to us from Ryan McKeen, attorney and founder at Connecticut Trial Firm. Ryan has won dozens of awards for his work, and he teaches other founders and law firms how to run better businesses. When Ryan is not blogging or working hard to build the most client-centered personal injury firm in the state, he enjoys following the Red Sox, strength training, listening to Pearl Jam, reading, and spending time with his family outdoors.
“We’re out of stamps”.
Running a disorganized law firm is a death by a million paper cuts. And those papercuts harm your clients, your health, your employees, and your net profit. In 2018 it is inexcusable for organizational knowledge to exist in anyone’s head. Doing so puts both your clients and your practice at risk. Your employee not knowing how to obtain stamps can result in wasted time and undone work. And it is your fault.
When I was a solo, all of the necessary knowledge to run my firm was in my head. I knew how to print stamps. I knew how to order checks. And I knew who to call when the heat wasn’t working.
The very notion of writing anything down seemed like a waste of time. I was busy trying to answer my phones, file pleadings, clean the office, meet with clients, pay bills, go to court, and if I was lucky deposit money into my operating funds. With young children at home, there was time for little else but to complete the tasks in front of me.
So I did the next logical thing. I hired someone part-time. She was in college, hungry for experience, and the price was right. What I needed her to do was simple enough – scan mail, run errands, organize medical bills, and answer phones. She was certainly smart and diligent enough to handle all of these tasks and more. I had hired her for the summer, with the idea that her presence may help me have some semblance of a vacation with my family.
I did take my vacation. But it was interrupted with texts and calls from my employee of “how do I do this?” By the end of the summer, I was happy she returned to school. Hiring an employee had created work for me. And it was all my fault. I had too much critical knowledge in my head.
But I still hadn’t learned my lesson.
When it came time to hire again – I thought this time I’ll get it right. I’ll hire someone with loads of law firm experience. That will make my life easier. I won’t have to explain as much. Things will just happen. So I did just that. And the result was the same. I kept ending up with more and more work as a result of having an employee. This situation did nothing except create stress while wasting time and costing us money.
This is how many law firms operate. Some firms have staff that operates with significant amounts of critical knowledge in their heads. It’s not in the owner’s head so in that sense it takes some load off the owner. But you still hear things like “we can’t do X because employee A is out and she is the one who knows how to do whatever discrete task needs to be done”.
Firms that continue to operate this way will face declining revenues before going out of business.
The good news is there is a solution to this problem. And it starts with a change in mindset.
For us, our mindset is clear – we went from focusing on solving the problem at hand (lack of stamps) to developing written procedures to solving the problem the next 1000 times it occurs. Businesses in general and law firms in particular face the same exact problems day in and day out. If a lawyer from the 1950s were to be faced with running my very tech-forward firm, he may not recognize the technical aspects of our practice, but the problems would be very familiar.
Good firms identify those problems. And seek to fix them systemically. That change in mindset (that we aren’t just working on the problem of the day, but rather, we’re working on the problem of the day and the problems of future days at the same time,) is the first step in lifting any practice out of chaos.
If you and everyone in your organization resist this notion, none of what I am about to write will be of any use to you. You will fail.
The tool is the wiki. Why a wiki and not something else like a word doc or a binder or a google doc? Wikipedia is one of the internet’s great experiments. A globally crowdsourced database where anyone with internet access can add or change information. Wiki is the idea that knowledge should be democratic. Wikipedia does not rely on college professors or experts – it relies on the entire world.
And your law firm should be no different. Why?
First of all, if you document every written procedure it will take you a lot of time. And you will still have to do things like move cases. If your firm’s centralized database is top down you will miss out on a lot of fruit. When a firm gets really ahead, everyone on the team is working to contribute what they know to the entire firm.
A wiki is also easy to use. It is easy to add pictures, links, videos, and text. And that is essential. A hard to use product is a product that no one uses.
So when you say that your firm is using a wiki you are saying something both technically true but also in a larger sense – culturally true. Our firm uses and loves Tettra.
Where To Start
You haven’t stopped reading. This is a good thing. You are already ahead of your competition by virtue of having made it this far in the materials. And you’re asking yourself: where do I start? What do I document?
My answer to this is to start documenting the things you do most often (hint: filing mail) and then move into all things operational. Here are some ideas:
- How to order and make coffee
- What to do when your printer is low on toner
- Printing stamps
- Ordering office supplies
- Computer logins
- Where to find letterhead
- How to deposit a check
- How to send a fax
- What to do when there’s a network problem
- Contact information for vendors you use
- How to handle phone systems
- Food allergies
- How to schedule appointments
The list is endless. As are the opportunities to not be called while you are on vacation. Starting by documenting the mundane operational tasks that your firm executes every day will yield your highest returns.
What To Do Next
Add your employee policies and procedures. Things like your holiday schedule, vacation schedules, sexual harassment policies, workers compensation carrier, dress code and anything else your employees need to know. The kind of information that if it exists in law firms it exists in binders no one reads and most of the time can’t find.
Also, create a locked page for your managers. We have one with how to access bank accounts, credit cards, passwords, and contains employee data. We don’t share the page with everyone just those who need to know.
Document Your Legal Systems
No employee on your team should ever have to ask you “what marshal do we use in New London County” or “what documents do we need at intake” or “do you have a sample car accident complaint?” Your time is better spent doing other things. Document all of your legal processes. Any bit of information that may be useful should go in your wiki. For example, when you call New Haven court on a PJR, ask for this clerk. Or when you need an OSHA report, ask for this person. These little details can greatly impact how efficiently your firm operates.
We have everything documented from intake to how to do a closing argument and what post-trial motions to file. And when we learn a better way to ask questions in a deposition, and we are always learning better ways – we update our wiki so our knowledge exists outside our heads. We aren’t wasting time trying to find what we already know.
The Secret To Making It Work
We have a rule in our firm. Employees can ask me any question at any time. But my first response is “did you check our wiki?” and if they haven’t, they are told to look there first. And if they have and there’s no entry – once I answer the question, they are told to add it to the wiki.
This way our wiki grows organically. And it’s used as a primary source for problem-solving. I really don’t want to be answering “here’s who you call about our phones” when I’m on a beach. And you shouldn’t either.
The first benefit is you will operate much more efficiently. The second benefit is that onboarding employees is much easier. Everything we do is in our wiki. And if the employee can use a search feature they can answer their own questions. And one of the biggest benefits is that when you write something down you learn it. And by writing down your intake process you will see problems and be able to quickly fix them.
Did I mention you will be able to go on vacation without being texted about stamps?