Wanted: Systems for Your Law Practice (whether you’re dead or alive)

Solo practitioners and many small firm lawyers play multiple roles in their law practice. They are not only attorneys handling client matters, but also managers performing administrative functions and business people running their firms.

Like all other small business owners, they must be technicians, managers and entrepreneurs.

Lawyers’ capacity to do work are limited by the hours in a day, their energy level, their attention span, and the resources available to them.

Regardless of their circumstances and priorities, lawyers must provide competent and diligent representation to clients. Systematizing their law practice helps them do just that. Systems are clearly defined, step-by-step plans, procedures, processes and policies to complete routine tasks and address common issues.

Rule 1.1: Competence

Rule 1.1 of the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct (MRPC) requires you to provide competent representation to clients, which includes “the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness, and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.” Competent representation further involves preparing for an unexpected inability to practice law.

Rule 1.3: Diligence

You must also “act with reasonable diligence and promptness in representing a client,” states Rule 1.3 of the MRPC.

Diligence requires you to avoid getting too busy or too overwhelmed to the detriment of your clients. Comment 2 states:

A lawyer’s work load must be controlled so that each matter can be handled competently.

Even when you’re dead, disabled or ill, you should have safeguards to prevent neglect of client matters. Comment 5 states:

To prevent neglect of client matters in the event of a sole practitioner’s death or disability, the duty of diligence may require that each sole practitioner prepare a plan, in conformity with applicable rules, that designates another competent lawyer to review client files, notify each client of the lawyer’s death or disability, and determine whether there is a need for immediate protective action.

If you die or become temporarily unable to practice law, and have no contingency plan, the court may appoint a trustee under Rule 27 of the Minnesota Rules on Lawyers Professional Responsibility. Otherwise, another lawyer may fill in informally to manage the practice and handle client matters as best as he can.

Rules 1.1. and 1.3 do not outline specific steps you must take in the event of unexpected death, disability, or incapacity, unlike Rule 1.17, which describes what you must do when you sell your law practice.

Nonetheless, you still need to protect your clients (even when you’re dead) and run your firm effectively (without running yourself into the ground).

Why Do You Need Systems?

Imagine what would happen to your client matters if you suddenly died or became disabled or incapacitated, and had no backup plan.

Think about the potential effects on your health if your workload routinely exceeded your capacity and you had no time to self care.

Ponder whether you could take your practice to the next level if you handled all the work and could not attend to strategic planning for your firm.

Chances are, your clients, your health, your practice and your firm would take a hit if you had no systems to allow your business to run without you and to free up your time and energy to do what matters most.

Systems may include an office manual documenting the various business functions at your firm, a detailed checklist for your most common types of cases, and template letters for following up with prospects and closing out client files.

In E-Myth: Why Most Legal Practices Don’t Work and What to Do About It, Michael E. Gerber and co-authors argue that most attorneys work in their practice as technicians (getting the work done/tactical), rather than work on their practice as entrepreneurs (developing a vision/strategic). Bridging the gap between the two involves building and using systems to achieve consistent results, usually through others. This requires attorneys to also serve as managers (turning vision into action/tactical and strategic).

Solos can team up with another attorney, hire a contract paralegal, or work with a virtual assistant to complete tasks systematically. And even if the solo has no attorneys, paralegals, or assistants helping him, he can still benefit from having systems.

The more your business grows, the tougher it gets to personally answer every inquiry from prospects, handle every client matter, or tackle every business issue. So set up your systems before business growth and before your practice reaches full capacity, not after.

Systems are Critical to Handling Client Matters and Running Your Firm

Client matters are more prone to falling through the cracks when you try to do it all yourself and have no systems to automate or streamline routine tasks.

Mistakes and neglect can also occur when you delegate tasks ineffectively and inappropriately.

Well-documented and well-designed systems allow you to cut the amount of time you need to get things done. Systems can also enable your practice to operate and your firm to run without your direct input.

Systems are Crucial to Protecting Clients’ Interests and Your Own Interests In the Event of Sudden Practice Interruption

As professionals, most lawyers genuinely want to protect clients’ interests in the event of sudden practice interruptions. When the interruption is caused by temporary illness or disability, lawyers will also want to set up a transition plan to avoid permanent loss of clients and to protect their reputation.

Which Systems Do You Need? 

Documenting your processes and policies, as well as systematizing repetitive tasks, can help you streamline your practice and create more consistent, high-quality results (no matter how heavy your work load).

Systematization doesn’t mean you provide cookie-cutter solutions or drop the uniqueness of your brand. Rather, they help you automate routine activities and daily operations so your firm runs like a business instead of just as a practice that depends completely on you.

The key systems you need to set up, consistently use, and extensively document include:

1. Operations management system. e.g. setting up operations procedures and administrative processes around business functions, instead of around people.

2. Calendaring, scheduling and tickler system. e.g. recording important hearings and meetings and setting reminders for due dates and deadlines.

3. Client file management system. e.g. providing steps for running conflicts checks, opening new client files, closing files, and destroying old files.

4. Client communication system. e.g. having a policy for responding to telephone calls, emails and other communications from clients; providing a script for resolving a billing dispute.

5. Client service and retention system. e.g. creating templates for repetitive letters and emails; providing step-by-step procedures and checklists for  routine matters; preparing written instructions and answers to FAQs for clients.

6. Client attraction and acquisition system. e.g.  implementing a specific process for responding to online and telephone inquiries from prospects; developing a policy for post-consultation and post-meeting follow-ups with prospects.

7. Case management system. e.g. using online software like MyCase or even an Excel spreadsheet to manage cases and track the status of each.

8. Billing and invoicing system. e.g. using Quickbooks or other financial software to monitor income and expenses and automate invoicing to clients.

9. Firm management system. e.g. providing a written office manual that contains contact information for key personnel; location and account numbers for business and trust accounts; passwords for computer and voice mail; location of business documents such as leases, service contracts, and business credit cards.

10. Contingency management system. e.g.  creating a succession and transition plan or an emergency handbook for dealing with unexpected practice interruptions.

Although systems take a lot of extra time to create and implement, they are necessary for your practice to run smoothly and your firm to succeed.

Whether you’re a solo or small firm lawyer, systems help you avoid redundant work, attend to client matters with greater efficiency, scale the growth of your firm, and prepare for sudden practice interruptions.

Systems free up your time to do what matters most. They help you provide competent and diligent representation whether you’re alive, incapacitated, or dead.

SPECIAL NOTE: Want to learn more about systematizing your practice? Attend the 1-hour CLE (offered MARCH 11 and MAY 26)

I will discuss the importance of systematizing your law practice at a 1-hour CLE:

  • March 11, 2015 at 12 pm, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, brown- bag presentation on 5 Business Mistakes that Solos and Small Law Firms Make (and the Ethical Solutions They’re Afraid to Try).
  • May 26, 2015 at 9 am, Minnesota CLE, webcast seminar on 5 Ethics Mistakes that Solos and Small Law Firms Make (and the Ethical Solutions to Avoid and Overcome Them).

At this 1-hour CLE, I will talk about creating and implementing well-designed systems, offering unbundled legal services and flat fee agreements, and other ethical solutions to address 5 common business pitfalls.

This article provides general information only. Do not consider it as legal advice for any individual case or situation. The sharing or receipt of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship.

The author, Dyan Williams, is admitted to the Minnesota state bar and focuses on the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct in her articles.  Check your individual state rules of professional conduct, regulations, ethics opinions and case precedents, instead of relying on this article for specific guidance. 

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Photo by: Paw Paw

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