By Hal Davis
Disclaimer: The tools I discuss below are not necessarily technology based. They would benefit even an attorney who still uses law books, yellow pads, and a pencil. This article focuses on organizational, process-based principles rather than on any particular technology. Having spent many years as a legal secretary, paralegal, and computer network administrator prior to attending law school, I can state unequivocally that the following tools will lower your stress, improve your business relationships, and make you a better, more successful attorney – in direct proportion to the degree you implement them. Even using one or two of these tools, or making an attempt to, will improve your practice significantly.
I have an attorney friend who needed to fly to a small town in Colorado for work. He was assigned the seat next to the pilot in a four-seat, small plane. As the pilot pulled out a lengthy list of what appeared to be instructions, my friend began to worry. “Does this guy know what he’s doing? Reading the user manual just prior to takeoff does nothing to inspire my confidence in his abilities!” After finishing the checklist, the pilot spoke to the tower, pulled out onto the runway, and came to a complete stop just prior to taking off. Unbelievably, the pilot pulled out a second set of instructions and began reading through them while flipping switches and pushing buttons. My friend’s worry turned into fear as the plane finally hurled down the runway and took to the air. Thankfully, the flight was uneventful, my friend’s white knuckles began to turn pink again, and by the time he landed, he had quite an appreciation for the inexperienced pilot who had just flown him safely to his destination over the mountains.
While the pilot and passengers were walking into the terminal, a flight mechanic stepped up to the pilot and said: “This is an extremely difficult airport to fly into. I’ve never seen a better three-point landing in a cross-wind. How did you do it?” The pilot modestly shrugged and replied: “Twenty-five years of flying for Delta gave me lots of practice.” My friend was dumbfounded.
One “take away” from this story is that everyone is uneducated about something – even lawyers.
Like an airline passenger, a client’s comfort, correct time and place of arrival, value for the money, safety, and even his or her very survival (physically or economically) may depend upon the skill of his or her attorney. An attorney (even an expert) should always have, use, and follow easily-accessible, written, detailed, consistent, and thoroughly-tested procedures for taking off, flying, and landing a case, even if he or she could do it in his or her sleep without them. A professional pilot cares enough about his or her career, the passengers, and even his or her own life that the pilot uses written, pre-flight procedures every time he or she flies. A professional attorney should do no less.
Of course, no business can survive without customers (clients, in a law practice) or a means of accounting for money. A marketing strategy and a system of accounting for the flow of money are supremely important components necessary to start and grow a law practice. As important as marketing and accounting are, however, I am going to ignore those critical subjects for now, take for granted that you have some clients and a bank account already, and save discussion of marketing and accounting for another time. In my business, excluding a marketing plan and an accounting system, I have identified six indispensable elements necessary to successfully practice law. The first one, of course, is the tool I alluded to above (a checklist of procedures), and it is absolutely essential to employing the other tools to their full potential. Though you may have computers, software, expertise, mentors, and the finest office space money can buy, your practice will suffer, or even die, without good written procedures. The six tools are: 1. Personal practice procedures (I informally call mine the “Blue Book”);
2. Document templates;
3. A document storage system;
4. A calendar;
5. A case tracking system; and 6. Client notes.
Let’s discuss each of these tools, one at a time.
Personal Practice Procedures (The “Blue Book”)
The Blue Book is the single most important document in my firm. No matter what software or hardware technology I use, no matter how smart my associates are, no matter how many staff I employ, and no matter how many clients I serve, my practice, without the Blue Book, would be simply a jumble of disorganized folklore passed on verbally from one person to another. I am constantly amazed when I meet an attorney – who may even deny belief in the supernatural – who nevertheless believes that others should be able to read his or her mind!
The Blue Book is usually divided into major sections by area of practice, such as litigation, estate planning, or workers compensation. Areas of practice may be subdivided further by jurisdiction (such as Federal District Court or State Court) or attorney (if the Blue Book is a firm resource, and different attorneys use different procedures).
Finally, the Blue Book is the master document – the constitution, or the symphonic score, if you will – that directs, correlates, and harmonizes all of the other major tools necessary to practice law. The Blue Book ensures that key processes are knowable, written, consistent, efficient, and successful. The Blue Book is the first, and most important tool, for managing the infrastructure and resources of any law practice.
My practice is limited solely to workers compensation law, and all my associates follow the same procedures, so my Blue Book is fairly straightforward. But it is detailed. Except for junk mail, my Blue Book contains a set of procedures for creating or receiving and then filing, handling, or processing each and every document I author or receive via mail, fax, email, text, or h and delivery. In general, a procedure will be written for each document we generate and for each document we receive. The procedure describes how, where, and under what name to file a document; what template(s), if any, to use in response; how, where, and under what name to file the new document just created; items that need to be entered on the calendar; updates that need to be made to our case tracking system; and notes that need to be added to the file.
Let me emphasize the importance of the Blue Book, or at least a procedure in the...