Years of law school still can not prepare you for all of the tasks involved with running a practice, like billing and collections, legal accounting, and efficient practice management. Experienced lawyers striking out on their own and many new lawyers are often surprised by the number of administrative tasks associated with running a law firm. The key to not just surviving, but thriving, lies in using strategic productivity multipliers to make your firm more efficient and increase profit margins.
If you bill by the hour, then why should you care about doing things faster? Because not all tasks are created equal. Running an efficient office means you put in fewer non-billable administrative hours organizing your team or puzzling over client accounts and you put in more billable hours working that earn you money. If you are one of the growing number of law firms moving to alternate, flat-fee billing models, then the capacity to handle the same workload in less time than the lawyer next door means a greater profit margin for your practice. But it’s about more than being consistently busy.
As the workload increases, the initial instinct of many lawyers is to adopt processes that address specific items and issues as they occur rather than taking a step back to formulate a strategy where all processes work together from the beginning.
What the truly successful law firms use to get ahead are productivity multipliers: processes and methods that enhance each other to send your practice’s productivity skyrocketing.
You would expect that using two productivity-enhancing methods would be twice as efficient as using one, but with productivity multipliers using two methods might be four times as efficient. Using three methods might be ten times as efficient. As you begin to adopt more productivity multipliers, you create a cohesive practice management strategy rather than simply reacting to problems as they happen.
Productivity multipliers don’t just increase your profits, they allow you to handle matters more quickly and efficiently and provide better service to your clients. They can also help to minimize the chance you will commit unintended ethics violations, protecting you from audits and Bar Association censure. Using these multipliers will let you worry less about managing your practice, and allow you more time to practice law for your clients.
Here are the top nine methods and strategies that successful law firms use to stay productive. Adopting any one of these practices will help your practice, but put them to work all together to create an effective practice management strategy and drive your productivity through the roof.
1. Keep The Big Picture in Mind
As mentioned, productivity multipliers work together and that means you need to see the big picture to be able to manage the multipliers effectively. You can’t just look at how one component of your office is working. You need to be able to gauge the health of your entire practice at a glance.
When surveying your practice with the big picture in mind, if you see a problem you can drill down and focus on the bottleneck in your system that is slowing the rest of your practice down. You can also easily see what’s working and what isn’t — allowing you to allocate your time, attention and resources appropriately.
2. Depend on Matter-Centric Record Keeping
John Doe has been a client for many years. You handled his divorce, his second divorce, his prenuptial agreement (he’s learning), his third divorce, and changes to his will after each marriage and each breakup. You have to be able to view any one of these matters individually. This way, you can bill him correctly, the fee he submitted for his estate case doesn’t accidentally go to pay the expenses for the divorce case, and the task list for one of his matters doesn’t interfere with the task list for another — resulting in you missing deadlines and costing your client even more money. Matter-based organization allows you to keep the data and files for each case separate and ensure all tasks, financials, and communications tie back to a matter and are never misplaced.
3. Automate Your Practice Using Workflows
If a matter involves twenty steps, you don’t want to only complete nineteen of them. Odds are, your cases follow a standard set of steps. Creating predefined workflows for your law firm allows you to set up new matters in an instant — saving a lot of time in the planning process but also providing task and responsibility standardization. If everyone is working from the same predefined task lists, then you don’t have to worry about each member of your office handling matters in different or incorrect ways.
4. Integrate Calendaring and Tasks
Tasks don’t need to just get done; they need to get done on time. Missing a filing or court date can ruin your chances of bringing a matter to a satisfying conclusion. Integrating your task and calendar system with your billing system allows you to see deadlines at a glance and make sure nothing falls through the cracks when completed tasks should be billed.
5. Have a Collaboration Plan
No matter how many people you have working on a case, whether it’s a lawyer and a paralegal or a group of ten, everyone needs to be on the same page. First establish an agreed upon method of communication (i.e., secure email or internal messaging system). Next, establish a team calendaring system — a single system that any collaborator can check and view availability, court dates, etc. This keeps everyone on schedule and simplifies meetings and collaborations. Finally, ensure that there is a system in place for central document storage. This should be a secure, backed up location where all members can access, make appropriate changes, and leave notes.
Once an agreed upon collaboration system is in place, document your routine processes in a shared location and utilize these steps for each and every new case. This will save countless hours that are usually wasted on repetitive, administrative tasks.
6. Simplify Legal Billing and Collections
Billing and collections are often the least liked task of running a practice, but keeping a positive cash flow is essential if you want to keep the doors open. Make the process as effortless as possible so you don’t have to spend a lot of time creating invoices, poring over client accounts or sorting through checks. If your office is invoicing by hand or outdated software, take a look at some of the advantages of modern legal billing tools. With the right legal billing program, one click can generate invoices, late payment inquiries, or low retainer reminders for all clients at once. Efficient billing that is integrated into your other systems (communications, tasks, and accounting) saves you time and can even eliminate the expense of an outside bookkeeper.
When trying to simplify collections, make it as easy as possible for your clients to pay. One of the best ways to do this is by accepting credit cards. Whether you do this by swiping at a machine in your office or providing a link for online credit card payments, clients today demand a simple way to pay.
7. Integrate Trust Accounting
Trust account mismanagement is one of the leading causes of disciplinary action and disbarment, and yet in most cases, it is negligence or ignorance rather than deliberate fraud. Remember that the primary rule of trust accounting: It’s not your money until you earn it. You are simply holding it for the benefit of the client.
When trust accounting management is integrated into your billing and collection system, it’s easy to stay compliant and see what portion of a client’s funds should be in the trust account and what should be in the operating account. Legal-specific software includes safeguards to make sure you can manage multiple trust accounts in a single bank account without accidentally commingling funds. All of this saves time and worry when it comes to daily trust management and can be priceless when it comes time for an audit or annual reporting.
8. Run a Paperless Office
Thanks to the power of technology, more firms are saving space, time and money, by transitioning to a paperless office. Utilize digital records and cloud-computing to access client records from any location, easily create backups and spend less time sorting paper and more time processing information. If you want to make the switch, the ABA highlights some considerations in How a Paperless Law Practice May Be Right for You.
9. Embrace the Cloud
Cloud-based systems let you work from anywhere, anytime — no more being chained to your office desk all hours of the day or having to wait to respond to critical requests until you reach your work computer. The cloud lets you see and edit matter, accounting, and billing information no matter where you are. Real-time access saves you time and lets you better serve your clients.
You can adopt any one of these nine work-model components to greatly increase your law firm’s productivity but to really maximize their impact, combine them. For example:
There are a number of tactics you can apply to improve your firm’s productivity, but before moving to the solution stage take some time to think about a running list of all the firm’s inefficiencies or problems you have recently encountered. Then you can see where any single improvement may resolve multiple issues. Committing to this approach will get you the most out of your resources.
In the end, every lawyer and every law practice is unique. There is no single solution that can make your law firm 100% efficient. But with a little extra effort up front to establish your productivity multipliers and careful attention to documenting working processes, you’ll soon be able to spend less time managing your office and more time practicing law for your clients. Making you more productive and profitable than ever.