Legal practice is notorious for high stress, overwhelm, and burnout.
This is no surprise. Law is a demanding job, and running a legal practice is another layer on top of that!
As a lawyer you are thrown into a job that is all about managing deadlines and deliverables, sourcing information and documents, engaging consultants, managing client and stakeholder relationships, tracking time and costs, delegating and managing work, persuading disinterested decision-makers, rolling out systems and templates, and estimating completion dates….
And all of those responsibilities multiply by the number of matters that you are responsible for.
This is project management. And yet zero time is put into teaching these skills to lawyers at any stage of their training. No wonder law is stressful.
Well the good news is that by applying a few simple principles, you can slash the stress levels and boost the profitability of your law practice.
In this article we’ll walk you through, step by step, how to apply these principles and create the systems that you need to transform your firm.
The principles that follow apply equally whether you are a sole practitioner or a multiparter mega firm. This is how to set up your practice to scale!
Step 1: Identify the processes (roadmaps) that you need
Just as lawyers have templates for completing common documents, you need to have templates for completing common pieces of work.
Documenting how to complete common pieces of work allows you to scale. It makes it easy to delegate, maintain consistency, and get new staff up to speed quickly. It also provides the framework for tracking the progress of your matters.
At the simplest level, you need checklists of tasks, broken into stages (aka ‘milestones’), that specify who is responsible for doing the work and who is responsible for reviewing the work.
These go by various names such as workflows, workplans, or roadmaps. In Hivelight we call these roadmaps. We prefer this terminology because it focuses on what you really want – step-by-step lists of tasks, broken up into milestones, that will guide people through how to get to some specific stage or outcome in a matter.
In a law practice you’ll need at least the following roadmaps:
- A roadmap for the intake process. This will provide the steps and instructions for processing and converting new client enquiries.
- A roadmap for each matter type (e.g. conveyancing, medical negligence) that your law practice handles.
As you grow you can also develop roadmaps for your business operations too (e.g. hiring, staff inductions, compliance and reporting).
For matter types that involve disputes or litigation it can be a good idea to break these into more than one roadmap. For example, you could have separate roadmaps for pre-litigation stage (where you are assembling the case), settlement negotiations, litigation stage, and a stage for receiving the funds and closing the matter.
Step 2: Create your roadmaps
Each roadmap is composed of milestones and the tasks involved in completing each milestone.
Milestones are the key progress points, events, or deliverables that mark real tangible progress in the completion of the work. To illustrate, a simple roadmap for the start of a personal injury matter could be broken into the following milestones and tasks.
Milestone: Obtain the client’s records
✅ Obtain the tax records
✅ Obtain the medical records
✅ Obtain the Medicare records
Milestone: Complete the statement
✅ Obtain completed statement questionnaire from client
✅ Complete the draft statement
✅ Obtain signed copy of statement from client
Milestone: Obtain the expert report
✅ Book assessment with the expert
✅ Prepare letter of instruction and bundle for expert
✅ Obtain the expert report and save it to the matter
This is really important. Breaking the work into milestones brings structure to how matters progress, instils an outcome-focused approach, and makes it easy to quickly see where each matter is up to.
For each milestone, you should identify roughly how long it normally takes to complete. This means that you can identify quickly whether a case is falling behind schedule and needs extra attention (In project management this is called a lead indicator). This also means that you can start to forecast how long it will take to convert each case into cashflow.
Under each milestone list out the tasks that need to be done to complete the milestones. Identify an assignee and reviewer for each task.
Note: Having clarity of responsibility with tasks is really important. Otherwise you will bleed time to confusion and error. It is important that everyone knows what is and what is not their job, and that they have the training and support required to do the tasks that are their job.
It is very important that your roadmaps are easy to update and maintain, and that they are readily accessible by your team. This means having them recorded and accessible in electronic form.
In Hivelight we have a dedicated tool (the ‘Roadmap editor’) for creating and updating your roadmaps. If you don’t have Hivelight, you can still map out your milestones and tasks in a Word document (using headings and subheadings for milestones and tasks, which can then be used to generate a table of contents). Alternatively, you an map this out in Excel (using the rows for matters and the columns for milestones).
Step 3: Picking teams (clarity of responsibility)
Organizations large and small bleed productivity through dilution and confusion of responsibility amongst staff.
Sporting teams understand the importance of clarity of role and responsibility for each team member. Every player is allocated their role and position. They know what is and what is not their job so that they can work efficiently as a team.
Create set teams within the practice. Each team should have at least a lawyer who is supported by either a legal assistant or paralegal. Each team should be allocated to work on a specified set of cases.
This couples with the above exercise of assigning who is responsible (by reference to job role and seniority e.g. ‘junior lawyer’, ‘paralegal’ etc etc) for each task. Now for each staff member there is no time wasted wondering which matters to work on and which tasks are their responsibility.
In Hivelight we have a dedicated feature for picking the team for each matter. We break it up into the following positions (which we also use for tracking and moving work around you team):
- Matter owner: The person ultimately responsible for the matter.
- Matter lead: The person responsible for the day to day management of the matter and leadership of the team).
- Business administration: The person who assists the business operational tasks.
- Legal roles: The lawyers and paralegals assisting on the matter.
- Administration roles: The legal assistants and legal secretaries providing administrative support.
- Advocate: For the barristers or trial attorney who may be engaged for court work and advice.
- Consultant: For any consultants invited to assist on the matter.
If you don’t have Hivelight, you can still divide your staff into teams, give them a name, and list that team name (or their team leader’s name) next to their claims in an Excel spreadsheet.
Step 4: Implement a system to see the progress of all matters at a glance
As your practice grows you need a way to see the progress of all the matters at a glance. You can’t manage what you can’t see.
You need to know:
- Where is the work up to on each individual matter
- Where are all the matters up to
- What are the next most urgent or important tasks that must be attended to today
A common bridging solution is to have this on a spreadsheet. One matter per row. One milestone per column. A comment field on the far right. Using notes, dates, and color coding in the cells to track and report on the progress of each milestone in the matter.
Here’s a fairly typical example of a spreadsheet that a law firm would use to track the progress of its matters.
Excel is a better solution than what you’ll find in most practice management systems. However, legal teams quickly run into trouble as they grow:
- Spreadsheets get huge,
- People forget to fill them in,
- They write over formula cells and break them,
- Teams start maintaining their own separate spreadsheets and saving them in different locations,
- Separate versions of the spreadsheet get created by accident whenever a syncing issue occurs, and
- ‘Data integrity’ starts to enter the vocabulary of the office.
Spreadsheets also become cognitively taxing when you need to determine the next most important tasks to attend to that day. Because all the matters are at different stages, their deadlines are distributed across multiple columns. Unless every member of your team is especially savvy with Excel, they will have to try to work out in their head what to prioritize by manually scanning through their entire case load.
To help with this, people often turn to using their calendar to prioritize deadlines across their cases. But this also breaks down and their calendar starts to resemble a collage. To deal with this, teams then start maintaining multiple calendars to manage the mess, which then runs into the same coordination problem that occurs with multiple spreadsheets.
Systems are critical to your success
You have to have systems if you want your firm to succeed and grow in the long term. But just like an exercise routine, you need systems that are easy stick to, or you’ll constantly struggle to maintain them.
Using a mix of Excel and calendars is much better than trying to juggle it all in your head. It can work but everyone has to be disciplined about it.
The failure to implement and maintain systems is one of the main reasons that law practices run into trouble. They bleed significant time to manually managing the work and the people; Deadlines creep up and they fall into a cycle of constantly reacting to the next suddenly urgent thing, which cripples strategic decision-making; Matters drag out and the clients start calling, leaving or making complaints; Cashflow suffers; The A players start to leave for better pay and leadership; and high stress and burnout become the norm.
The way to break the cycle, or avoid it, is to implement (and continually improve) the systems that will allow you to lead your practice.
Project management principles apply really well to legal practice. Implementing these changes will transform you firm. With this approach you can really scale and build an amazing business.
To summarize the core steps are:
- Identify the roadmaps/processes you need (i.e. The common pieces of work that you do in your legal practice).
- Break the roadmaps into milestones and tasks.
- Define the teams in your firm and allocate responsibility for matters to those teams.
- Implement a system to track the progress of all the matters against the milestones you have chosen.
Legal practice can be like herding cats. It can turn into overwhelming chaos unless you build the systems you need to support you and your team.
At Hivelight, we’re about making it easy for you to have great systems so that you can focus on building a great legal practice.