The Fundamentals of Legal Matter Management for Small to Medium Sized Law Firms
One of the earliest growing pains that a law firm experiences is from the snowballing amount of time required to manage the work as the law firm grows.
For many law firms, managing the matters is a highly manual process with little centralization or automation. The information on where each matter is up to is typically distributed across various inboxes, calendars, Excel spreadsheets, and neglected checklists.
When a firm begins to implement matter management is when that firm starts its real business journey. Matter management is the foundation of your ability to grow your law firm.
The simple truth is, You can’t manage what you can’t see; You can’t scale without systems; and you can’t measure the performance of things you don’t track.
To run your business effectively you need visibility of the work in progress, systems to train and delegate, and data to measure performance and foresee problems before they materialise.
Developing a matter management system is often the first legal operations task for a law firm, and the better it executes and improves on this the better the firm will perform and manage its risks.
So, what is matter management, and how do we start to implement it?
The Core Elements of Matter Management
Matter management is about taking a systematic approach to everything that goes into getting the work done economically, to standard, and at a pace that aligns with the cashflow goals of the business. This includes, for example:
- Workflows to set out the steps in completing the work and documenting the overall progress of its completion;
- Processes for how to complete the work;
- Task management to dividing up the work, assigning responsibility, and documenting where it is up to;
- Tracking deadlines and setting lead indicators to ensure the on time running of the matter;
- Financial management to track the billing and budgeting targets, and expenses;
- Knowledge management and template libraries to help with executing the work and reducing repetition of effort; and
- Reporting and analytics to enable forward planning, billing optimization, and continual improvement.
The list could go on, but that is a good place to get started.
Key Challenges in Implementing Matter Management
The most common challenges for law firms in implementing matter management are: deciding to carve out the time to do it; Knowing where to start; and overcoming the natural resistance to change amongst employees to make it the practice of the law firm.
On top of this, there is the problem that until recently, if you wanted a matter management system you had to build one from scratch.
While the technology to support professionals in other industries in managing their work has come along in leaps and bounds in the past 20 years, there has been little movement in the legal industry until the past year or two in this space.
Firms have had systems for managing their accounting and document automation (practice management software), but these systems have not been designed for matter management. These systems will give you a birds eye view of the financials of the firm, but not the work that drives those financials.
Finally, there is also the issue that lawyers are usually not trained in the project management and systems engineering practices that provide the framework for implementing matter management.
This has meant that larger firms have had to spend large sums implementing bespoke systems, and small to medium firms have had to cobble something together with a combination of Excel spreadsheets, Outlook calendars, and process manuals (that everyone forgets to check or update).
Overcoming the Challenges to Implementing Matter Management
The starting point is for law firm leaders to recognise that getting off the hamster wheel of everyday practice, and really growing the firm, requires creating the systems of the business. Without these, you can’t effectively leverage other people, and if you can’t do that you can’t grow. You’ll be stuck doing everything yourself with no end in sight.
Next is to take a step back and keep matter management simple. Think about what you need now and over time you can iterate and improve to make it more sophisticated. The most important thing is to keep it simple and to start.
Anyone implementing change in a business will be well familiar with the incredible inertia to change that they face. Truth is that people often just want to clock on, slip into autopilot, and then clock off. Unless you have incentives and detriments tied to the success of the change, you’ll have a very hard time motivating people to care about implementing the new systems. If you want change, make the KPIs for each individual job unachievable unless the goals of the change are achieved.
Finally, as to technology, there are now systems (like Hivelight) that allow firms of any size to quickly start implementing matter management.
The Importance of Focus for Implementing Matter Management
As a preparatory step, you need to take a look at the areas of work that your firm does. It will be hard, especially for small firms, to implement matter management if you are attempting to operate as a generalist practice.
Each partner at least needs to pick just a small number of practice areas to focus on – as few as possible. This is important for your marketing as well. This is for the simple reason that you need to niche down in order to focus, otherwise you will constantly spread thin.
Best Practices for Efficient Matter Management
Having chosen the practice area(s) to focus on, here are the elements to get started on:
- Take each matter type and break it into the key stages, identify how long it should usually take to complete each stage (this allows you to get a bird’s eye view of where cases are up to, and set lead indicators to allow early warning if a matter is running late)
- Identify the common tasks to be done to complete each stage, who is responsible for doing them and reviewing them, and bonus points if you can write up some instructions for how to do that work (this will help a lot with onboarding and delegating to staff)
- Having identified the common tasks, you should make a start on creating the template documents required for those tasks.
- Set up a central place for everyone to track the progress of the matters. This central visibility allows accountability and coordination. It also allows you to start managing the work more strategically and serves as the foundation for analytics and reporting.
Leveraging Technology for Matter Management
Until now, implementing matter management usually meant either: paying a developer a lot of money to create bespoke software; paying a consultant a lot of money to create workflows within a practice management system; and then paying ever more money the moment that you need anything updated; or creating a matter management system in Excel and fighting a losing battle to keep it up to date and stop people from writing over the formula cells.
For small to medium firms, the best starting place has typically been to build something in Excel. See our article “Project management for lawyers: a step-by-step guide to transforming your law practice” for a thorough guide on how to do this.
As mentioned though, we are now seeing some legal tech solutions enter the market that make it far easier for firms of any size to implement matter management. This is now a far better option for everyone.
Document Management and Organization
Firms have been long familiar with the concept of a template library of standard letters and forms. You can make this as simple or sophisticated as you like. The benefit of implementing a matter management system though, is that you will identify a lot of gaps in your template library where people are regularly burning time recreating essentially the same documents and correspondence time and again.
The process of implementing your matter management system is the opportunity to identify and solve this.
As general good practice, try to implement a standard set of folders in a matter for the different classes of documents and implement a sensible naming convention (e.g. starting each document name with the date in YYYY-MM-DD format will allow you to keep the documents sorted in chronological order, making them easier to find).
Communication and Collaboration
For a matter management system to be effective it needs to enable asynchronous communication and collaboration amongst your team. A central tenet of matter management is to enable your team to progress the matters as a team.
It is important to appreciate that your email inbox is not a productivity or matter management solution. Having team wide visibility of the progress of the work requires team wide visibility of the communications that support and document the progress of that work. Emails that are distributed across everyone’s private inboxes don’t fit that description.
If you are starting with an Excel spreadsheet for matter management, have a column for staff to leave notes for each other.
Task Management and Prioritization
A critical feature of a matter management solution is to enable you to get a birds eye view of where all the matters are up to at a glance. You can’t manage what you can’t see. This allows you to identify which matters are running on time and which need attention. You can then zoom in and prioritize your attention on those matters.
Because you are now tracking all the stages of the work for a matter, and the tasks for completing them, and their deadlines, you can now get on the front foot with proactively managing and prioritizing the work – as opposed to mistaking your inbox for your to do list and letting your inbox run your day.
Implementing task management will enable you to better see what tasks are going to drive the results for you, and which ones aren’t. For most people, it is best to divide up the day, tackling the more complex tasks with the bigger pay off in the morning, and then dealing with the more scattered admin level tasks in the afternoon.
Having everything centrally managed will also give you visibility of which staff may be overloaded, so that workloads can be redistributed to reduce bottlenecks and burnout.
Implementing matter management means that you can now start to get very strategic about managing your matters. A common strategy is to group matters according to various stages and attributes, so that you can take the more efficient course of progressing them in batches.
Data Analytics for Matter Management
With the matter management fundamentals bedded in, you can now start to get into the analytics and insights.
Some recommended data points to start with include:
- For each matter type, tracking the median (median, rather than average, so as to filter out the outliers) fees, matter duration, and tracking both of these per fee earner.
- Tracking the number and type of new client enquiries each month, and the referral source, the acceptance rate.
- Engaging in some revenue forecasting based on the previous two points.
This is the great thing about taking this structured approach to managing your practice. You can now get the insights you need to measure and predict performance.
Client Relationship Management in Matter Management
One of the most common complaints of clients is lack of communication from lawyers. With matter management you can solve this.
- At the beginning, walk the client through the stages of the matter and what to expect at each stage (including how long it usually takes).
- You can use the completion of each stage of the case as an opportunity to update the client on what has been done, and the progress that has been made.
- Having overall visibility of the matters makes it harder for any matters to get dropped or neglected.
- Matter management will greatly assist you in progressing each matter quickly, meaning that clients wait less time for a result.
Matter Management for Adapting to Change
A good matter management system should both accommodate and facilitate adaptability and change.
A difficulty with many of the traditional workflow and task management solutions available to lawyers has been their inflexibility. For example, if a matter took a different course or a detour that wasn’t in the hardcoded workflow then the whole thing broke down; If a staff member left, all the tasks assigned to them were orphaned.
Matter management is meant to enable leadership at scale. Leadership requires being able to communicate and keep track of a course change part way through the matter. Leadership requires being able to redistribute tasks to others as the makeup of the team changes. It is critical for your matter management solution to enable this so that you can lead your team.
A matter management solution that is able to adapt to change will also enable the business to adapt to change. You’ll have the communication channels to guide your team; the workflow solutions to map out the course; the reporting and analytics to read the trends and make data driven decisions; and the systems to implement the incentives needed to implement change.
Implementing and improving matter management in your law firm is critical to its long term growth and success.
Having the right systems in place means that you can manage the work, train and delegate to staff, and lead your team in a way that scales.
Hivelight is a productivity platform for legal teams. Hivelight makes it fast and easy to implement excellent matter management for your law firm. If you’re ready to implement matter management for your law firm, use the buttons below to book a demo or create an account to try it out for yourself.