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Jan Copley
Certified Practice Advisor
Atticus, Inc.

530 South Lake Avenue, Suite 250
Pasadena, CA 91101
(626) 696-3145
(626) 421-6747 (fax)

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What Should You Do First?

February 1, 2012

Filed under: Billing,Focus/Time Management,Practice Management,Processes — @ 6:20 pm

When I talk to my coaching clients, many of them express the sense of feeling overwhelmed — they have too much to do and they’re not sure what they should work on first. Thinking you might occasionally feel the same way, I thought I would write about an easy way to decide which projects you should tackle: work first on the cases that will bring you the most money.

You probably have a spreadsheet or some other tracking system listing the open matters in your practice (and if you don’t, you should). You may list the client name, the work to be done, and any deadlines — filing dates or client meetings, perhaps. Why not add another column, listing the amount of money you expect the case to bring in? It will help you really prioritize what you need to do.

Here are two other benefits to keeping this kind of list:

    1. You will have an idea of the amount of money you have in your pipeline. It’s probably more than you think, and that will give you confidence about your practice.

    2. Second, you can watch the amount of work you have coming in and see when your pipeline is not full enough before cash gets tight. You’ll know when it’s time to ramp up your marketing to get more work in the door.

Please let me know how this helps you!

What Does George Clooney Have to Do With Your Messy Office?

November 30, 2011

Filed under: Practice Management,Processes — @ 8:00 am

I saw the new George Clooney movie, “The Descendants” this weekend. It’s good. Clooney does an excellent job playing a man in a tough spot in his life.

So, you say, what does this have to do with law practice management? Well, Clooney’s character, Matt King, is a lawyer. There’s a shot of King in his office, surrounded by Redweld files and stacks of paper. It’s hard to see his desk.

I was struck by the image. So many lawyers have messy desks! And, it costs money. Think about it — how much time to you spend every day looking for stuff? If it’s fifteen minutes and you bill hourly at $300 an hour, that’s $225 a week in billable revenue or $11,700 a year! It’s not a good road to profitability.

Moreover, I think a really messy office is a symptom of a law firm without processes. It probably means there are many other inefficiencies — and lost revenues — in your practice.

To counteract this, I suggest you implement what my good friend and colleague, Steve Riley, calls the “Clean Office Solution.” Set a time for you and your team to clean out your office. Be ruthless. Throw away stuff you don’t need.

But there’s more to it than that, and that’s why you need your team involved. Work with your team to develop systems so the messes don’t happen again. Reward your team for creative solutions to prevent messes. My guess is that you’ll generate so much more revenue that the incentives will be more than worth it.

Please let me know how this helps you!

Tips for a Productive Day

November 18, 2011

Filed under: Focus/Time Management,Processes — @ 2:09 pm

I’ve previously written about managing your day so you get more done. Among other things, you can take charge of your email, the telephone, and interruptions from your team.

John Thompson, a mortgage specialist here in Southern California and one of the most entrepreneurial people I know, recently sent me a short article containing additional tips for controlling your time. John advises:

  • Get there early
  • Be careful about the commitments you make
  • Delegate as much as you can to someone else

I think all of these are great suggestions! I suspect if you follow them, your day will be less hectic, more enjoyable, and you’ll get more done.

I would add one more piece of advice: limit the commitments you make to yourself. According to David Rock in Your Brain at Work (Harper Collins 2009), the thinking part of your brain only has limited capacity. I found it tremendously liberating when someone told me that a person can only handle three projects in a day. So, when you plan your day, don’t over commit yourself — you won’t do a good job and you’ll wind up feeling frustrated and disappointed in yourself. If you are realistic about what you can accomplish and do what you set out to do, you will reduce your sense of overwhelm and increase your satisfaction.

Please let me know how this helps you!

Listing, Listing

November 16, 2011

Filed under: Lists,Processes — @ 9:00 am

No, I am not talking about leaning sideways!

I’ve been writing about checklists and processes. I thought I would spend one more blog posting talking about the danger and utility of one of the most humble of thought documents: the list.

Lists can be useful. I think there are two major reasons to use lists: (1) as a brain dump; and (2) as a clarifying tool.

The list as brain dump. Are you worried that you can’t remember everything you should be doing? Do you have the nagging feeling that you are forgetting something? Then write it down! You can refer back to the list; you can add things to the list; you’ll feel good when you cross things off the list.

The list as clarifying tool. You can also use a list as a means of weighing options. Draw a line down the middle of a blank sheet of paper. At the top of the left-hand side, write “Pro.” At the top of the right-hand side, write “Con.” Then, list the pros and cons of whatever it is you are debating. After you’ve gone through this exercise, you should be in a better position to make a decision with the confidence you have decided based on something other than gut feeling.

Lists can be dangerous. If you don’t use them correctly, lists can be dangerous things. Writing down all of your to-dos in one place can overwhelm you. You might get depressed and give up! So, if that’s the case, use the list to whittle down what’s really important and set aside the remaining items for another time.

Let me know how this helps you!

More About Checklists

November 9, 2011

Filed under: Practice Management,Processes — @ 7:13 pm

In my previous two blog postings, I’ve ruminated about checklists, processes and lists and how they can be useful to our practices. However, I’m not sure I talked about three more ways checklists can be helpful tools for practicing law, so I’m going to do it here.

I used to be skeptical of using checklists — I thought it would take too much time to create them. But, I changed my mind once I found myself reinventing the wheel over and over again. And, when I did implement the use of checklists in my office, I discovered three additional benefits they can provide, as tools to (1) increase efficiency, (2) delegate work, and (3) train my team.

Checklists and efficiency.
We create checklists to make sure that we don’t forget something. Since I found practicing law to involve juggling lots of little pieces, checklists were especially important to make sure I didn’t drop something. One nice side effect, however, was that checklists made me more efficient. Especially when I was working on a project I didn’t usually handle on a day-to-day basis. Having a written checklist meant I didn’t spend my time trying to figure out what I had to do next! The checklist enabled me to finish a project more quickly and with confidence that I hadn’t missed something.

Checklists and delegation. If you’ve got a really good checklist, it can increase your efficiency — to the point that you don’t have to do the work. What a concept! The idea is that the checklist will be clear enough so someone else can follow it and take care of the project. All you, as the lawyer, have to do is oversee the work. That means you can use your time at its highest and best level: marketing, meeting with clients, and true attorney work.

Checklists and training.
One of the recurring themes I encounter as a law practice management coach is my clients’ agony over staffing decisions. If we have an employee who is not performing well, we may be reluctant to let him/her go because we then have to go through the hassle of training someone new. I’ve certainly been guilty of this thinking. But consider this: if you have written checklists and procedures, won’t that make training someone new easier? You can walk your new person through a procedure once, and then he or she can consult the written checklist in the future without having to interrupt you. The checklist will also provide the new team member with confidence because he or she has a resource to consult.

Please let me know how this helps you!

Lists, Checklists and Processes — Oh My!

November 4, 2011

Filed under: Practice Management,Processes — @ 5:20 pm

Reading Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto has gotten me thinking about the various tools we create to remember things and to get things done. I’ve decided that we use three different types of devices: lists, checklists, and processes, with subtle differences between them.

Checklists. I think a checklist is something we use to remember the key elements of a multi-step process. According to Gawande, there are READ DO checklists, which instruct us what to do next. A recipe is a good example. On the other hand, we also have READ CONFIRM checklists, which assure us that we haven’t forgotten anything. I think the World Health Organization’s Surgical Safety Checklist falls within this category.

Processes. A process is a detailed “how to” list. It sets out all the steps necessary to accomplish something. One item on a checklist might be accompanied by a process for that item. What would be an example? You probably have to do some things before you shut your office down at night. One item on the checklist might be to take out the mail. However, taking out the mail involves other, underlying actions: gathering it up, making sure there is appropriate postage, etc. You don’t need each of these times on your checklist, but you might want a written process for taking out the mail with each step enumerated in the process.

Lists. A list can be a brain dump. We create lists when we’re worried that we can’t remember everything we think we need to remember. There may be no particular order to it, and the list won’t be useful to anyone else (unless you turn it into a process or a checklist).

We can also use a list as a clarifying tool. If we’re trying to make an important decision, it can be useful to write down the pros and cons of what is involved in the decision. Once again, there may be no particular order for what we write down and someone else may or may not be able to figure out what the list is about. But creating the list should give us some clarity about the next step we want to take.

Please let me know how this helps you!

Say Aaaah … It’s Time for Your Business Checkup!

June 17, 2011

Filed under: Growing Your Business,Practice Management,Processes — @ 1:08 pm

Let me ask you a question: now that we’re getting to the halfway point for 2011, how has your business performed so far this year? Has your performance been better than last year? Worse? Or have you been too busy to find out? Or are you afraid to look?

Take your temperature. It’s easy to become so busy working in your business — getting client work out and paying the bills — you forget to look at the big picture to see how you are really doing. According to the Los Angeles Times, it makes sense to use the calendar to remind you that it’s time for a mid-year checkup.

Diagnosis and medication. By doing a mid-year checkup, you can find out what’s working and what is not working in your business. You may find that some aspects of your business are doing just fine (which is nice to know!), while some others are not producing the profit they should. Are there inefficiencies you haven’t noticed? Identifying a problem will enable you to find ways to fix it.

When you do your review, be objective. Base your analysis on facts, not your emotions. Do you have the necessary facts and information to measure your business’s performance? If not, that’s the first problem you should fix!

Don’t forget your marketing checkup.
Mid-year is also a good time to review your marketing strategies. Take a look at where your business has come from over the last six months. It may surprise you! This information can be very useful as you decide on your marketing program for the remainder of the year.

Try this and let me know how it works for you!

The How of Processes, Part 2 – Implementing and Improving Processes

May 20, 2011

Filed under: Processes — @ 1:51 pm

Now that you’ve decided you need processes in your office and you’ve started to document them, there are two more steps: implementing and improving your processes.

Implementing Processes. You may have something written down, but you still have to make sure it works! Have your team members do a dry run on every new process. Ask them if the written process is easy to follow and covers all the steps to getting something done. Make necessary corrections so that someone tackling the task for the first time — a new employee, perhaps — can handle it from start to finish.

Improving Processes. Processes are not static! You can learn things from them, including how to do things more efficiently. After using a process for awhile, visit with your team about it. You and your team may decide there is a more efficient way to do something. Keep the lines of communication open so your team members feel empowered to make suggestions for improvement. Make sure everyone is empowered to observe that something is “stupid” or inefficient, even if it’s done that way because you’ve always done it that way.

Please let me know how this helps you!

The How of Processes, Part I – Creating Processes

May 18, 2011

Filed under: Processes — @ 1:44 pm

In my last blog posting, I talked about why written processes are a good thing for your business. The next time you hire a new team member or bring a temporary employee into your office, you will be happy, happy, happy that you can show him or her the documented processes about how your office operates!

But, acknowledging that you need processes is only the first step. To have processes that work, you also need to (1) create them; (2) implement them; and (3) improve them.

Today, I’ll talk about step one: how to create a process.

Identify things that are done in your office. If there is a task in your office that’s likely to be done more than once, it makes sense to develop a written process for it. I imagine that sounds overwhelming to you — how do you document them all? Prioritize what processes need to be created first. Some people like to start with the things they do most often; other people start with whatever they are working on at the moment.

Get your team on board. You can’t implement processes from the top down. You need your team’s assistance. If your team members do not have an investment in the process (no pun intended), nothing will get done. So, ask for help. Explain why processes are a good thing. Solicit your team members’ input on what processes to document first. Ask your team to create the first draft of processes for things they do regularly.

Set deadlines and give rewards. Even if you and your team members understand why creating processes is important and how they can make all your lives easier, because it’s not billable work and a bit of a bother, it’s easy to put off documenting a process. So, set deadlines — ask for a draft process at the next team meeting. And, consider rewarding someone when he or she does a good job, such as getting the written process done early. It doesn’t have to be much — how about a Starbucks card, for instance?

Every time you do something new, draft a process for it. Another important component of having a systematized practice is to create a process for everything. That ranges from a process for watering the plants (how often should it be done and by whom?) to the most complex legal work. So, when you tackle something new, write down what you do as you do it. You’ll be most of the way to creating a process you can use in the future when the issue comes up again, and you won’t have to waste your time reinventing the wheel.

Please let me know how this is helpful to you!

The Why of Processes

May 13, 2011

Filed under: Processes — @ 1:10 pm

This week, I had the privilege of hearing Chesley (“Sully”) Sullenberger, the captain of U.S. Airways Flight 1549, which landed in the Hudson River in January 2009. What a story! I can report that Sullenberger has transformed himself from an excellent pilot into an excellent speaker.

Airliners and Law Practices. So what’s the connection between Sullenberger and a blog about law practice management? Processes! Captain Sullenberger talked about the importance of processes in the context of training a team and handling an emergency. Even though Sullenberger did not know his team well — Sullenberger and his copilot met for the first time three days before the flight — everyone had been thoroughly trained and had emergency processes down cold. Therefore, Sullenberger’s team members were able to work together to avoid a disaster.

What Processes Do. The point is that processes are essential to successful management of a situation. For us, as lawyers, it’s the situation of successfully representing a client while making a good living. If we have processes, implement them, and train our team to use them, we are more likely to:

• Not reinvent the wheel each time a situation arises
• Delegate, because we know our team has a clear guideline to accomplish what needs to be done
• Do something more profitable — such as marketing or real legal work — because we’re not wasting our time on something someone else can do
• Produce quality work because we’re not scrambling to decide how to do something at the last minute
• Make more money because we do things more efficiently

On my next posting, I’ll talk about how to implement processes in your office.

Please let me know how this is helpful to you!