While process improvement may sound abstract or beyond the reach of your law firm, it actually refers to concrete efforts that can lead to substantial gains in productivity and profitability. These efforts can apply to any workflow in your firm, from case management to client onboarding to billing. And the efforts don’t have to be daunting. Remember the adage “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” and start with a single weak link to improve.
How Do You Find the Critical Weak Link?
First, don’t stress about finding the perfect problem to solve. Most businesses have numerous trouble areas in their workflows, and law firms are no exception. Once you identify and fix one problem, you can move on to the next one. This won’t be your only shot at the process, so just pick a problem and work on it.
Look for Recurring Problem Areas
To find a weak link that significantly affects your processes, look for a recurring problem.
- Are documents getting lost?
- Are assignments being returned late?
- Are Invoices delayed?
Choose one problem to address and then focus on improving only that one issue for a month.
Understand the Process You’re Trying to Improve
Since you’re spending an entire month focusing on improving one problem area, you want to examine that process in minute detail. Here’s a framework to follow:
- Define the goal: What does this particular process accomplish?
- Define the duration: What happens at the start of the process? How do you know when the process has reached its end?
- Define the actions: What specific activities occur during the process?
- Define the actors: Which positions are involved in the process? Does the process occur entirely in one department, or is it spread over multiple departments? Do the same people perform the actions, or does the same problem occur with different actors?
- Define the carryover: What information is carried over from one step to another?
Break Down Every Aspect of the Process in Minute Detail
For example, say you are examining the billing process because timekeeper invoices require excessive editing or regularly go out late.
- Your goal is to send out an accurate invoice to clients promptly.
- The process ends when the invoice is mailed, but where does it begin at your firm?
- Who generates invoices, and where do they get the information to prepare them?
- Are one or more attorneys or paralegals late logging in billable hours on their projects?
- Look at the actions. Who reviews the generated invoices for accuracy? Who gives final approval before sending them? Are correction requests getting ignored?
Use a Checklist to Zero In on Ways to Improve Workflow
Once you understand what is happening with the process you are examining, the bottlenecks and places where you need to improve efficiencies will become apparent. Jot down your ideas, but don’t start working on improvements yet.
Your goal here is to put all facets of the process under the microscope to determine how to make the process better. A process improvement checklist is beneficial at this stage of the game.
Your process improvement checklist will start out broad and general, but you will refine it over time as you work to improve numerous processes with your team. To start, your list might include some or all of the following questions:
- Can we reduce the number of steps in the workflow? (Can any steps be combined? Eliminated?)
- Can some tasks be completed simultaneously to reduce the overall time frame?
- Can several actions be taken by one team member instead of two or more?
- Are actions being undertaken by staff members with the right level of expertise (neither too little nor too much)? For instance, are attorneys completing administrative tasks or project management tasks that could be reassigned to support staff or a paralegal?
- What training is available, either within the firm or outside, that one of your team members can do and then coach the rest of the team? (For example, how to best use the firm’s document management software.)
- Can any steps in any of the processes be automated? New ways to automate law firm workflow are constantly being developed. Attorneys, regardless of their firm size, are often surprised by the range of processes that can be automated within their teams.
Automation’s Role in Process Improvement
Your answers to the questions on the checklist can provide considerable guidance on how to improve the process. For many law firms, automation is part of the improvement strategy.
Automation may involve assembling and collating information in a single system for easy reference. This reduces the potential for mistakes during information transfer, along with saving time since information can be entered once. In some cases, maybe information can be entered by the client directly. Automated client onboarding and conflict-checking systems have proved to be a lifesaver for many firms.
Other forms of automation involve simplifying current processes to make them quicker to complete or easier to replicate. One example is using scheduling software, which lets attorneys automatically enter recurring appointments and send reminders, and lets clients and others schedule appointments directly with you online. This eliminates the need to coordinate schedules through rounds of email messages or phone calls.
Automation isn’t the answer to every workflow problem, of course, but in conjunction with other strategies it often works well to address the problems identified through the examination and checklist.
Fix One Problem Before Moving On
When your law firm starts to examine processes, it can be exciting to see the potential for improvement. Unfortunately, that makes it tempting to take on additional tasks “while you’re at it.”
Try to resist the urge.
Once you focus on fixing one weak link, you may find that other weaknesses become less of a problem. Or, you may discover that the solution is different than you would have anticipated.
Improving processes one at a time is the most productive way to move forward.
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