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Making an elder law practice more efficient

The first and most important step in promoting efficiency is to know your practice areas well. A close second is to aggressively provide training for everyone in your office. Successful firms understand that they must invest in their people, their training, and their technology. When people have the right skills and understand the work process, they feel empowered to take the right course of action. The techniques below are intended to empower individuals to take ownership of their work and their work product by becoming more efficient. Efficiency is a science and an art which requires people to perform today just a bit better than they did yesterday. We can facilitate this improvement by giving our team members a sense of pride and confidence. People who feel valued bring their very best to their jobs because their jobs are no longer simply a paycheck; instead, their jobs become an extension of who they are and a calling towards greatness. Nobody can be great alone, and everybody can be great with others.

Continued legal education

CLE courses. Encourage attorneys (and staff members) to become experts. Be sure that attorneys attend CLE courses that pertain to their area of practice on a regular basis. Most states have CLE requirements for continued licensure, but these are minimal. A lawyer in an Elder Law firm should attend NAELA and state bar association CLE courses. As the attorney progresses, she should be encouraged to teach courses.

Regular training sessions. The firm should provide regular training sessions in-house, for attorneys and for non-attorney staff members. Appropriate topics include not only the firm’s practice areas but also appropriate software programs. There are many sources to help with this training: internal experts, online training courses, external training programs, etc. Be sure to work on daily actions that the trainees can adopt. If there is a daily computer technique that saves five minutes a day, implementing that technique is more important than saving time on a two-hour technique that happens once a year. Use training sessions to “think small in order to think big.”

Mentor. New lawyers need mentoring. The mentoring should include not only substantive areas of the law, but business practices as well. Time spent mentoring will pay good dividends quickly.

Encourage collaboration and research. By collaborating with other members of the firm and other law firms, a young lawyer and even older partners are exposed to new ideas. Collaboration also encourages thinking outside the box. A successful lawyer must always be looking at how the practice could improve in the surrounding environment. What are other firms doing these days? A rising tide lifts all boats.

Practices that promote efficiency

Teamwork. A successful and profitable law firm needs to be internally cooperative and externally competitive. A firm must instill in each lawyer and staff member a respect for others. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Focus on your strengths and the strengths of your colleagues. It is extremely important to try to find lawyers and staff members that complement one another but have the same goals and objectives.

Delegate. Most attorneys try to handle too much work. By having an adequate and well-trained staff, an attorney can delegate tasks to other attorneys or to staff members who are competent to accomplish them, freeing up the attorney to perform other tasks.

Service. Lawyers and staff must understand that clients are consumers. Most consumers expect that persons providing services to them will deliver high-quality services on a timely basis. Our clients have a right to expect the same thing. Meeting deadlines and returning phone calls are critical areas. Teach your lawyers and staff members to be prompt and proactive, not reactive, in communicating with clients. Efficiency in maintaining client communication contributes to the delivery of high-quality service.

Accountability. All lawyers and staff need to understand that they are accountable to the firm. Their responsibility is to meet project deadlines, return telephone calls, network, follow and maintain systems, and meet time management and timekeeping goals. The firm should issue reports on a monthly basis and share those reports with the appropriate lawyer, so that each lawyer can see how he is doing with respect to accomplishing goals. What gets measured and reported gets handled properly.

Timekeeping. The inventory of a law firm is time, and timekeeping is how we determine costs, billing, and profitability. The profitability of the firm depends on billing the client an appropriate amount for the service rendered. Time should be kept by all lawyers and by all staff members, so that the total cost of services can be accurately measured.

Time, both billable and non-billable, should be recorded contemporaneously and accurately. The timekeepers must accurately describe the work performed for the client in a manner that demonstrates value. The firm should require that each timekeeper account for their full work day and record all time before the end of each day.

By requiring everyone to account for their work day, you will learn the information necessary for analyzing workflow. Have each practice area meet to discuss workflow challenges.

Systems can make efficiency the standard

A system is a set of detailed methods, procedures, and routines created to carry out a specific objective. To improve efficiency you must involve everyone in the process. Have each practice area meet and discuss the methods, procedures, and routines used to accomplish each matter. What are the steps that occur once a client is retained? Analyze the average amount of time spent performing each process or sub-process.

Systems are not just for substantive areas of law. Systems should be developed for billing, accounts receivable, and relationship management. By creating systems you also make training efficient.

“Drift” management

You have spent a good amount of time and money investing in your team, providing training, building systems, adding technology, and creating internal structure. You also need to implement a system to monitor, report, and measure the use of those systems. Otherwise, you will find that individuals start to drift away from using the system. They decide that they no longer need to use the check plans or checklists, and your systems begin to break down.

Have periodic meetings to address what has changed, what is working, and what needs improvement. Modify the goals, systems, and templates to reflect what has been addressed and agreed upon.

Have annual reviews. The firm needs to look at its business plan on an annual basis. Look at trends in the practice areas. Look at training needs. Review systems to see if they are working. Review practice groups to see if they are working. Keeping a system in place is actually harder than designing a system, and having a very good system that is implemented is better than a system that is allegedly perfect but impossible to execute.

- By Andrew H. Hook, CELA, CFP, and Sandra F. Buhr, CLM

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