From my experience, I have identified what I call the “four foundation stones for successful small firm practice.” They seem obvious and, yet so many firms don’t pay attention to them. Just as a house cannot have a terrific roof and fancy windows, without solid foundations, so a small law firm too needs good foundations.
The first of these is the database of information for your clients, their matters and all those stakeholders who play a part in achieving client outcomes successfully. I am still amazed when I go into law firms that have multiple databases. The uncertainty and stress this engenders is enormous. It is also risky. The simple economics around trying to work out where a document or piece of information is located is all bad. You carry the cost yourself, you charge your client for your inefficiency, or you charge another client too much to compensate for losses due to poor management.
You absolutely have to get a system that provides you with one database of information for all your client and matter information, including documents, immediately and wherever you are. Your staff and colleagues too can find any information they need as nothing is hidden away in personal email accounts, favorite briefcases, at home or in a car.
I call this having “one version of the truth.” You will be amazed at how stress is diluted by solving this problem. You eliminate thousands of ‘moments of uncertainty’ and locate information simply, quickly and accurately. You will also do better work and find that you have a lot more time on your hands. The time that having one database gives back to you can be spent on billable work instead, working the same hours, but making a lot more money through the efficiency dividend.
The second foundation stone relates to documents. Creating, receiving and storing documents is very much the business of law for almost every lawyer. A matter starts with a letter and ends with a letter and there are all sorts of documents in between. Documents manage your risks and are the memorial of your work. And yet we find so many lawyers and small law firms have no disciplined and methodical system for document storage and creation. Storage is chaotic, with some documents in digital form, some organized and others not, and then some documents being printed out too. We often encounter firms that still print out every email no matter how trivial and put them in paper files. The immediate consequence, of course, is uncertainty.
Most documents can start with a template from a previous matter. Why not have these in sensible libraries organized according to the area of law so that you can standardize use throughout your firm using quality templates? The certainty, risk management and easy maintenance of quality will create tremendous peace of mind for you.
Documents today include not only legal forms, but all forms of correspondence and file types.
Assembling documents with multiple fields of variable data is very time-consuming without a system. It is repetitive and error-prone without a system. It is also extraordinarily inefficient.
A good, fully integrated document assembly system where you can enter variable data just once and re-use it throughout the carriage of a matter improves efficiency and accuracy.
Small law firms are very different from large law firms. While large law firms with corporate clients have a ticking clock that rewards inefficiency, in small firms like yours with super price sensitive clients, efficiency is essential if you are to be paid properly for the work you do. When you combine the legally accurate documents of your library of documents with a powerful document assembler, you can achieve these productivity objectives.
Then there is the issue of management of your documents. Imagine the simplicity of use and improvement in your work life if you and everyone who works in your firm knew for certain that every document and piece of correspondence relating to a matter was safely stored in chronological, sortable, and searchable sequence to find and use? And if everyone in your firm had identical access to every one of those electronic files at all times, in and out of the office? Your competitors have this advantage. It is possible for you to pretend that this transformation in practice does not apply to you in the same way that many firms thought that email would never catch on and resisted it for years, but the reality is that this is happening.
There have, of course, been well-publicized concerns about email safety. There is a serious cause for concern, but by sharing important documents with clients and others in a secure online portal you overcome these concerns. The reality is that a secure digital file is far safer than any paper version.