In my first post of this series, I preached running your practice as a business as the only way to operate a successful and sustainable law practice (unless you are magician of course). Running a business requires proper oversight. In my second post, I reminded you that oversight is not only for top leadership. In fact, everyone within the law firm contributes in some way to firm oversight. Now, let’s move on to leadership, firm managers that are responsible for overseeing the entire pie – from day to day operations to annual budgets, financial projections, and long term strategic planning. They also have obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct to implement measures to ensure that lawyers and non lawyers in their firm comply with the Rules.
Communication: The Key to Managerial Oversight
Picking up where I left off on my last blog, managers place a great amount of trust in their staff to provide them with the information they need to provide proper oversight and thus avoid problems, serve clients, generate profit, and make sound decisions. Managers should strive for a continued flow of information between themselves and staff. This requires strong relationships and communication with staff. Creating a workplace culture of listening and openness can be difficult in a deadline driven, customer-service, and often stressful profession. Here are a couple of suggestions for boosting communication in the office. Open door policies that allow staff to reach you for questions or to address issues can help ensure that you receive information that you need to conduct oversight and help prevent minor issues from becoming major problems. Regular meetings with staff can also help ensure that pertinent information doesn’t fall by the wayside. You want staff to feel comfortable coming to a manager to ask a question or present an issue, even if it is a mistake. Try giving praise to a staff member who came to you with an issue that required a difficult conversation or made you aware of a mistake (yes, lawyers make those).
Gathering Data and Documentation of Processes
Running your practice like a business requires establishing systems. Data that is collected from those systems or gleaned from processes and procedures, can provide managers with important information such as their financial position, trust accounting, billable and collections by practice area or attorney, and more. In order to access this data, a firm must implement technology such as a case management system to track this information. Now, while staff works on the day to day data inputs, managers can view big picture items at a glance by accessing their case management system. For this to work effectively, firms should have and document procedures for collecting and inputing data into a system. For example, are bills sent on one day per month or sporadically over the course of the month? If managers understand the workflow, they will know when to check in on the data, say at the end of the month to review accounts receivable.
Division of Duties
Not one sole manager need be responsible for oversight nor do all managers need to be responsible for every element of oversight. The most effective way to handle oversight is to divide responsibilities among managers and then have a mechanism for sharing. You might base the particular responsibility upon interest and expertise. For example, an attorney well-versed in financial management should be reviewing budgets, cash flow, and projections, while an attorney interested in client acquisition might focus on oversight of business development activities, intake processes, and engagement. On a regular basis, firm managers should share what they’ve learned with the other managers. This acts as a second layer of protection against missteps.
Time Management and Organization
Firm oversight adds yet another responsibility to your many daily duties. For busy attorneys, finding time to properly oversee firm activities is difficult. Time management and organization will be key to your success. Calendar oversight activities such as meeting with staff, reviewing data, and sharing with other managers. If it’s not memorialized on your calendar, chances are it won’t happen. Use checklists for consistent oversight and to ensure that you’ve conducted a thorough review. Keep your space organized and close out software applications (particularly email), so that when it is time to focus in on oversight, you can do so with minimal distractions.
Oversight for the Win
While oversight may seem tedious and even draconian at times, the insights you will gain will soon outweigh the time you put into ensuring proper oversight. Monitoring case status could be the difference between a positive resolution for your client and a potential malpractice law suit against your firm due to a missed deadline or other error. Oversight of staff and attorney performance provides important information about productivity and allows you to make informed decisions about compensation, as well as set expectations for existing and new staff. And, much much more. Make time for oversight and you’ll be better off as a result!
Heidi S. Alexander, Esq. is the Deputy Director of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers, where she helps manage organization operations and leads the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (LOMAP). LOMAP provides free and confidential practice management assistance, guidance in implementing new law office technologies, and methods to attain healthy and sustainable practices. She is the author of Evernote as a Law Practice Tool, serves on the ABA’s TECHSHOW Planning Board, and founded the ABA’s Women of Legal Technology initiative. In 2017, Heidi was appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Standing Advisory Committee on Professionalism. She is a native Minnesotan, former collegiate ice hockey goaltender for the Amherst College Women’s Ice Hockey Team, and mother of three young children. She can be reached via email at email@example.com, Twitter @heidialexander, or LinkedIn.