Small Firm Collaboration Tips to Get Your Team Organized

This article is the third installment in a 3-part series on law firm staff coordination by Megan Zavieh, Esq. Read Part II here. 

No matter how organized we think we are, it seems like someone else always looks like they really have it together.  The person who never seems to miss a deadline, or forget a school event, or miss someone’s birthday. Although each of us is that perfectly organized person in someone’s view, the truth is that we could all benefit from a bit more organization.

When you are part of a team, each individual’s organization should not be an isolated matter.  So what can we do as a team to raise everyone’s organization level? We can collaborate and focus on a common mission.

What It Means to be Organized

In speaking of being “organized,” it is useful to define what this means.  As used here, a person who is organized is one who knows what tasks are their responsibility to complete, when those tasks must be done, how long the tasks are going to take, which tasks recur (and when), how those tasks fit into someone else’s work (and how the timing of those tasks can impact, either positively or negatively, the other person), and how their work impacts the overall mission of the team.  

Beyond Sharing To Do’s

A simple way to collaborate within a team is to share your to-do list with each other.  This can be done by having a common workspace where lists are kept, such as in Basecamp3, so everyone can see what the other team members are supposed to be getting done.  Teams can also share Google Keep lists or other tools intended to keep an individual’s list of tasks.

But sharing lists does not really help any one person wrap their arms around what needs to be done and when, and in what order.  Shared to do lists become part of the landscape, and no one really interacts with each other’s lists, thereby diminishing to nearly zero the benefit obtained from sharing in the first place.  Instead, each person chips away at their own pile of work, only looking up every so often to see where everyone else is, and only then when someone else’s work begins to hold up their own.

True Collaboration

A better collaborative forum is one where the integration of the team’s work is made the focus.  Rather than focusing on each person’s upcoming tasks, put the emphasis on the mission of the team.  A Kanban board is one example of this type of collaborative tool.

A Kanban board, at its simplest, is a three-column board filled with cards.  The columns represent tasks waiting to be done, tasks currently being worked on, and completed tasks.  They would be “to do,” “doing,” and “done.” Each card represents a task. All cards begin in the “to do” column.  When you are ready to work, you choose the card for the task you are going to work on, and that card moves to the “doing” column.  When you finish the task, you move the card to “done” and take another from “to do” and move it to “doing”.

Kanban boards have evolved far beyond this simple representation.  They can contain multiple columns, some with sub columns, and have countless cards.  They can be designed to fit any team’s work, be it a landscaping company planning and executing projects or a law practice drafting clients’ trusts and estates documents.  Any number of team members can share a board, each having cards of a different color to indicate who owns task written on that card.

If you use a Kanban app, such as Trello or Kanban Tool, the structure of the “to do” is the work of the team as a whole.  For example, a litigation firm might have a Kanban board devoted to a practice area, such as personal injury. The board might be structured around the life cycle of a PI case.  Perhaps the first column is client intake, where tasks such as opening the file, sending the engagement letter, and gathering initial client documents are listed on cards. Then the next column might have the next phase of tasks, such as interviewing the client, or perhaps writing a demand letter.  Within each column of the board, cards containing tasks could be assigned to various team members. The idea is that the team’s work, not an individual’s to do list, is the central focus of the organizational tool.

Such an approach helps bring each team member out of his own silo and into the realm of the team.  Now any member can open this shared tool, see where a client is progressing on her journey through the life of her case, and see which team member needs to perform the next task to keep the client’s case on track.  When it is your turn to do the work, you can immediately see where your work fits into the rest of the team’s, how it impacts the client’s progress, and when it needs to be done so that the next phase can happen.

Kanban boards are highly visual and effective, but they are just one method of collaborating in a setting focused on the work of the team.  Any tool that brings all members together, rather than having them all manage their own separate to-do lists, can be effective.

A shared team calendar is a simple tool that would be a good starting point for teams just beginning to move away from siloed to do lists.  The calendar could contain all the deadlines for the team, including internal and interim deadlines such as to open and close files, deposit funds in trust, send bills to clients, begin discovery, and administrative tasks.  Each entry can be assigned to a team member, and it can be marked as completed when done. Every team member would need to check the calendar for their own work, and leaders could input new entries assigned to members, so everyone would need to look for assignments in the calendar.  All team members would be able to see when work was not completed by someone else, giving rise to an opportunity to collaborate and encourage and assist each other. (Not to mention the power of public accountability in getting people to complete their work.)

For many law practices, an appropriate collaborative tool may be one already in use but not being utilized in this specific way.  For instance, practice management software like MyCase has tools to create tasks lists and assign them to members of a firm. So without getting bogged down in investigating new tools or apps, look at the capabilities of what your practice is using now and see how familiar tools can be used to collaborate.

Keeping the Tool Working

No matter what tool you choose to employ to focus the team’s collaborative efforts, it will have no positive impact unless it is used and maintained.  The team must check in with each other and the tool. It needs to become a browser tab or app that is always open.

To this end, teams need to be encouraged to use the tool.  Leaders can shepherd team members to the tool by utilizing it as the primary means of assigning work.  In a Kanban app, for instance, when a new card is created, it can be assigned to a team member to complete the card’s task.  Team members need to check the app to know what work to do each day.

Team members can also be encouraged into the tool by empowering them to create tasks, ask for help, and collaborate through the app.  Slack is a great tool for this purpose, allowing team members to use it as a primary form of communication organized by subject matter rather than email, which remains organized by chronology.  

When team members work in the same physical space or utilize video, update meetings are also a great way to focus on the organizational tool and ensure it remains up to date.  For instance, a lawyer and single assistant who share a Kanban board would benefit from a weekly meeting to go over where their cases stand, whether anything took place which did not get updated on the board, and whether there are tasks that are awaiting completion.  Meetings are also a perfect opportunity to critique the tool, streamline processes, and see what can be improved about the collaboration.

Ultimately it is the Focus, Not the Tool

Much as we can get bogged down in analyzing available tech and analog tools, the fact is that how effective collaboration amongst team members ultimately depends on the focus of the organizational process.  When the team operates as a unit, driving their energy toward a common mission, each member is more likely to feel they are part of something bigger than their own to do list. This focus is made clear in the tool itself and in the attitude of the leader running the team.  

Megan Zavieh earned her J.D. at age 21 from the University of California at Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall) in 1999, graduating Order of the Coif. After clerking at the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York, she went on to practice securities litigation at three top firms in the New York area. In 2009, Megan began working with members of the California State Bar who were facing disciplinary action. She has provided full scope representation and associated counsel assistance at all stages of the disciplinary process. From 2011 to the present, Megan has maintained her California ethics practice from physical locations around the globe, including Sydney, Australia and Atlanta, Georgia. Using the magic of technology, Megan’s virtual practice has taken on a nationwide scope. Megan is admitted to practice before the state courts in California, New York, New Jersey and Georgia, several Federal District courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and the United States Supreme Court.

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