Your Firm’s Secret Advantage: Systems, Procedures, and Operations Manual
Managing a Small Law Firm
8 min read
Part of the ‘Lawyerist Healthy Law Firm’Learn more
As an attorney with a small law firm, it’s easy to focus all your attention on your clients. While clients are a critical part of your practice, your firm won’t run itself. Systems and procedures are your secret weapons. They will allow you to delegate effectively and scale your business, work efficiently, and deliver a consistent client experience.
In any office, processes and procedures are your solid road map. Chances are, you probably know exactly how you want most tasks done in your business—this applies to your client or legal work and your back-end operations. A system or process is simply that approach and those steps that you and your team should take when doing your firm’s work.
Like many small firms, the problem is that systems and processes are most likely in your head. Don’t keep those systems and processes in your head! That’s a problem because no one else on your team can do their job the way you want it done. It also means that your team might miss steps or complete unnecessary ?work.
Companies lose approximately 20 to 30% of revenue because of inefficiencies in company processes each year.
In your law firm, processes ensure you can quickly locate contacts, tasks, emails, documents, and more associated with your clients. They also help you effectively use your time and resources and ensure your staff does the same. Have you ever seen an employee hunting answers to simple questions or documents put in the wrong places? You can solve these issues with documented procedures, freeing up your time and keeping your operations consistent.
A law firm operations and procedures manual is a document that contains your law firm’s processes and business policies.
Having a procedures manual has many advantages, including:
Optimization. Documented procedures will optimize your work to improve efficiency and speed. Plus, they’ll help you discover holes in your systems that need filling to improve workflow. Work smarter, not harder, remember?
Enhanced client experience. Client-centered processes such as bill payment should be consistent for the best client experience. The only way to ensure consistency across the board is through documentation. Consistent billing = consistent profit.
Easier delegation and training. Whether you’re adding members to your team or plan to in the future, documented law firm policies and procedures make it easier to delegate tasks and train new employees. You’ll decrease or even eliminate delays, ensuring you still deliver work to fuel your business and satisfy your clients.
Fewer mistakes. When you have written procedures for you and your growing team to refer to, people always know what to do, even when you’re not around. Then, you can relax under a palm tree. Really.
Scaling and selling. Growth becomes simpler with documented procedures. Plus, you can ensure your team takes great care of your clients as they’re accustomed, should you decide to exit your practice.
Sold? If so, the best way to get started is to just dive into your law office procedures headfirst. To create your first law firm operations manual, start with a simple document (we’ll discuss other options later). You can choose to use Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or whatever word processing tool you use in your firm. Just open a blank document right now.
It’s time to get all of those daily processes and to-dos out of your head and onto paper. Take some time to “brain dump” your processes. For example, think about everything you do from starting work until the end of the workday. It might be a good idea to carry a notepad with you during the day to take notes. Write? a little “A Day in the Life” here.
Tip: Does writing stress you out? Consider dictating into your phone, then getting a transcription from a cheap auto-transcription place like Temi.com.
We know this step sounds overwhelming. After all, you’re a busy attorney with a firm to run. We promise you’ll experience some much-needed clarity once you move past this step. Just stick with it!
As you create an inventory of your processes, you’ll want to consider:
Client acquisition. Consider the steps you take to gain new clients and the onboarding process. We’ve found that this is one of the most common processes that attorneys ?delegate as they grow.
Day-to-day workflows. Now, consider each day-to-day workflow you complete. For example, how do you manage client work and projects? How does client communication happen? How do you ?email? This is the meat of your manual.
Financial systems. Consider processes such as billing, accounting, bookkeeping, and payroll.
People systems. Your people-systems include your processes for hiring, staffing, and overall management of your law firm team.
Take each of these core processes and break them down into simple steps. Once complete, follow each process to test its accuracy.
To make it easy on yourself, just pick one of these to start. You don’t have to get all of this down in one sitting. Small bites, always.
No! More! Paper! We believe client-centered = a paperless law firm. If you want a manual that is easily accessible for all team members—remote or in-office—there are options available beyond the traditional word processing document.
Shared files. You can use tools such as Dropbox or Google Docs to create an online manual for your team.
Wiki tools. You could also create an online wiki-type website that’s private and password-protected for your employees.
Video. Video tools such as Loom and Zoom make recording your procedures and workflows simple. Plus, video is a perfect training tool for new employees. It’s a win-win.
After creating your process inventory, you’re ready to structure your law firm procedures manual. Each of these processes on your list will have its own place inside your manual.
There are a few key sections any basic law firm policies and procedures manual should include:
Table of contents. A quick win. Create an easy-to-scan table of contents at the beginning of your manual. This will help you and your team locate procedures quickly.
Organizational chart. Lay out an organizational chart that defines each role in your firm. This chart should document who’s responsible for what part of your processes, complete with contact info, should an issue arise.
Business policies and procedures. The meat of your manual will be your procedures. Add each procedure to its own section, outlining each step, no matter how small. Define reasoning to avoid confusion. Cover policies, such as payroll, confidentiality, attendance, codes of conduct, etc.
Emergency procedures. Don’t forget to include your emergency procedures adn contingency plans in your manual. You’ll want to include what to do in the event of a natural disaster or data breach to help protect your firm.
Date. Date your manual and update the date any time you make changes.
Remember, your first operations manual doesn’t have to be wildly in-depth. It simply needs to outline your critical business processes. As your firm grows and evolves, you’ll start to see your manual do the same.
If you’re frustrated with keeping all of your processes in your head – think about what your employees feel. They can’t read your mind. You need to get your manual in writing and, more importantly, update it when things change. Even if you feel ?you’ve explained it verbally, go one step further by documenting it and referring ?to it regularly.
Make your manual a priority, updating it frequently. This helps avoid messes such as complicated processes, work falling through the cracks, and increased frustration amongst your team. We recommend reviewing your procedures at least monthly to ensure everything is correct. In fact, stop reading this, and put 30 minutes on your calendar right now. After all, updates to your procedures happen as you automate and grow.
Also, get your team involved! This shouldn’t be a siloed project. At Lawyerist, everyone on the team has an hour on their calendar twice a month where we work on updating our systems. You could use monthly meetings to discuss your processes and how you can improve. Discuss what’s working and what isn’t. Your manual should then reflect any changes you decide to make.
We’ve heard attorneys avoid new hires because the firm runs exactly how they run it—and they’re worried no one else will do it as they do. (This is a common anxiety!) But, think about it—by writing ?these procedures, you’ll have better success getting people to follow your systems.
Each employee you hire should immediately receive a copy of your manual or a way to access your manual online. Make it a point to underline the importance of following these procedures to ensure accuracy, efficiency, and client satisfaction. Lead by example and use your procedures manual often.
During training, you’ll work alongside each new employee to ensure a smooth onboarding process. Yet, make sure you point them to your procedures manual when they have questions about how to complete a process. It’s all about creating a habit of referring to the operations manual.
Creating documented procedures will reduce stress, improve organization, and help you run your firm like a well-oiled machine. We know this task is overwhelming with everything else you have to do in a day. We’ve all been where you are, wondering how you’ll ever document every single thing that makes your firm a success. Yet, it can be done. And, when it’s complete, you’ll wonder how you ever worked without it.
In Chapter 4, we’ll tackle productivity and project management.