In a law firm, complexity is the nature of the game. Things can get out of hand fast.
In our attempts to make life easier, we buy gadgets, software, or services, then layer them on top of one another.
A simple task like mailing a letter can turn into a 14-step process involving multiple printers, different envelopes, cover sheets, Stamps.com, a courier service, a copier, a scanner, two people in your office, a virtual assistant in the Philippines, and a workers’ comp lawyer when one of those parties gets a tongue injury.
If you think mailing a letter is complicated, don’t get me started on depositing a check. I get queasy when I think about it.
Complexity is expensive. It creeps up and takes hold over time. Often we don’t realize it has happened.
Then one day, an employee quits.
We’re sucked into helping with whatever needs doing. It becomes obvious that the business is no longer capable of getting things done quickly and efficiently.
We dig in, drill down, and find ourselves stuck. It’s like stepping in chewing gum. We can pull it, twist it, and yank it, but it’s not going away easily.
Complexity is the enemy
Complexity is the reason we end up with systems documentation, managers and supervisors, and a team of people who can’t be easily replaced.
A certain level of complexity is inevitable and necessary. The things we accomplish each day aren’t supposed to be easy. But we don’t have to make everything more difficult than it needs to be. We can have some simplicity.
How to Simplify Your Law Firm
Try these steps to reduce complexity in your firm. Use this advice to strip away the layers, thin the process, and get things done without hiring a team of engineers and consultants.
1. Cancel it
We’re good at starting new things, but we’re bad at ending them. We can see it in the storage cabinet. We buy a new laptop and put the old one in storage instead of selling or recycling it.
Get rid of the old projects, subscriptions, obligations and commitments. Unsubscribe from magazines, quit groups, drop memberships, and cancel auto-renew services. Abandon the things you don’t need anymore.
You can identify these hangers-on in your checking account ledger. You’ll find recurring software fees, publications you aren’t reading, and monthly minimums you’re paying. Get rid of it all.
2. Get rid of part-timers
Hiring comes with a hidden cost: Management. Anyone with hiring experience knows that keeping new team members operating is expensive. It’s also frustrating, exhausting, and it sometimes makes you want to replace everyone with a “virtual” assistant.
Supervising people is expensive. The cost doesn’t vary much whether the person is full-time, part-time, or a free intern. Smaller teams have smaller management costs. The savings can be significant when you replace two or three part-timers with a full-time person. That’s true even if it means paying for more benefits.
Some lawyers like the energy of a bustling office with lots of part-timers and interns scurrying around. But they aren’t happy when they see the bottom line results. Fewer people usually means more profit for the same work.
3. Fire the client
You already know who I’m talking about, don’t you?
Just reading those words – FIRE THE CLIENT – releases a flood of energy and emotion. There’s always a client you’d like to release.
But you’re ambivalent. There’s the money, the upset, the threat, the complexity of the situation… It’s never easy.
But that client is making a mess of your practice. You’ve already promised to avoid clients like this one in the future. You’ve promised to change the way you pick your fares.
Don’t trust your far-off promises. You’ll always have a client you’ll want to fire until you resolve to aggressively prune the roster when you see what’s happening. They can’t all be identified in advance. You’ll be stuck with difficult clients unless you start firing them.
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4. Switch to fixed fees
We switched a long time ago. We got rid of the time keeping system and the bookkeeper. We stopped hassling lawyers to turn in time sheets. We stopped reviewing bills. We stopped calling clients about their invoices. We got rid of the entire receivables process.
I know, I know. You can’t do it for this reason, that reason, and the other reason.
Figure it out. Hire an ethics lawyer, a business consultant, or a team of financial analysts if you must. Do whatever is necessary to switch to fixed fees so you can benefit from its simplicity.
5. Fire that employee
Fewer employees are better. That’s why I advocate firing part-timers and interns.
Now, however, I’m talking about firing that employee you hate. You know the one – the employee who drives you and everyone nuts. The one you just had another talk with about some issue or another.
Sure, she might be productive. She’s good at one thing or another. The turmoil and drama aren’t worth her work.
It never gets better. She will be a giant pain in the ass until her last day. Fire her already.
6. Outsource it
Replace your human resources role with a Professional Employer Organization (PEO). They take care of everything from onboarding new team members to managing benefits and workers compensation insurance. They handle payroll, vacation time, and even deal with unemployment claims when you fire that intern for stealing Coke Zero from the cooler.
Replace your phone system with a service like Ruby Receptionist. We used them as a back and for after-hours calls until we realized they do a great job. Now they answer our phones all the time.
Replace your delivery role with a courier service. Courier services (specializing in legal support) can serve documents, file at the courthouse, pick up signed documents, and more.
Replace your drink/snack function with Amazon or a coffee service. Let a vendor track the inventory. Do the same for office supplies. It may cost a bit more, but the sales rep will handle the details.
7. Uninstall software
Outsource software too. Get rid of everything installed on your computer except your web browser. Replace all that software on your device with cloud-based products. Use cloud versions of a practice management system, accounting system, document management system, document assembly system.
Fewer software products mean fewer problems, so you can ditch technicians too. When you only work with a simple device with a web browser, you don’t need some guy with a digital tool belt.
Everything we used to do with software on our machines can be done better, faster, and usually cheaper with cloud-based products. Strip that laptop down to the bare essentials.
8. Cancel the extra marketing
Don’t keep a marketing service simply because you’ve been using it for a long time. Quit doing things that can’t be measured and aren’t producing results. Cut out the directory listings, advertisements, and sponsorships you keep doing because that’s what you’ve always done.
While you’re at it, get rid of all of those costly website add-ons. Is the chat feature working? Is the pop-up collecting subscribers? Is the blog bringing in clients? If not, cancel them.
9. Toss the hardware
Get rid of the servers you don’t need anymore because you’ve moved to cloud. While you’re at it, get rid of the switches, routers, cables, racks, backup power supplies, and phone hardware. All of those electronics require maintenance, decision making, vendor relations, and expense.
Do you still have a phone on your desk? A phone in your lobby? A phone in your conference room? Pick one up, unplug it, and wrap the cord around the neck of the handset. Now choke the life out of it. You don’t need it. You already have a phone in your pocket, right?
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More hardware means more problems. Most of us can do everything with a laptop and a mobile phone. Servers, phone handsets, and other hardware can go out the door with the part-time employees.
10. Say no
Say no to anything that’s outside of your sweet spot. Say no when you feel it in your gut. Say no to things you know you aren’t going to do anyway.
I stopped saying yes to bar associations. I stopped saying yes to clients in faraway counties. I stopped saying yes to cases about things I don’t know. I stopped saying yes to interns.
Saying no more often simplifies your life. It energizes you. It allows you to focus. It helps you be great at the things you say yes to.
With simplification comes free time. Use it to think. Thinking is the key to an amazing practice.
Think about where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and who you need to bring. Think about what you need to do differently, how you can better solve your clients’ complex problems, and what unique value you bring to the table.
We often don’t have time to think given the complexity of mailing a letter.
Simplicity has its rewards
When I was a young lawyer, I once stood beside an older colleague, looking out the window of the rural courthouse in North Carolina.
We could see his office across the town square. He had remodeled a beautiful old home. A steady stream of locals streamed in and out the front door.
“If I had it to do over again,” he said, “I would work out of my briefcase and meet clients in the courtroom. I wouldn’t bother with the office and the employees. I would have done it all by myself.”
There was an air of burden, responsibility, and heaviness to his words. I was early in the game. I didn’t fully appreciate what he meant.
I understand him now.