Are You the Glue Holding Your Firm Together?

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Machu Picchu inspires spiritual thoughts and reflection. It’s pretty amazing. It was built by the Incans and is one of the most important heritage sites in the world.

We hiked up an excruciatingly steep mountain to look down at the complex of ruins. By the end of the day, I was exhausted, starving, and not interested in talking.

At dinner, I listened to the couples sitting near me as they reflected on the impact of their visit–the way it touched their souls, the way they felt a sense of awe and wonder. But I could think about only one thing:

This restaurant has no systems. It’s a disaster.

I guess spiritual thoughts aren’t my thing.

When systems fail you don’t get paid

We’d made it through the drinks, appetizers, and main course. The food was good. I was enjoying myself even if the timing of the meal was off a bit. The waiter was nice. The service was slow but tolerable. The gap between the appetizer and main course was longer than expected, but I was feeling flexible.

When the main course finally arrived, it wasn’t delivered by Leo, our server. It was brought over by the owner. We chatted. He was a very nice Italian fellow. I was pretty happy.

We had a great dessert.

Then it was time for the bill. I tried to wave down Leo. That didn’t go well. We sat a bit longer and the owner met my eyes. I asked him for the bill. He put it on the table and walked away, so I pulled out my credit card.

The bill sat for a long while with the card ready for action. I finally got Leo to notice me and he walked away with the card and bill.

We waited, and waited, and waited.

Then I asked Leo about the bill. He brought it back. I put away my card and we left.

As we rounded the corner at the end of the block, a young woman from the restaurant rushed up and grabbed us. She didn’t speak much English, but we agreed to follow her back to the restaurant. That’s when we discovered that the card hadn’t been processed.

The owner figured it out right after we left. Things had become confused. One cashier thought the other had processed the payment when, in fact, neither had done the work. We waited while the owner ran our card.

I should point out that we left happy, even though there was a fair amount of chaos regarding our bill. It was the restaurant that was exposed to a potential loss. Had the owner not been paying attention, the business would have lost the money we owed, plus the cost of feeding us.

When systems work you get paid, and paid, and paid

The next night when it was time for dinner, we tried a different place. This one was just down the block from the first place, but it was worlds away in regard to the systems being used to run the operation.

The second restaurant was a machine. We were immediately seated, menus were placed in our hands, we ordered and the waiter made a decent attempt to upsell us on some extras. The food was served quickly and we got exactly what we ordered. It was delicious.

The waiter offered us dessert and made a great pitch. We went for it.

The check showed up promptly when I requested it and the credit card was processed nearly instantly. I looked around and noticed that the systems were working as well for the other customers as they were for us. There was a manager calmly watching from the corner and the restaurant ran like clockwork. I never spotted anyone who appeared to be the owner.

The food, in both restaurants, was excellent. The system in the second place, however, was smooth while the system in the first place was nearly non-existent.

One restaurant required the owner to engage in most steps of the process to be sure things happened. He was busy delivering plates, fixing bills, and juggling service issues to keep customers happy. The other restaurant ran without intervention. Everyone simply did what was required to keep the customers happy.

If the owner is the glue, the business is limited

Most small law firms I encounter look more like the first restaurant than the second. The law firm owner is involved in selling, servicing, repairing, cajoling, calming, and keeping things functioning. The law firm team isn’t using a documented system, because there isn’t one.

Show up in a law firm on Sunday night before a trial and you might find the owner making photocopies for the trial. I wouldn’t be surprised by that, and neither would you.

Most law firms avoid chaos because the law firm owner is willing to do whatever is necessary to fix problems before they explode. The law firm owner is the glue holding the business together. When the law firm owner steps away, even if only for a short while, one part or another of the business unravels.

When a systemless law firm is operating without the presence of the owner, it’s hard for the team to make decisions, fix problems, and earn money. The owner is the glue that holds things together and without the glue, bits and pieces start to fall off and get lost.

Some law firms have systems documented. They run differently. A law firm with a systematic approach to operations gets things done. Employees know their roles. They know where to turn when they have questions. They know what’s to be done and what’s to be done after that.

When systems are in place, when the team has been trained in the system, and when everyone is held accountable for the delivery of their part of the system, the business hums along whether the owner is present or not.

The systems, not the owner, are the glue holding the business together. The owner doesn’t need to jump in to solve problem after problem because there’s a system for preventing problems, and another for solving them when they arise.

Maybe systems are spiritual?

I’m all for a spiritual experience. Machu Picchu was great.  But making sure you get paid can be spiritual as well. Letting a customer leave without paying doesn’t feel like a consciousness-expanding exercise. On the contrary–not getting paid is a systemic failure of epic proportion. There’s nothing spiritual about that experience.

We don’t have it in us to monitor every single thing happening in our businesses. We can’t stand at the center like the restaurant owner and watch as issues arise. We’ve got to have a team in place who understand what they should do, how they should do it, and how to be sure it’s getting done.

The need for documented systems, in which everything is written down in clear, simple language, arises as soon as you add your first team member. It doesn’t matter if that person is full or part-time. It doesn’t matter if your first hire is remote or in the office. It doesn’t matter if the hire is an associate or a courier. The need for written systems is immediate because otherwise, you’ll find yourself in the role of the restaurant owner from Italy.

It never gets easier to document systems. The right time to start is now. That’s true even if you haven’t yet added anyone to your team. Do it for yourself.

How do you send a certified letter? Check your documentation. How do you file a pleading? Check your documentation. How do you check for conflicts? You get the idea.

Write it all down. Invest a few minutes now, even if you don’t have a few minutes, to get it done. There’s no wrong way to document systems. Just write it down somewhere, somehow, in any way you like. It will be harder tomorrow than it is today. Starting is the key.

Your work life is always getting more complex. Trying to remember how to do everything, without writing it down, is a fool’s errand. Document your systems. It’s kinda spiritual when it’s done.

Building Machu Picchu was no easy feat. It was hours and months and years of grueling labor, dragging stones up very steep hills. But centuries later, it’s still there–its pathways and staircases still functioning.

Your systems can be similar. A well-built law practice system will last for a long, long time.

I get that I may not be the most spiritual of people. I understand that I should focus on people with whom I’m sharing my food rather than the way the restaurant is operating. But it’s hard to ignore how much better the restaurant with systems runs compared to the one without. As the owner of a law firm, you shouldn’t ignore it either.

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