Eliminate Mistakes with this Magic

The hearing starts in 30 minutes and the color pictures of the bruises weren’t printed.

You’re already at the courthouse and there isn’t time to have them printed and couriered downtown.

It’s too late to rush down the block to the copy shop.

You’re screwed.

And worse, the client heard you freaking out at your paralegal on the phone.

There’s no way to spin this with your client. You’re unprepared. No amount of “client management” is going to fix this error.

The moment you fail to offer the photos of evidence, things will get ugly. Your client came prepared. She’s ready to say what you told her to say to get the photos admitted into evidence.

These photos aren’t essential. You can win on testimony alone. But if the ruling goes sideways, the client will blame the missing photos.

Silently, you repeat your mantra of profanity over and over in your head, while planning the murder your paralegal (and hoping the prosecutor won’t be able to get photos either).

The worst part is that you specifically asked the paralegal to print the pictures. He said he’d do it. On the phone, he admitted he dropped the ball.

“F*@k the ball,” you mutter. You’re irate. You were already keyed up before the hearing. Now your head is spinning as you frantically search for a solution.

This is your fault

I hate to say this. I hate it because I’ve said it to myself.

You blew it.

You are responsible.

You should have known about this problem. You should have given yourself time to fix it.

You screwed up.

The screw-up wasn’t failing to check the photos earlier in the day or even yesterday. (I could do a long article on the need to prepare in advance, but I’ll procrastinate on that for a bit).

The screw-up happened long before the hearing. This problem could have been prevented.

You see, this is a classic problem that plagues most firms. And it’s not a one-time thing.

It’s part of your system

For many of us, screw-ups are part of our management philosophy. We delegate and never follow up. We hand things off and hope for the best.

We’ve read articles imploring us to let go of tasks. “Delegate and stay out of it,” they teach us. The experts tell us to stop micromanaging and grant autonomy. They instruct us to step back so our team members can learn, grow, and own their projects.

So we create systems where we hand off lots of tasks, make ourselves available for questions (as much as we can), and then hope for the best.

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Good approach for everyone, right?

We don’t waste our time micromanaging and the employees feels empowered. It’s win/win.

Then disaster strikes

At least it’s win/win when the work actually gets done.

When the work is ignored, delayed, forgotten or otherwise left undone, it’s a nightmare.

That’s how you end up outside a courtroom missing key exhibits and spewing profanity at your paralegal.

Unfortunately, it’s incredibly predictable. Even the best teams make mistakes, forget things, or run into delays.

If they get 99 out of 100 things done correctly and on time, that still leaves one thing that doesn’t get done right. And we don’t work in a world where 99 out of 100 is good enough. The photos have to be printed and in your hand before you leave for the hearing.

It’s all-or-nothing when the trial is about to start.

But with the delegate-it-and-don’t-micromanage approach, mistakes will happen. They’re inevitable.

Obviously, giving people space is important. Your team can only grow if they’re given responsibility and opportunities to figure things out. They need room to experiment, take risks, and try different solutions. Their growth is good for them, good for you, and good for the client.

You can’t afford to micromanage. You can’t afford the time or energy to involve yourself in every step of every process. That approach to delegation is counter-productive.

But you also can’t be left standing outside the courtroom without a key piece of evidence.

There’s a solution to this problem

This is not an insurmountable problem.

In fact, most businesses solve this problem. Law firms, on the other hand, routinely suffer these kinds of mistakes.

Why are we more susceptible?

Because our practices commonly lack systems. We run our practices unlike businesses. That’s a mistake, because there’s a lot to learn from the rest of the business world.

We may choose not to imitate everything in the corporate universe, but we should borrow their best ideas when they solve our common problems.

If we can borrow an idea and avoid that panicked moment outside the courtroom, then it’s time to borrow. Here’s how you get things done each and every time…

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1. Follow up on everything with everyone

Smart lawyers create documented systems for routine procedures.

Detailed instructions for getting things done frees you and others from answering repeated “How do I do…?” questions.

But these kinds of systems are only a starting point. Getting people to follow the system is always a challenge, but it’s overcome with a follow-up.

You need a system for following up on adherence to the system. Yes, a system for the system – seriously.

Shockingly few lawyers follow through with their team. You need to follow up on everything with everyone.

Following up doesn’t have to look or feel like micromanaging. It’s possible to check on the status of work without taking over. You can focus on completion and deadlines without getting into the details.

You need two elements:

  1. A list. It’s impossible to remember all the tasks and projects you delegate. Plus, remembering is a huge waste of your mental capacity. You need a list. It can be a legal pad with tasks noted. It can be a simple task list like Microsoft To-Do or Trello, or you can employ something more sophisticated like Asana. The tool isn’t as important as being able to consult the list regularly to check on progress and follow-up. The ability to share the list with others is helpful too.
  2. A meeting. Lots of lawyers, using sophisticated systems for tracking tasks, believe that talking, in person or remotely, is unnecessary. Those lawyers are likely to find themselves standing outside of the courtroom without their exhibits. You need to talk through the list. The medium doesn’t matter. It can be voice, video or even text message. But you need to communicate on a regular basis and run through the list. That kind of follow-up gets things done.

Over time, you’ll find a balance between following up and micromanaging. You need to check on progress without assuming ownership of the task or project. Ask questions, be willing to answer questions, but leave the ownership of the work with the employee.

2. Train your managers to do the same

If your goal is growth, your team will inevitably grow. At some point, if it hasn’t happened already, you’ll reach a stage where it’s impractical to speak with everyone who works for you. You’ll have to delegate that to your managers.

Your management team (especially lawyer/managers) won’t assume follow-up is required.

They’ll have the “I asked them to do it and they dropped the ball” mentality that rules our world. You’ll need to create a culture where follow-up is expected.

Smart managers worry that follow-ups shift responsibility to the manager. They worry employees will depend on the manager to track their tasks. Indeed, some employees may start to feel that the manager owns the activity.

You can remedy this problem (or head it off) by subtly shifting the tone of employee-manager meetings.

Instead of having the manager inquire about projects, have the employee lead the conversation by running through the progress of each task or project. This leaves ownership to the right person.

3. Then do it with your managers

Wait a second… You aren’t finished following up.

Once you put a management team in place, you need to follow up with them.

Do they hold the regular employee-manager meetings? Do they maintain their lists? Do they check on things frequently?

I can hear you already: “That’s their job. Why do I have to check on them?”

Because that’s how this works. Your job is to delegate and follow up. It’s required if you want to keep moving toward your goals.

Think of it like this: A manager’s job is to get things done through other people – their team. Your job is to get things done through your managers – your team.

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In meetings with your managers, therefore, you’ll mostly oversee how they run their teams (managing the managers, if you will.)

They follow up. You follow up. Everybody follows up on everything.

4. Oh, and do it forever

Entropy happens, systems decay, and processes break down. That’s normal and expected.

That sort of erosion is offset by your lists and your meetings. Follow-up is a forever thing. If you stop, you’ll quickly return to where you started.

Management is an essential element of a successful business. If your team ever becomes unmanaged, you technically don’t have a team.

That’s a difficult concept for many lawyers. We tend to be self-motivated, desire independence, and enjoy autonomy in our work.

But we still benefit when someone takes the time keep us on track, help us move forward on projects, and support us when our systems start to fray. We resist being managed, but it improves the quality of our work. That’s true up and down the line.

Some lawyers believe they can systematize it all, hire well, and train effectively so that the team runs without management.

That magical thinking is a fantasy.

Your team requires regular, frequent, never-ending follow-up if they’re going to deliver quality work on time, over and over.

5. And it’s not just for your internal team

It would be nice if your follow-up activities stopped at the office front door. But that’s not the way it works.

You need to check in frequently with your external team as well, like your vendors, contractors, accountants, etc. They will drop the ball too if no one follows-up.

Check on your courier services, copy and scanning services, expert witnesses, marketing contractors, software developers, and anyone else to be sure they’re on track and on schedule.

Shockingly, these check-ins expose critical questions that require your input so the other party can proceed. You’ll wonder when the hell they were planning to call you about the problem and whether progress would have stopped if you hadn’t checked in.

You’re right to worry about that stuff. Follow-ups fix it.

The magic happens when you stop expecting magic

When we hire great people and hope for the best, things rarely work out.

Hope is not the same as good management. Good management gets results. Hope leaves you outside the courthouse without your exhibits.

When we create a system of following up, things get done. When our lists are maintained, our meetings occur regularly, and our teams follow our systems, we get a smooth, consistent, predictable operation.

A follow-up routine (a system) only works like magic when you stop expecting it to happen by magic.

There is no magic. When you track tasks, discuss progress, and repeat that process forever, that’s when you’ll see the magic.

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