When the Law Firm Flywheel Starts to Wobble

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Systems break down.

It’s natural, unavoidable, and ought to be expected. Your systems are unraveling as you read these words.

Each year, here at Rosen Institute, we teach a group of lawyers how to build a Law Firm Flywheel. The primary outcome of the work we do together is the creation of documented systems and processes that drive the law firm to ever greater profitability.

Today, it has been about six months since the last cohort of lawyers finished building their flywheel.

The wheels are coming off

Some systems are working well. But others are mostly useless. Why? Because time passes, things change, and the system documentation isn’t maintained.

Your coffee is a pretty good illustration.

Six months ago you were using a coffee maker provided by a coffee supply company. They loaned you the coffee equipment because you bought the coffee. That coffee maker worked like a charm.

A few months ago, you realized that the coffee tasted terrible. It was time for an upgrade. You decided to buy a nice coffee maker from Amazon and found a local roaster who is now providing you with fresh beans. The coffee is amazing.

Broken systems smell like progress

You improved the quality of the coffee you offer to your clients. You’re pretty happy that you get to drink it, too. It’s an upgrade for the law firm.

But the system you created for coffee-making unraveled when your previous assistant went on maternity leave. The old machine used cute little packets of coffee. The new machine requires coffee beans from a canister, a snazzy grinder, a precise scoop, and organic paper filters. It’s complicated. Unfortunately, your new assistant has no idea how to make the coffee.

You did the right thing in upgrading the coffee. It’s delicious. But an improvement in your law firm nearly always breaks the systems you’ve built. Your flywheel is spinning, but it’s wobbling a little.

The system needs a system

The coffee situation is just an example. The same thing is happening with most of your systems. Substantive legal processes, marketing, management, technology, and finance systems all degrade as you improve. It happens fast, and if you’re not careful, you’ll be right back where you started–systemless. Without a system for maintaining your systems, you’ll end up with no system at all.

Your team copes, and rolls with the changes. They can adapt–that’s (hopefully) why you hired them.

But every firm needs a system for updating their systems. In a perfect world, system updating will happen spontaneously. The team is using the systems documentation to get the work done, so they notice when things need adjusting due to a change. They pull up the documentation and update the text, or audio, or video. Just like that, things are back in working order.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. The reality is that we often discover system decay when new employees come on board and there isn’t adequate information for them to complete tasks without asking lots of questions.

That form isn’t what we use anymore, things go in a different folder now, that URL has changed, that’s the old vendor, that other employee is gone and isn’t who should be asked for approval, and on, and on, and on.

That’s when we realize how out-of-date our system has become.

Do this and your systems will always work

I’d suggest you do two things to prevent the fallout of system decay.

First, build system maintenance into the culture. Bring it up at least once each month during team meetings. Remind the group why the system matters and how these instructions provide efficiency gains and reference material for employees, consistent outcomes for clients, and quality work product for everyone involved. Help your team understand that the system is a win for everyone–client and employee.

Second, make system maintenance an annual activity theme. Each year you should devote time for reviewing and updating systems. Get everyone involved. Some firms need just a week, while others will need a month. Hold a launch meeting. Bring the team together and divide up the work. Post a scoreboard on the wall to measure progress. During your initial meeting, work together to plan a celebration upon completion. Then, when the work is done, celebrate. Take everyone out to lunch or go-karting, or do something special.

Some of us, myself included, have very small teams. Does that change things? No. We all need a system to keep us on track, or we’ll let our systems deteriorate. Even if you’re a solo with zero employees it’s valuable to remind yourself, each month, to stay on top of your systems documentation. Then, once a year, do the big update and take yourself out for a steak, a lobster, or a delicious vegan meal. You’ll have time to celebrate because the systems you’re keeping current will keep you on track, productive, and profitable.

The culture of your law firm will quickly evolve when you address systems repair on both a monthly and an annual basis. Before you know it, your team will look forward to “systems week” and get excited about keeping the documentation current throughout the year.

You need a system for keeping up with your systems. Build the system into the system. Then your flywheel will never start to wobble.

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