How Dog Poop and Law Firms Are Alike

Some cities are plagued by dog shit. (I promise this relates to your practice. Feel free to cut to the chase if my stories bore you to tears.)

Buenos Aires, on my last visit, was a good example. I didn’t see much of the city because my eyes were focused on my feet most of the time. If I wanted to look at my surroundings, I had to stand very still.

Berlin, at least with respect to the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood where I stayed, is exactly the opposite. There are plenty of dogs, but there is very little poop to be found.

Our apartment, which had no air conditioning and thus always open windows, afforded us the perfect opportunity to pay attention to how they keep the streets so clean. At first, I assumed the German people were obsessive about picking up the poop. They’re good about it but not extraordinary. Some folks leave the poop right where the dog deposits it (yuck).

However, the city government is all about keeping that neighborhood clean. The cleaning machines go up and down the sidewalks each morning. The poop is scooped. Sometimes I noticed the machines making an extra run during the afternoon.

The government has a system. I suppose lots of cities are good about keeping the sidewalks free of poop. Recently, I’ve noticed that Miami Beach is on it, at least in the areas frequented by tourists. My daily walks down Ocean Drive are often interrupted by the noisy cleaning machines driving by.

Keeping the sidewalks free of poop is good for business. It’s an essential system if you expect tourists to spread the good word about your city.

These clean cities have a system. The system involves running those machines up and down the sidewalks each day. No one has to think about it. They just do it. First thing in the morning, the drivers head out and get to work. The next thing you know, the sidewalks are ready for walking.

What’s the alternative?

We see the alternative all the time. It’s sitting in a big brown glob on the sidewalk. The alternative is hoping people clean it up themselves or hoping someone from the city walks by, spots it, and cleans it up. More likely it sits, gets stepped in, and is ground into the pavement and then washed away, days later, by the rain. It’s a mess, and it turns off locals and visitors alike.

The system is the key. Daily cleaning, without thinking, is what keeps the city pleasant, alive, welcoming, and profitable.

What’s Your Cleaning Regimen?

Thankfully, our practices aren’t collecting dog poop. However, we are accumulating our own load of crap. We’ve got tasks backed up on the list, calls unreturned, payments not processed, documents waiting to be drafted, and all the rest. These aren’t one-off tasks. These are the routine, daily, steady things that pile up. The pile looks the same, regardless of whether we analyze it now or a month from now. See the similarities?

What does it take to clean up this mess? It takes a systematic approach. It takes a daily, constant, never-ending mechanism for getting it done. The inputs aren’t going to change: the stuff is going to keep coming. The only question is whether we’re going to treat each item like it’s special or whether we’re going to develop and implement a system for getting it handled.

Sure, you can manage every task as a one-off. You can do it all without a system. Berlin can act like the latest dog poop is a big surprise and handle each new incident as it happens. That’s the way many law firms operate. We fail to see the patterns and the flow. But, regardless of whether we see it, the input keeps on coming, and most of it is just like the input we got yesterday.

Why You Need Systems

Everything we do more than once can be integrated into a documented system or process. From the simple (think accepting credit card payments) to the complex (think taking an objection to a judge in the middle of a deposition) can be managed with a documented system. Documenting your process gives you consistent results.

Documenting systems does something more. It does something that’s dramatically more powerful than giving you reliability, consistency, and finality.

Documenting systems and then following them frees you up. Instead of your brain being dominated by the minutiae of making sure the basics are under control, you’re freed up to put your energy into the big picture. You’re able to tackle new opportunities, explore creative avenues, and find new ways to help your clients. The systems manage the small stuff while you’re able to focus on larger issues.

With the basics under control, you’re able to do the advanced, higher-level thinking that makes the difference between getting the work done and having an impact that matters.

Systems are the key to scaling up, to growing, and to taking your practice to the next level from a profitability standpoint, but more importantly, from an intellectual standpoint.

When you’re not busy answering questions from a staff member about to assemble a trial notebook, you’re freed up to think about the application of the latest case law to the problem you’re trying to solve. Big things happen when you free up some mental space and use it to solve client problems.

Without systems, you’re forever bogged down in the poop. With functioning, documented systems, you have a nice clean surface you can use to get work done.

Build systems, and get things cleaned up. If you need help then consider my systems course. Together, we’ll work toward a systematic approach to the operation of your firm.

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