The wind picks up in the afternoon here in Zadar, Croatia. High wind means bigger waves, so the Adriatic gets choppy. Sometimes, under the setting sun, the wind whips water over the seawall, drenching tourists. My wife, Lisa, likes to swim. When we arrived, she attempted to swim in the afternoon, but the waves were too big. Just getting into the water was tricky due to the slick seawall. Once she was in the water, the choppiness tossed her around so much she felt seasick. Afternoon swimming wasn’t working. She needed to make a better plan.
Overcoming choppy seas requires a system
Thankfully, the sea is calm in the morning. She has been walking to the beach most mornings for her swim, without much incident. It took her a few days to learn the pattern. You see, it’s not immediately obvious that the water is calm in the morning and rough in the afternoon because the pattern isn’t 100% consistent. Occasionally, the pattern is reversed: morning chop, afternoon calm.
But most days, it works. She keeps her towel, goggles, and bag on a chair in the living room. I don't dare move them, because she wants her system to be easily replicated every day. The system leads to daily success.
A morning swim is her system for exercise, getting some time away from me, and building inspiration for her writing. She now has a swimming system that will last until we leave Zadar. Then she’ll have to develop a new way to balance work and exercise in our next destination (Tbilisi, Georgia, by the way). Development, modification, and refinement of systems never ends when your life involves perpetual travel.
Systems are optional, but optimal
A system is not, however, required. It would have been easy for Lisa to forgo a system. Instead of taking notes on the pattern, she could have left her exercise to chance. She could have said…
- “It’s unpredictable. Some days, swimming conditions are better in the morning and some days they’re better in the afternoon.”
- “It's too much trouble. This isn't a major life issue. I’ll just go with the flow.”
- “It takes too much time. Gathering information, watching the weather, talking to locals… It consumes time I can use for other activities.”
- “It won't always work. Even with a system, I still have to consider a range of ever-changing variables. It might be raining. It might be cold. We might have other plans. Just because I have a system doesn’t mean I won’t have to think, adapt and adjust.”
- “It won't last. My system is temporary. It won't work outside of Zadar. My investment in this system will be wasted when we leave town.”
Instead of building her swimming system, she could have just jumped in. She could have donned her suit, applied her sun block, walked to the beach, and assessed the ocean’s condition each day. She could have used her powers of observation and judgment to make a decision in the moment. Sometimes she'd get to swim, but sometimes she wouldn't. Sometimes it's tough to know whether investing in a system is smart. It's often hard to see the value of systems before they’re created, documented, optimized, and given the chance to drive behavior forward.
The mindset matters
Second-guessing systems is stronger among those who lack a systems mindset. Some just folks don't get it. People who build systems regularly, however, see EVERYTHING as a system–even things that aren't working. A system that leads to failure is still a system.
Once you start to see the world as sets of systems, you don't hesitate to document them, optimize them, and use them for your benefit. You start to see how waking up a few minutes earlier translates into the kids getting to school on time, you getting to work on time, stress dissipating, calmer interactions with your paralegal, the paralegal sticking around for another year, revenues growing, and a nice vacation when you can sleep in. Everything that happens is connected to events, actions, activities, inputs and other stimuli that precede whatever happened. It's all systems impacting systems that control events. Either you are managing the systems or those systems are managing you. Either way, the outcomes are the result of the systems.
Systems for simple processes pay off
We build systems in our law firms when they're easy, obvious and we can connect the dots to keep things running well. We hesitate to build systems when the issues are complex and the impact is less obvious. But, to emphasize the point above…
- Everything is a system. The world is a set of systems.
- All outcomes are the result of systems.
- You manage them or they manage you.
Most law firms build systems for the basics. They have a plan for turning on the lights, accepting a payment, and restocking drinks in the fridge. They aren’t always written down, but they do it the same way each time. Many people memorize their systems. If we haven’t bothered to document the system, we end up teaching it over and over as we add new members to the team. Of course, our inefficient knowledge transfer system dictates the results of our financial system. See the relationship?
Systems for complex processes pay off even more
Most law firms fail to build systems when things get complicated. You can count on a firm to decide against documenting a system when it involves variables like time of year, weather, personnel, independent authorities, experts, time of day, etc. Most lawyers would reject the idea of systematizing swimming in the Adriatic because it requires judgement.
We tend to reject documenting systems when they involve different judges, cases of different types, juries, different types of claims, etc. When things become less predictable, and when patterns become less observable, we decide that a system isn’t worth the investment.
Failing to create and document systems leaves us stuck in place. We repeat the same inefficient process, from scratch, over and over again. We do this for a lot of reasons: We believe that the process is unpredictable, too much trouble, time-consuming, won’t work in every case, and it may not last forever. Sometimes we think the investment in complex systems is wasted. We might discover (even if we build and document the system) that cultural forces work against the system. Just because we view the world as systems doesn’t mean our partners, associates and employees will see things that way too. A system is only as good as the culture that supports it.
Regardless of how we choose to proceed, EVERYTHING is a system. We can turn it into a helpful, useful, efficient system, or we can accept an inefficient, ineffective, expensive system. We can manage it, or it can manage us. A systems mindset will grow your business. It'll get you out of the weeds. It'll free your mind for bigger thinking, more important activities, higher level decision-making, and a better financial outcome. You already know there’s great value in the small systems that drive the little elements of our practices. That value accumulates over time. We see it when the new administrative assistant jumps right in where the old administrative assistant left off. But there’s more value when we apply a systems mindset to bigger, more complex issues and challenges. We profit substantially when systems enable us to win cases, drive down costs, and change outcomes for clients. It's a systems approach to larger issues that results in a more lucrative return of value.
1. Complex Transactions
Smart lawyers create checklists and documentation for complex transactions. It’s an essential way to avoid mistakes. These types of systems demonstrate the value of creating systems for other complex, multi-step tasks. Even though your complex tasks have unique elements that require decision-making, you can still begin by using previous work or files as templates. Many of us do this without realizing that it’s a documented, systematic approach. (It’s not an ideal system, but it’s common.)
2. Drafting Litigation Documents
“Do you have an example of _______?” is a question I see posted most days on our internal Slack channel. We refer those lawyers back to the system, or we recognize a gap in the system, and work to fill it. Some firms formally adopt document assembly systems for creating documents and avoiding the constant search for template files. These systems can internalize knowledge and become quite sophisticated. Users appreciate automated systems that make work easier. Finding ways to align the system with the path of least resistance increases the odds that your team will follow the approach. A smart document assembly system will, over time, include language and provisions for ever more complex, and theretofore, unanticipated issues. Each time custom language is drafted, it can be saved into the system. Language from one part of the case can be repurposed for later stages. When lawyers with a systems mindset discover a gap in the system, they find opportunities to address that gap in other documents. For instance, when the new language is drafted for an initial pleading, the lawyer starts to see opportunities to address the same issue in the model forms used for motions, discovery, jury instructions, and judgments.
3. Trial Preparation
A systems approach can extend well beyond document drafting and deal checklists. You can use flow charts, reference material, illustrative examples, and more in your documented systems. The system can guide the lawyer through the entire problem-solving process. Documented systems can walk lawyers through jury selection, opening statements, direct and cross-examination, and closing arguments. The system can help the lawyer identify issues, contemplate options, and piece together a solution. Systems documents can include deposition questions, trial themes, sample arguments, example questions for direct and cross, witness lists by category, and more. Take a trial notebook and work backward to build and document the system. What went right? What went wrong? How could it have been done differently? Pull old notebooks and use the contents to make the system more elaborate. Imagine how you might have attacked the problem differently if these resources have been in front of you as you prepared.
Time to level up on all systems
Hopefully you see the value of systems that go beyond the basics. Hopefully you see how the same principles that do something as simple as process your fees can also do something as complex as guarantee an effective witness cross-examination. I've created a course on building law firm systems. It'll help you find the right mindset, identify the most profitable opportunities for systemization, and show you how to document your systems to maximize your effort. It's worth the investment of your time if you're ready to act. Systems grow your business. They also improve outcomes for your clients. All you have to do is adopt a systems mindset. Once you make that jump, you’ll see systems everywhere you look. You’ll go nuts when a system you’re implementing or experiencing delivers an undesirable outcome. (I’m sure I’ll feel that way when I board the plane to leave Zadar. That’s what I experience every time I get on a plane.) Every outcome is the result of a system. It’s time to decide if you’re running the system or if the system is running you. Maybe you can think about it while you take a swim in the Adriatic. I hear the water is nice in the morning.