5 Steps to Take to Fix a Breakdown in Your Law Firm Systems

law firm systems breakdownI’ve talked a lot about systems and checklists on this blog. But what do you do when there is a breakdown in your law firm systems?

The first thing you need to do if there is a perceived breakdown in your systems is to ask yourself what the real problem is. Here are some possible answers:

  1. Your systems did not clearly explain what needed to be done
  2. You did not provide an adequate deadline for completion of the project
  3. You did not provide sufficient training on how to complete the project
  4. Your employee did not follow the system
  5. Your employee does not have the baseline level of knowledge to perform the tasks asked of them

Whenever you are reviewing employee performance, it is important to look in a mirror and decide if you failed the employee in some aspect of the project.

Like it or not, our employees are people. And people, it turns out, are inherently flawed. Sometimes we have bad days. Sometimes we get tired. Sometimes we just don’t have enough knowledge or experience to get something done the right way.

Now, all things being equal, we hope that the people we hire will be rock stars. We hope that they have many more good days than bad days. We hope they come to the office energized and ready to “rock and roll”.

So before you decide that an employee needs to go because they aren’t getting something done the way you want them to, let’s start by asking the simple question, why aren’t they doing what you need them to?

Assuming that the employee has come to the office ready to work and wants to be a productive member of your team, then let’s run through the questions at the top of this post.

First, were your systems clear?

Did your employee fully understand what needed to be done?

Whenever I give someone a task, I always ask them to repeat back to me what I told them to do, and then I ask them if they have any questions. I also like to provide a checklist with each and every task I give to someone.

So if they are in charge of opening a file, I want them to know exactly what needs to be done by using the checklist. When they answer the phone, they should know exactly (i.e. use a script) how to talk to the person on the other end of the line, and how to take proper notes of the call.

If it isn’t clear to your employee what needs to be done, then how can you ever expect them to accomplish anything, much less the specific project you have asked them to do?

Did you provide a deadline for the project?

Many times when an employee doesn’t complete a task on time for me, I’ve found that the problem is as simple as providing the employee with a deadline.

If you have a task that needs to be completed by the end of the day, then you need to convey the importance of that task to the employee. We can’t expect those that work for us to be mind readers.

If something is urgent, you need to tell them so.

On the flip side, if you have a task that is NOT urgent, you still need to set a deadline. (I typically recommend between one and five business days, depending on the complexity of the task). If the project is more complicated, then I like to break it down into various tasks and give shorter deadlines for each task. Then I check in with my employee regularly to see where they stand on the project.

If you don’t set some sort of deadline, then the task will never get done.

Did you provide sufficient training on how to complete the project?

The importance of training cannot be overstated. If you don’t properly train your staff on how you want them to do things, then don’t get upset when they don’t complete the projects correctly.

I found this out the hard way the first time I gave my assistant a letter to draft. I hadn’t trained her on what font to use, the margin size, the spacing, how I wanted paragraphs indented, etc.

One quick HYFY video later, and now she knows exactly how I want my Word documents formatted.

Did your employee follow the system?

If you have given clear guidance and training to your staff person, but they just failed to follow your system, then you have a problem. The last thing you want is a rogue employee who starts to try and do things their own way.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with innovation, and in fact, it should be encouraged. But there is a time and a place to show innovation. And changing systems on the fly without running it by the boss (i.e. you) is a bad practice.

Employees that do this repeatedly, after you have sufficiently warned them, need to go. If you let one employee deviate from the way you do things, it will permeate your entire staff. And then pretty soon everyone else on your team will think that the policies and procedures manual you worked so hard to put together is just a resource that they can use when they feel like it.

So if you find an employee who is unable to follow your system, then you need to have a long talk with them about your way of doing things, and then part ways if necessary.

Does your employee have the baseline level of knowledge required to complete the task?

This is a tough situation. Let’s say you have trained your employee, you’ve given them clear direction, you’ve set deadlines, etc., but their work just isn’t up to par. What do you do then?

I’m a handy guy around the house. And with a few YouTube videos, I can fix a lot of things. And if my Wife gave me a checklist she had printed off from the internet on how to remodel our kitchen, I might be able to muddle my way through it. Maybe. The bottom line is that the remodel wouldn’t look nearly as good as if I just hired a contractor to complete the project. And let’s not get into whether or not it would pass inspection…

I recently had an employee that worked really hard. She really wanted to be a paralegal. But she had never worked in an office before and was never trained on simple things like how to organize her desk, or what postage should go on what letters.

At one point, she even confessed to me that she wasn’t that familiar with “Microsoft Word.”

This is simple stuff. Basic stuff. Stuff that you shouldn’t need to put into a policy and procedures manual for an office admin position.

What do you do with this person?

In my opinion, you have two options.

One, you could demote the person into a role with less responsibility so that he or she can continue to learn and develop the skills they need to do the job properly. However, most solo and small firm attorneys cannot afford this option.

Second, you will need to let this person go. As a solo or small firm lawyer, you just don’t have the resources or bandwidth to train someone who has no office skills. It’s not worth your time and it’s not fair to the employee to keep them on.

Are You Having a Breakdown in Your Law Firm Systems?

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