Why You Need to Use Checklists in Your Law Practice

law firm checklistsMany lawyers think that building a great law firm (and becoming a great lawyer) is all about marketing. They focus so much of their time on the marketing of their firm and new client development that they lose sight of what it really takes to build a successful law practice.

The Old Way of Doing Things

Let me know if this sounds familiar to you.

You know a lawyer who is older and has been practicing a long time. They have a great deal of experience and, by all accounts, seem to have a thriving and successful law practice.

However, when you visit this lawyer at their office you notice something. You see that they have files everywhere. They are constantly being interrupted by staff or client calls, even while you are meeting with them. They proudly boast that their paralegal has been with them since they started and that “they really run this office”.

When you ask this lawyer about how they handle their caseload, they mention that “every case is unique” and must be handled in its own special way. This lawyer would never adopt systems because, in their mind, the uncertain path that any single case takes would not allow for a systemized law practice.

I can always spot these lawyers at the courthouse (when I used to go for divorce hearings). They are the ones carrying a the manilla file for their client that has papers falling out all over the place. When the judge asks for something, it takes them 5 minutes to locate it in their “file” and they sometimes need to go to the back of the line because they aren’t ready when called.

Honestly, it gives me a chuckle.

Why Checklists are So Important

Right now I’m reading “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande. Dr. Gawande is a surgeon who writes about how checklists can be used to dramatically reduce errors and increase efficiencies and discipline in almost any organization.

If you haven’t already figured it out, a law practice is an ideal organization for the use of checklists.

Simply put, a checklist is a step-by-step list of each and every activity or task that must take place at a given time on a file. You should have checklists for what needs to be done to open a file, close a file, and everything in between.

Ideally, anyone in your office should be able to pick up a file an know exactly what needs to happen next by reviewing the checklist on that file. Some practices are easier to systematize than others. A real estate or estate planning practice, for example, is much easier to systematize than a pure litigation practice – but that’s not to say you should give up if you are handling personal injury claims.

EVERY law practice can benefit from the efficiencies that checklists and systems provide.

How to Create Checklists for Your Files

Here’s the great thing about checklists – creating them is surprisingly easy.

Here’s a quick checklist to show you just how easy it can be:

  1. Open up your favorite word processing program
  2. Type out the steps for the checklist
  3. Print out the checklist
  4. Store the checklist where it is easily accessible by staff
  5. Train your staff on how to use the checklist

There are three main places that I would recommend storing your checklist. The first and easiest place to store it is as a hard copy in a binder that is quickly accessible by your staff. The second place is in electronic format on your computer network (or in the cloud and accessible by everyone in your firm). The third place is directly within your case management system if your system allows it. Fortunately, many programs, such as Daylite (what I currently use), MyCase (what I previously used) and Clio all allow you to store checklists as templates directly within their software.

However, if you aren’t technologically advanced enough to store checklists from within your case management program, or if you just like to use paper, then you should have a hard copy of each checklist you create filed in a three-ring binder according to the type of case (i.e. estate planning, Medicaid planning, business formation, etc.) associated with the checklist. You should have several of these binders readily available around the office for your staff to review and use as necessary.

In our firm, we use and love a program called Tettra as a type of internal firm “wiki” where we place all of our checklists. The checklists are organized into various categories such as estate planning, client development, daily operations, new employee onboarding, etc.

Here’s a quick snapshot into what Tettra looks like for my firm. We just started using Tettra 2 months ago and we already have 50 checklists created.

quick preview of my firm wiki

Regardless of how you decide to store and use your checklists, the most important thing you need to understand is that your checklists must be readily available (and easily accessible) to your staff. If your staff forgets that they are there, or otherwise can’t find the checklist when they need them, then they will quickly forget to use them.

Important Elements of a Checklist

Aside from being easily available, checklists must also be written in a way that makes them useful and helpful to the people that will be using them. If your staff can’t understand the checklist or doesn’t understand what is expected of them when they use the checklist, then the checklist is worthless.

To make checklists effective, they must be:

  • Easy to read
  • Efficient and to the point
  • Able to be used even in the most difficult of situations
  • Practical

A good rule of thumb is that each checklist must be no more than one page, with 5-9 action items. If you need to further explain how to do something on the checklist (as lawyers frequently do), then you can add procedural notes and examples in a separate tab of the binder, behind the checklists.

In our firm, we have created a master checklist in Daylite (our case management program) with very simple steps to follow. Within each step, we include a link to a process in Tettra that has more detailed instructions, screenshots, videos, and example files.

daylite checklist

Within a task in Daylite, we have placed a hyperlink to a further explanation of how we do that task in Tettra

How to Create Checklists For Your Law Firm

There are several ways that you can start creating checklists for your firm. The first is to sit down and make a list of each important step for the types of cases you handle. Typically this list would look like this:

  • How to open a file
  • How to close a file
  • How to answer the phones
  • How to gather financial documents

Look at the most common, repeatable activities that happen on any given file and list those out

Once you have a master list of the checklists you need to prepare, you can start to draft each individual checklist in Word. An easy way to do this is to create a bulleted list and make the bullets into a checkbox using the “wingdings” font.

If you are too busy to create the checklists yourself, the second best option is to delegate this task to your legal assistant or paralegal. Once they have finished their checklist, ask them to submit it to you for review.

The last option is to make the checklist in real time as you perform the tasks necessary on a case. The easiest way to do this is to keep open a Word document or have a legal pad handy to write out notes and ideas as you work through the file.

Once you have your master checklists drafted, you will need to test them on new files and tweak them. As I was implementing new checklists with a brand new legal assistant, I found many instances where I had skipped steps or been unclear in certain instructions that led to errors in work product. But with this information in mind, we were able to work together to modify the checklist to improve it for the next time.

Even after you have created checklists that work and provide the accountability and consistency required, it is important to look for ways to improve your checklists and make them even better. Typically this can be done by adding certain customer service related tasks to the checklists or confirming that thank you cards were sent to referral sources.

But I’m Just a Solo – I Don’t Need Checklists!

Uh… have you been reading this whole article?

I just spent the past almost three months getting a new legal assistant up to speed while developing checklists as we went. Every time I delegate something new to her, I have to create a new checklist to make sure she understands what is required of her.

Honestly? It is a total pain in the ass and could have been prevented if I started putting together checklists months or even years ago.

And if that is not reason enough to create checklists, consider this. There are some tasks that I do only once or twice a month. Because I do these tasks infrequently, I sometimes forget how to do them!

The solution to this problem? My checklists!

If you are going to do anything in your law practice more than one time, you absolutely, positively, MUST have a checklist for that process. Trust me on this and thank me later.

Key Takeaways Regarding Law Firm Checklists

As mentioned before, checklists will be ever-changing documents. Technology will change, courthouse procedures will change, the layout of your office may even change over time as you move to a larger space and hire more staff. Some of the checklists you create now will become obsolete over time, and this is to be expected.

The bottom line with legal checklists is to make sure that they do not overcomplicate things for your or your staff. Checklists should help you to streamline your processes, eliminate the guesswork that comes with “what to do next”, and help you to achieve true peace of mind knowing that nothing has been overlooked.

Would you like a copy of my master checklist template to use in your law office?

Click here to download a copy. (No email required)

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