The new year is a perfect time to reflect on and improve your office and its systems. However, many firms and individuals alike find themselves stuck before they start, trying to discern the first steps toward making such improvements. Translating broad concerns such as increasing efficiency, reducing stress around deadlines, and assisting overwhelmed support staff into actions can feel daunting. Fortunately, a simple and efficient exercise can help you identify those vital first steps in 2023. It is called the Design Matrix.
The following is a step-by-step instruction for how to run a Design Matrix exercise, along with a hypothetical example from a small law firm to show how the exercise can look in practice.
1. Draw the Design Matrix
The Design Matrix exercise begins with a simple chart, illustrated below. Draw this chart on a whiteboard or large piece of paper. The Y-axis will measure value or impact. The X-axis will measure difficulty or cost. As I’ll explain below, you will use this chart to evaluate ideas and narrow your focus to two to five actions for the upcoming quarter.
2. Reflect on broader goals
For this step, it helps to use thought prompts. Read your mission statement; think of market trends you identified in 2022; and write down examples of frustrations or pronounced pain points from the prior year. The idea is to center your thoughts on what is important to you and your office.
Attorney Alex is a solo practitioner who focuses on personal injury. He has one legal assistant, Larry. 2022 was a banner year in many ways. Alex’s client base nearly doubled. But with growth came pain. He had several near misses due to drafting filings right before the deadline. In one case, he avoided potential malpractice from a rushed initial pleading that lacked an important claim because he was granted relation back for an amended pleading filed after the statute of limitations had run. Alex is an excellent attorney, but realizes he is struggling with juggling so many deadlines. In addition, Alex’s legal assistant is threatening to quit. Larry was forced to work long hours to meet several of those last−minute deadlines and complains that he cannot both answer calls and continue to support Alex’s casework, given the increased volume of clients. Alex’s goals are to maintain growth, manage his deadlines, and keep his legal assistant happy.
3. Brainstorm actions that will further your goals
Write down each action on its own sticky note. Invite and challenge all members of your staff to participate. As a collective, your team goals will be more fully developed and representative of your specific office needs. A legal assistant’s view of an issue will differ from that of a paralegal or an attorney. Consider incorporating input from individuals outside your firm into this exercise if you are a solo attorney or have a small team. A mentor attorney, other professionals like your accountant, or simply people whose business acumen you respect, can expand your team in meaningful ways. Realistically, this may entail meeting people outside your office and taking notes rather than expecting them to join your Design Matrix exercise. Regardless, more minds increase the chance of finding well-rounded and pragmatic solutions to improving your office systems. And of course, please do not hesitate to contact the Practice Management Assistance Program. We are here to help!
Action 1. Purchase rules-based calendaring software.
Alex called an attorney mentor named Michelle to ask for advice about calendaring. Michelle told Alex that she purchased rules-based calendaring software to automatically calculate court deadlines and uses practice management software to manually create workflows and track the progress of tasks based on those court deadlines.
Action 2. Calendar ticklers and discrete subtasks.
Alex called the PLF Practice Management Assistance Program and was connected with a practice management attorney. Currently, his office only calendars court deadlines in Outlook, but after speaking with Michelle, Alex is wondering whether this might be better handled through his practice management software. As a result of only calendaring deadlines, Alex feels like they are frequently hit with sudden filings that need to be completed in 24 hours, creating an unnecessarily stressful situation for everyone. Alex and the PMA discussed breaking the work of such filings into discrete subtasks, assigning these subtasks to either Alex or his assistant Larry to complete, and then calendaring these subtasks into Outlook or his practice management software (or both via integration) to spread out the work over time. They also discussed incorporating tickler reminders before a task is due to allow adequate time to complete the work based on internal deadlines.
Action 3. Learn how to better utilize software.
Larry is frustrated with producing client letters and preliminary work on motions. Currently, he prepares the first drafts of letters to clients for review, drafts legal documents such as preliminary motions for Alex to edit and finalize, and receives audio files from Alex to dictate. He saw an advertisement that their practice management software can automate a lot of the tasks in document creation, and in MS word he sees there is a dictation button, but he doesn’t know how to use these features.
Action 4. Hire a virtual receptionist.
Larry simply does not have enough time to answer phone calls and also support Alex’s legal work. He feels his talents are better utilized in the role of legal assistant. However, Alex said they cannot afford to hire a receptionist at this time. Before joining the firm, Larry worked as a virtual receptionist. He knows that virtual receptionists work on demand and don’t entail all the expenses associated with regular employees, such as benefits and payroll.
4. Evaluate the actions
Gather the brainstormers for a short meeting, if possible. Read one sticky note at a time and invite the author to share why they think their idea would benefit the office. First, discuss the action in terms of its potential value or impact. Then place that sticky note on the Y-axis, up for higher value-impact and lower for less. Next, discuss the action in terms of difficulty or cost. Keeping the note at the same Y-axis level, move the sticky note to the right for greater difficulty-cost and to the left for less. This is not a mathematical exercise, so approximate placement is fine. Perform this process for each sticky note. The entire exercise should take less than 30 minutes.
Action 1. Low value-impact and high difficulty-cost.
The value-impact of rules-based calendaring software is low for Alex. Alex has not had issues with calculating court deadlines. Instead, his trouble has been working on filings at the last minute. In terms of difficulty-costs, Michelle explained that finding the right software was a process. She evaluated three programs for costs, features, and compatibility with her existing tech stack. She scheduled demonstrations with each prospective software company. There was a learning curve when she implemented the software. Plus, the software is somewhat expensive. Alex decided the difficulty-cost is high.
Action 2. High value-impact and low difficulty-cost.
The value-impact of developing calendar subtasks and ticklers is high. Routinely working on filings at the last minute can negatively affect work quality and unnecessarily introduce missed filing dangers. Such potential malpractice risks may be immensely detrimental to the interests of clients, Alex’s professional reputation, and ultimately his license to practice law. The difficulty-cost is low as it does not require more money or technological know-how, only time to develop calendaring practices that include ticklers and discrete subtasks, about which they are keenly knowledgeable.
Action 3. Medium value-impact and medium difficulty-cost.
Everyone sees the value in utilizing their existing technology to improve efficiency. But they are also unsure about how to do this and believe it will take time or training to figure out, and time is at a premium in the office at the moment.
Action 4. High value-impact and medium difficulty-cost.
Alex relies heavily on Larry and does not want to lose his right-hand assistant. And Alex agrees that, all things considered, Larry’s time is best used towards supporting legal work. While there is a cost to hiring a virtual receptionist, Alex likes the idea of procuring help on a non-committal basis that is relatively less expensive than hiring a regular employee. Perhaps this option could serve as a bridge to a later time when Alex can budget for another staff member.
5. Select your actions
Only select a few actions, preferably from the high value-impact / low difficulty-cost quadrant. If the value-impact of an action is especially high, you may also want to select an action from the high difficulty-cost quadrant. Remove the other sticky notes and record them for future Design Matrix exercises.
Action 1. Tabled for a future Design Matrix.
Action 2. Selected. Three meetings are scheduled. The first meeting is to create standard scheduling practices based on the type of casework. The second meeting is to block time for Larry to apply the scheduling practices to their caseload. And the third meeting is for both to check in about how the plan is going.
Action 3. Tabled for a future Design Matrix.
Action 4. Selected. After the meeting, Alex will call two or more virtual receptionist services, ask for pricing plans and scope of service, and select a provider.
And there you have it. The Design Matrix exercise offers a speedy way to identify the most practical actions for improving your office systems. What starts with broad goals – such as managing deadlines or utilizing staff – grows into a menu of potential options sourced from your team and your community supports. These ideas, in turn, are evaluated against the needs of your firm today. In addition to identifying value-impact, the evaluation process can help determine which actions would not be beneficial to your office at this time. In the example of attorney Alex, he found that purchasing rules-based calendaring software right now would not advance his goal of reducing deadline troubles. Instead, it would only drain resources better applied toward other improvements. Finally, once all actionable ideas are evaluated and placed on the Design Matrix, it should be visually apparent and easy to see the most effective first steps for improving your office systems in 2023.
From everyone at the PLF, we sincerely wish you all the best in the new year!