Have you ever had a client call you, upset because you sent a draft to review without their requested changes? You looked at everything before your assistant mailed it, right? To prevent this small mishap and potentially bigger errors, you may need to evaluate how cases proceed through your office. In other words, be aware of your workflow.
An example of a good workflow is doing the dishes. You know the steps: rinse, add soap, wash, rinse again, dry. How and when you complete each step is important to achieve your goal, i.e., you need to add soap to the brush before you scrub. Once you are confident in your process, you don't need to think about the next action. All steps flow from one to the next. The same applies to your law practice. You know the steps to file a petition or draft a will, and having a smooth process can avoid inaccuracies and save time. You can be more efficient if you have a well-defined and planned workflow for you and your staff.
Workflow StructuresIf you ever feel like all you do is fight fires, then you may not have an intentional workflow. Reactionary practices respond only to the immediate situation without preparing for the next step. A workflow structure can make your cases more predictable and prevent emergencies.
The most common workflow structure is the waterfall model. The waterfall is a rigid plan with tasks flowing one way with clear next steps. Even if the case becomes complex, the general steps follow the same pattern. Most transactional practices can easily adopt this linear structure.
Another type of workflow structure is scrum. It sorts tasks into small increments, encouraging communication and collaboration to bring about a result. Think of when you spot clean a floor – scrubbing in small circles, checking that it's gone, then moving to a new spot. A scrum-based office would meet every morning to ask each employee: What did you accomplish yesterday? What is on your task list for today? and What are the potential roadblocks? Offices with heavy team collaboration can benefit from the high level of communication in these small iterations.
For some practice areas, the strategy and tasks for a case vary depending on emerging information. Agile is a set of workflow principles that recognize that unpredictability, like crossing a busy ice-skating rink. In a law office, Agile principles focus on change and responding to the needs of clients as they arise - which could look like Monday staff meetings to review case updates affecting the overall strategy. A great practice area for adopting agile principles is family law, where clients frequently obtain novel information during the case. A newly discovered asset in a divorce would trigger additional discovery.
Research and reflect on what structure or combination of frameworks fits best for the work of your firm. You may need to vary your workflow by case type and customize the structure for your firm.
You can use a model above to craft an efficient workflow for your office. Be explicit about the actions each staff member needs to take at each stage of the process.
Crafting Your Workflow
1. Map Out Your ProcessReview your current process by mapping it using text or picture. Your map should capture the crucial elements: who, what, and when (e.g., time limits or deadlines). Here is an example of a simple waterfall workflow for drafting an estate plan.
By reviewing your mapped process, you can determine whether any bottlenecks exist. If your office is hybrid, map the process for both settings.
2. Recognize Changing VariablesMake a note of whether your case strategy changes based on gathered information. Plan for these potential changes in your mapped workflow by indicating a decision point. Your next step may be to reevaluate and pivot your original plan, e.g., discuss settlement rather than prepare for trial.
When collaborating with other staff, variables can be a setback to success. Frequent and clear communication about changes will help prevent confusion or redundancy.
3. Create ConsistencyBe consistent about how you process your tasks or next steps. Once you have crafted your workflow plan for contingencies, communicate it to your staff, your clients, and even opposing counsel. State your anticipated turnaround or meeting availability. Accurately predicting your completion of tasks will improve your relationship with clients and others.
With staff, establish consistent communication methods. Consistency in how you share information will prevent uncertainty. For example, a project management app like Microsoft Planner, Trello, or Monday.com shares the task status and future steps with the designated group, whether that's a team, a practice group, or the entire office.