By all appearances, your legal practice may be running smoothly. You and your attorney colleagues are busy and productive, your clients are by and large satisfied, and internal operations such as intake and billing hum along without incident. That’s great— but there may still be significant room for improvements that will boost your bottom line, either by increasing efficiency or streamlining the client experience even more, or both. In any business, there are ‘friction points’— tiny problems that can be solved with focus and attention, here we will cover some friction points in your legal practice and how to fix them.
You may wonder why tiny problems are worth solving if things are generally going well. The answer is that the cumulative effects often “aren’t” tiny, but because they accrue slowly, they’re hard to notice. Suppose there’s some aspect of your firm’s workflow that takes up four unnecessary minutes of each attorney’s time every day. Four minutes isn’t really a noticeable quantity of time in the overall context of a day. But let’s say your firm has twenty attorneys— that means eighty wasted minutes each day. And if there are around two hundred and forty work days in a year, that’s an annualized accrual of 320 hours of needlessly spent time.
The point is that it’s worth minimizing friction points in your legal practice even if on the surface they don’t seem like a big deal. There are really two types of friction points at most law firms: client-facing and internal. This article will examine both types and offer some potential solutions.
Let’s begin at the beginning— the client intake process. In theory, this is pretty simple. When a new client comes to the firm, contact information must be gathered and disseminated to the relevant staff and attorneys; engagement letters must be sent and signed, and a payment plan needs to be established. This is a relatively straightforward process; ironically, it’s often the largest firms and the smallest firms (including solo practices) where there is usually friction in intake systems. In large firms, there may not be a centralized resource that gathers and shares this information across different departments, so lawyers and staff sometimes need to spend a couple of minutes here and there tracking it down. In smaller firms, there might not be a formal intake process in place, which can lead to unnecessary time spent by both attorneys and clients (for instance, by asking them to fill out redundant paperwork).
One solution is to consider adopting client intake software, such as Clio Grow for example. Clio Grow provides automated and customizable intake tasks and information gathering and integrates with other CRM (Client Relationship Management) solutions to include revenue and lead tracking. It can save you a few minutes here and a few minutes there in the intake process for both large and small firms. As discussed, those minutes add up into hours quickly.
Any firm should be using standardized templates for memos, briefs, letters, and most other matter-related documents. Again, it’s a small but meaningful efficiency when attorneys and staff collaborating on a project can easily navigate every document that crosses their desk. It also makes automated sorting and filtering of documents easier and more reliable. If your firm doesn’t already have a template system in place, here’s where you can start.
Consider the typical tasks that make up an attorney’s hour or day. A client emails her asking for an update on a matter; she checks in with another attorney on the team for the relevant information and writes an email in response. Another client emails a document attachment which she downloads to her computer and then saves to the appropriate folder on the firm’s cloud storage system. An associate emails her a memo draft, which she makes revisions and comments on and emails back.
None of these are necessarily inherently time-consuming. But there’s a “switching cost” in both time and cognition whenever she performs one of these micro-tasks, whether it’s emailing a colleague, downloading and re-uploading a document, or other related actions. Once again (sense a pattern here?), these small frictions accrue into valuable time that is lost.
The best way to minimize the switching costs in regards to small, routine tasks at a law firm is to get as many of them under the same technological umbrella, so to speak. That’s why case management software platforms are becoming more and more widely used. These platforms integrate functions such as legal project management, internal and client communication, and document storage into one seamless platform, creating small efficiencies in the everyday workflow which add up.
There are myriad case management platforms available; which one is right for your firm depends on the specifics of your practice. Here’s a good comparison of some of the major ones. ONE400 frequently advises our clients about which case management platform and other software solutions would work best for them.
Many legal matters involve an enormous volume of documents in the discovery process. Simply tracking, navigating, and itemizing them is often time-consuming. As such, if there’s one aspect of a firm’s internal workflow which is prone to get bogged down by unnecessary friction, it’s managing the discovery process, particularly in larger, more complicated cases. This could be an article in and of itself— but for now, suffice to say there are a number of discovery management software packages available. Increasingly, ‘eDiscovery’ software is employing AI and machine learning to streamline the process even further; we expect significant innovation in this field in the years to come, so it’s worth staying abreast of developments to keep your firm’s discovery process as friction-free as possible.
Unlike most of the other friction fixes discussed in this article, this one is about internal communication rather than technology. At many firms, the coordination isn’t optimal between the “front office” consisting of client-facing lawyers and staff, and the “back office” which handles internal operations such as billing, payroll, and other day-to-day aspects of running a law firm. For example, attorneys don’t always grasp that it’s important to submit time entries or expenses in a timely fashion, or how they’re processed after they submit them. On the flip side, administrative staff doesn’t always see the pressure lawyers are under to respond swiftly to clients and perform substantive work without being distracted by small organizational duties. Once the back office has a sense of this, it is easier for them to understand how those demands can push administrative tasks to a lower priority.
There’s no ‘one size fits all fix to this issue. Instead, the solution to reduce the friction points created by this divide is via leadership and communication. Make sure your front and back offices understand each other’s workflows and have open lines of communication so that small inefficiencies are solved before they metastasize.
Finally, getting paid can be a serious friction point at many firms. Invoicing and billing clients, chasing down and processing payments, and coordinating all of the above between different departments can often take up needless time and energy, particularly at larger firms where clients may be being served by different attorneys across different practice areas. Once again, there are specialized software packages as well as best practices that can reduce the time and energy you spend on the billing process. Here’s a useful overall guide.
Perhaps you recognize your own firm in the issues discussed above. Those six areas are where we most often see friction points; of course, there are others. That said, if these are the biggest problems your legal practice faces – you’re doing great. Fix the little things, and you’ll free up a tremendous amount of time and operate more efficiently which ultimately translates into more profit for your law firm.