Most lawyers starting a practice anticipate and understand the challenges of starting up a law firm such as negotiating a lease, obtaining equipment for their new firm, and staffing. However, many do not look ahead at establishing the necessary office systems to ensure the firm operates smoothly from Day One. This short guide will give you a basic summary of four key systems that a start up should establish in order to function as an efficient business. It is important to remember that this list is not intended to be all-inclusive or to be definitive in outlining necessary systems, because it will be you who selects, and then adjusts, the features that work best for your practice and your own work habits.
A leading cause of malpractice and ethics complaints is attorneys’ failure to meet or respond to deadlines. Attorneys are generally very busy individuals and can get caught up with any number of tasks. For this reason, a system must be established which tracks court dates, statute of limitations, client appointments, file reviews and other similar crucial dates and deadlines.
A calendaring system usually incorporates the functions of tickling and docketing. Tickling refers to the regular and systematic process by which the lawyer pulls files for review and work. Docketing deals with specific deadlines and upcoming dates of importance. Additionally, a calendaring system should also take into account non-work related considerations such as vacations, appointments, etc.
It is up to each individual to decide whether an electronic calendaring system is right for them. Some lawyers swear by their traditional diary-style calendar which they carry with them everywhere. Others cannot survive without their computer “pinging” them for appointments and court dates. Regardless of which method or combination of methods you go with, there are some key goals to aim for in efficient calendaring:
- Automatic and easily adjustable date entries.
- Accessible to others, e.g. networked.
- The system should be backed up daily.
- Reminders for tasks come sufficiently in advance of the task’s deadline.
- Establish repeated reminders, appropriate to each task or deadline.
- Establish and use follow-up dates for tasks after their completion.
The calendaring system should become part of your and your applicable staff’s routines. However, every lawyer should know that they absolutely cannot delegate away their responsibility for any failures in the system. For this reason, establishing a personal routine and sticking to it is very important. For example, every day when entering the office, print a list of tasks, appointments, and deadlines to check off as the day progresses.
Additionally, a separate list of key dates and deadlines can be printed off each day to maintain awareness of upcoming dates before they are already at hand. Be sure to have systems which are "redundant" in the sense that there is not only one source for a reminder. The tickling and docketing methods should back each other up to ensure that key dates aren't missed.
Although there are countless numbers of traditional or modern methods for calendaring, a system which accounts for the considerations above will contribute to a firm’s efficiency and avoid ethical/malpractice complaints.
Accounting and Billing Systems
One of the most important elements of planning a start up is the law office’s accounting system. Although a law firm is there to provide legal services to clients, it is nevertheless a business and will not perform well as one if an adequate accounting system is not established. Because of this, hiring or consulting with an accountant when forming a law firm may be highly advisable. Although, a start-up’s budget may be tight, this is an investment that will likely more than pay for itself.
Books can (and have) been written on this subject alone, and detailed coverage of this topic is beyond the scope of this summary. Nevertheless, the following are some of the key goals of an accounting system:
- Establishes and accurately maintains a firm’s financial records.
- Maintains and generates accurate information for tax and regulatory purposes.
- Support employee-related accounting – payroll, taxes, employee benefits, unemployment taxes, etc.
- Properly and timely bills for services rendered.
- Establishes controls to protect against mistakes or fraud.
- Adequately identifies, separates, and accounts for funds or property in the firm’s possession – i.e. trust accounting.
Entire texts can be found on each of the above goals, and there are serious financial and ethical considerations that must be kept in mind with regard to each area. Again, consulting with a professional may well be a worthwhile investment. Additionally, these days good billing practices can be facilitated by fairly affordable commercial software. There is almost no reason to spend time listing work performed or taking notes of time spent on client matters when it can be typed it into a computer and instantly be ready for accounting and billing purposes.
Keeping clients happy and making money go hand-in-hand via the establishment of a good time tracking and billing system. If clients are billed regularly and in a timely manner for work as it is done -- one of lawyers' common headaches -- the angry client calling about billing can be more easily avoided.
This is an office system that is often underestimated in its importance. Accessing files easily and finding documents on short notice is important to a lawyer and establishing a reliable filing system is crucial. Although the methods out there are countless, picking one and consistently using it is of the utmost importance to the organized lawyer.
However, here are some tips to establish an efficient filing system, to be considered beforehand:
- Establish a logical numbered or alphabetized system. One popular method is to use client-matter numbers, which usually allows for easy integration into other office systems and software.
- Separate your administrative and litigation files.
- Consider color-coding folders and/or tabs for litigation files (e.g. green for pleadings, red for discovery, plain manila for correspondence)
- Be ordered chronologically, with the recent material most accessible.
- Establish a system for file storage, tracking, and destruction in accordance with applicable rules.
- The filing should be updated daily. Do NOT let it pile up!
- Ensure your and all staffs’ familiarity with the filing system.
There are few things quite as needless as having a law office scrambling around for half a day looking for a particular piece of missing correspondence or pleading prior to a deadline. The efficient law office will have an established, well-defined, and logical filing system that can be understood with minimal effort by any new hire.
Conflicts of interest can be a source of both ethical and malpractice complaints. An effective conflicts checking system is the key to preventing any such problems, as opposed to having to deal with their unpleasant reality after they already exist! Similar to calendaring, the conflicts checking system addresses the fact that our memories are not perfect. Although it may be possible early on in a lawyer’s career to remember most clients and individuals associated with your cases, this becomes impossible later on.
Some firms utilize manual or paper-based systems for running their conflicts checks using, for example, index cards to alphabetically list clients and individuals associated with cases. Unless you intend to run your practice without a computer, however, this is very inadvisable as a computer conflicts checking system will be many times more efficient.
There are a variety of software options available for conflicts checking, and it often comes down to a matter of preference. However, one should also consult the Code of Professional Responsibility to ensure compliance.
Conflict checking software usually functions as a database where you can input, edit, delete, and search for content in various fields. It is important to run conflict checks not only before a prospective client(s) undergoes your intake process, but also during cases as parties are discovered or other circumstances may require. The following are the most important aspects of a good, efficient conflict checks system:
- The conflict system should be easy to use and integrated into your other office systems.
- Accessible by anyone in the office, for quick checks at a moment’s notice.
- The name search should search for name variations, AKA’s, and also account for abbreviations.
- Every person and entity related to a case should be in the database.
- Each name of a person/entity should be linked to the appropriate matter and firm’s scope of representation.
- The conflict search should be documented whether or not the party becomes a client.
Conclusion: The Efficient Firm
The systems outlined and described above are each an integral part of running an efficient firm. However, a lawyer or lawyers looking to start a firm must account for each of these systems not only because of office efficiency. Each of these systems is one of the first pieces of a firm’s risk management plan as avoiding malpractice and ethics complaints goes hand in hand with running an efficient office.