Checklists and Templates

I have always been a big fan of checklists.  Almost everything we do as lawyers can be boiled down to a checklist.  Before you decide this is a simplistic article, I encourage you to keep reading since the pointers at the end of the article are the important part, i.e. the big reveal.

Checklists seem very simplistic.  Yes, we are a profession and we do complex work for our clients.  But, we go through the same steps on most of our cases.  I don’t mean to minimize the skill it takes for us to do our job, but much of it becomes routine.  The more cases or clients you represent, the more familiar the process becomes.

Checklists can be developed for most aspects of your practice.  No matter how many times you have done something, it is still helpful to have a checklist.  Even if you feel you don’t need it, I can guarantee you that your staff will appreciate checklists.   

Checklists also provide for accountability.  If you create checklists and assign each task on the checklist, you will never hear, “I didn’t know I was supposed to do that.”  It’s your practice or firm, and you must hold yourself accountable for the tasks which you must complete for each case.  You cannot blame staff for failing to do something on a case when it was your responsibility.

In my firm, I have each stage of a case distilled into a checklist.  When we have a new lead, we have a checklist for that.  When we sign up and open a new case, we have a checklist for that.  For pre-litigation cases as well as for litigation cases, we have checklists for each stage of the representation.  When we settle and close the file, we have a checklist for that.  Of course, there are situations which fall outside our checklists, but for most cases, we follow the same steps.

Work Plans 
Akin to checklists are work plans or work flows.  A work plan is more complex than a mere checklist since it incorporates decision trees.  A decision tree creates different tasks based on what happens in the case.  A decision tree is simply, “If A happens, do B, but if C happens, do D.”  The basis of work plans are still checklists.  What needs to happen in a case?  A work plan incorporates all the different things which can happen in a case.  They may not happen in a case, so they would be inapplicable.  Work plans allow for customization depending on how the facts unfold in a case.

Once again, I run the risk of minimizing the skill it takes to perform our profession.  But I have yet to see a practice area which does not lend itself to checklists and work plans.  Real estate lawyers must follow the same steps to get to closing, bankruptcy cases all need to follow the same steps, there are tasks in every divorce case, and variations depending on the circumstances.  Representing a small business?  Annual corporate reporting and minutes follow the same steps each year.  Even my colleagues who handle medical malpractice cases has steps in each case which require obtaining medical records, sending them out for review, reviewing the 622 affidavit, filing the case, obtaining service, etc.  

I encouraged you to keep reading and here’s the important part of the article.  This is the part I just recently implemented in my office.  As  mentioned, I have run my firm with checklists and then work plans for many years.  I have recently incorporated my forms/templates into my work plans.  Let me explain.   

I have always had a set of form letters which we refer to as templates.  These are letters, forms and pleadings which are the same except for the specifics in the case.  “Dear NAME OF CLIENT:  I am writing to inform you that your date is  . . . “  Every practice area uses forms and templates.  Corporate lawyers have their form clauses they use in contracts and divorce lawyers have their clauses for joint parenting agreements.

Bringing it all together 
When a case reaches a certain stage in the work plan, my computer software now automatically generates the form with the relevant case information included.  So, if we receive a date for our client’s deposition and we always use a form letter, I have programmed our case management to automatically generate the letter from the case.  By so doing, it merges our work plans with our templates.  IT has been amazing how much time this has saved my staff and myself.

To get to this point, you have to develop the checklists and then work plans.   You also need the templates developed.  It takes a lot of work to merge these systems, but the benefits are multiplied.  Since all of you receiving this email are either referring lawyers or potential referring lawyers, here is an example of how we have put this into practice.  When you refer a case, we have a work plan to handle the referring attorney relationship as well as a set of form letters/e-mails.  If we sign the case up, the work plan generates one email and if we decline a potential case, a different email goes out, all customized on the case.  I suppose I have revealed a secret to my referring lawyers that they are receiving automatically generated emails based on our work plans, but you’d never know it before finishing reading this month’s article!  I am happy to take a look at your checklists, work plans and templates to see how they can be improved and how to merge these systems.  

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