Get Your Law Firm Organized: Process, Procedure & Documentation

At Uptime Legal we’ve worked with hundreds of law firms and thousands of legal professionals. One thing we’ve frequently seen firms struggle with, as their firm grows, is: internal documentation – internal policy and procedure. It’s challenging to create internal firm documentation to begin with, and more so to maintain that documentation as your firm scales.

To that end: in this post we’ll explore our experience in how to whip your firm into shape when it comes to process, procedure and workflow. We’ll include lessons I’ve learned in my own experience as a paralegal as well as my experience as Uptime’s COO and working with our many law firm clients.

Let’s get started.

The first thing, and a very simple thing, that will

  1. Increase the efficiency of your firm,
  2. Provide consistent expectations for your staff (along with performance metrics), and
  3. Mitigate or limit your potential risk and business exposure is:

Policy, Process and Procedure.

To most people policy, process and procedure (did you fall asleep before I even said procedure?) is boring, seems superfluous, and is often back-burner’d for more important things like doing the actual work of your business. But there is significant benefit of properly documenting and maintaining your internal process, policy and procedure, namely in the areas of efficiency and consistency.

Reasons Why

First let’s truly convince you.

HR – Hiring, training, and managing employees.

It’s easier to hire when you know the specific tasks to be completed, and the order and frequency in which to complete them. Defining your internal processes allows you to fully define job duties and set appropriate expectations and benchmarks for performance. Having documented procedures makes training much easier and gets new employees fully integrated and functional in a shorter time frame – getting you a quicker ROI on each new hire. Documented policies and procedures also result in consistent performance of tasks across all employees which increases overall efficiency. (That’s a good thing!)

Efficiency.

As I alluded to above, when you rinse and repeat a task – be it a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual task – and have documented instructions to follow, staff will learn the process easily and be able to more efficiently conduct the task on a routine basis. Efficiency increases your firm’s opportunity to take on more clients and bill more hours, or to simply give more attention and time to the work you already have.

Mitigating Business Risk.

Many regulatory agencies, HIPAA included, don’t actually have a clear list of do’s and don’ts. What’s expected is that your firm have documented policies that are followed, enforced, and routinely reviewed and audited. By documenting your internal privacy policy or documenting how to handle PHI (for instance incoming medical records pursuant to discovery requests) your employees will consistently know what to do and how to do it, and you can protect your business in the event a HIPAA or other compliance audit.

What to Document

Now that you are convinced that you need to document policies and procedures, let’s talk about what you should tackle.

EVERYTHING! Yes, you should document any process that is repeated, no matter how in frequently – in fact the less frequently you do something the more important it is to have it documented! Below are categories and examples of policies and procedures to consider documenting or updating in your business manual.

Employees – hiring, training, management rhythm and reviews. You want to set consistent baseline expectations for all employees and this is where it starts.

  • Do you have template job ads that you can recycle with minimal updating?
  • How and where do you post positions?
  • What is your interview process (phone screen, in-person interview, second interview, job offer)?
  • What are your hiring policies or standards? Especially important to document who is eligible or ineligible for employment if you are running background checks.
  • Do you have interview outlines?
  • Do you have an orientation and training process?
  • What is your management rhythm and what are the expectations for managers?
  • How often are performance reviews conducted and is there a template review form?
  • What is the process for looping in HR and informing payroll of raises or changes?

Workflow Procedure – doing the work of your business.

  • Have a chart that breaks processes down into daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual tasks.
  • Document the procedure for each task. Even something as simple as processing the incoming mail is different for each firm and probably requires more steps and touchpoints than you realize.
    • It seems overwhelming to document the smallest things – but remember the purpose of documentation: training, efficiency, consistency.
  • Are there policies related to any procedures?
    • Consider making a Situation Matrix that details the issue/situation, who to involve, and what to do. A simple table in Word Doc format will suffice; something that looks like:
      When this happens, do this, involve these people. (And so on—repeat for any “situation” that needs a clear action or response.)
    • Depending on the situation you could put the policy at the top (beginning) of the procedure or you could document separately. The best practice is whatever works for your firm but it will be easiest to find things if they are grouped together (polices and related procedures are either in the same document or saved in the same place).
  • Document retention policy. Could be included as an introduction to the procedure for archiving and purging documents.

Overarching Policies – policies not specifically related to a procedure but your firm’s stance (policy) on how something should be handled. Some of these might be included in an employee handbook, others might be stored elsewhere as overarching business policy. A few examples:

  • Client Communication Policy (IE: call first, then follow up with an email).
  • Confidentiality Policy.
  • Responding to Client requests Policy (IE: who can and how to respond to client requests for documents or signed agreements such as a BAA agreement).
  • Acceptable Use policy for your firm’s technology.

How to Document

Now that you know what to document, let’s talk about some tips on how to document.

It’s best to create separate documents for each policy or procedure. Why separate? – so that you can easily find, reference, and update. Also because different groups of employees will need different information. When creating your documentation keep in mind who in your firm will need to know the policy, and who will need to reference or be held accountably for the procedure.

Keep things “visually digestible” (a phrase I’ve coined and say far too frequently – because it works!). What does that mean? Don’t write your procedures like a big, boring book. Break things into phases or sections and use color text boxes or other graphics to call out key items and break up the paragraphs of text. Use bullet points and numbers. Procedure can be boring to write and boring to read, but it’s important! So make sure your readers get the point and don’t fall asleep reading how to do their job.

Another good tip is to use checklists as a cover page to longer procedures. The checklist is an abbreviated way for employees to process their work and make sure they are following the procedure without needing to page through the detailed process every time. The more detailed procedure provides more information and background than the checklist and is useful for overall documentation and training purposes.

Lastly, make sure your detailed procedure is a balance of detail and brevity. Don’t go through click-by-click instructions as it’s painful to read and will likely be quickly outdated as applications and technology change. Detail the broad strokes of where to go (EX: in the cloud, open QuickBooks and navigate to Memorized Reports) and what to do, but not down each button or box to click.

Where and How to Save

Almost there – the final step:

The last step is how to organize all of your shiny new documentation! Store your policies in a central location, available to all users such as within your Private Cloud or Document Management System. Save by department or role with a separate place for firm-wide policies. This allows you to break the documentation out by department and even lock access down as necessary. This also ensures that no one is overwhelmed by policies and procedures that simply aren’t applicable to their role in your firm. If the order of the policies or documents matters, number each document’s title to force them to appear in the order you want.

Look at you go: You’re well on your way to having an organized and streamlined law office!

About the Author: Erin Pickar
Erin Pickar is the Chief Operating Officer of Uptime Legal Systems, North America's leading provider of technology, cloud and marketing services to law firms. Erin oversees all Cloud Service Delivery as well as Finance and Operations of the company. Erin has worked in the legal field as both a Paralegal and in her leadership role at Uptime Legal. Follow Erin on LinkedIn.

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