Processes are the means by which we get things done, and checklists can keep us on top of what needs to get done. That’s why pilots, surgeons and astronauts use checklists extensively. They help eliminate the fear of forgetting something important.
When you set up a new client file, end a client matter or do any number of common law practice tasks, you have a standard process. It’s most likely in your head, though, and not well documented. Checklists are great tools for making sure you are completing these routine processes without mistakes. They’ll also save you time, especially if you want to delegate tasks. So let’s get some of these processes out of your head and onto paper — or into one of those handy checklist apps!
Five Checklists to Get You Started
1. Checking conflicts. To effectively analyze conflicts, you need to have a conflict-checking procedure. Some jurisdictions require law firms to maintain a conflict-checking system and to have a policy in place. But absent that requirement, I think setting up a simple conflict-checking checklist, and documenting that you used it, is a sufficient process. Even in very small or solo firms, you should never rely on your memory to determine whether you have a conflict. Detecting a conflict after the representation has started may harm the client and your reputation. Plus, it creates extra work — like having to refund that retainer payment you already deposited.
Here is a sample checklist created using Evernote. Of course, you could add more details, such as the location of the files to be searched, whether you search open as well as closed files, and what will be searched: emails, document server, contact database and so on.
2. Setting up a client file. Setting up new client files is time-consuming. So grab your pencil and start writing down how you do it, step by step. Flesh it out, edit it and rewrite it until you have created a checklist that’s clear and easy to follow. That way you’ll be ready to delegate the administrative aspects of the task as soon as you can afford to do so.
3. Receiving a retainer. Every lawyer knows that mismanaging a trust account (IOLTA) can have terrible consequences. Creating a checklist to ensure you are properly depositing a retainer is a good idea to avoid missteps. For the below checklist, the goal is to make sure you are processing the initial receipt of retainer correctly. (Note: LPMS stand for Law Practice Management System.) In “Would You Pass a Trust Account,” I review the trust accounting process in more detail.
4. Doing month-end accounting. Following a month-end checklist keeps your eyes on the business side of your practice. Some of the steps to include are:
- Make sure all monthly expenses and payments received have been recorded.
- Reconcile operating and trust accounts.
- Sign off on reconciled reports (especially trust accounts if you have delegated this task to someone else).
- Review key financial and performance metrics, including:
- Monthly and YTD profit and loss reports
- Past-due invoices
- IOLTA balances by client
- Number of new clients or matters this month
- Update your cash-flow analysis spreadsheet.
- If profits are up, consider giving yourself a raise!
5. Closing a matter. There are rules you need to follow and things you’ll want to do when closing a matter. Creating a checklist of those steps will keep you in compliance with client document retention rules. Your list may include these items:
- Advise clients their case is complete and inform them of any next steps they will need to take.
- Retain client documents for the time period required in your jurisdiction.
- Return original documents to the client.
- Ask for referrals and repeat business. (You might also ask your client to leave a review on one of your online profile sites.)
- Remind clients of any outstanding balances and your procedures for payment.
Bonus: The Advantages of Creating Checklists
- Once you start creating checklists, you can begin to compile them into a risk management policy manual — which malpractice insurers love!
- Checklists will lead to better ways of getting things done and save time.
- You are building the foundation for growing your practice.
- You’ll sleep better knowing these things are consistently done right.