Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but we live in a time of great uncertainty. Across the board, industries are being turned upside down, and it’s happening to law as well. Technology is altering the landscape, and our environment is changing at an unprecedented rate.
If you are not aware of how your own environment has changed within the past several years, then your ability to succeed in the future is at risk. Here are five ways you can right the course.
1. Start by Becoming Self-Aware
When you’ve worked with a lot of law firms, you can tell right away which lawyers will thrive and which will merely survive (or worse). The ones who are happy and do well are those able to pull their heads out of day-to-day combat and survey the landscape.
How often do you step out from the trenches of day-to-day business to look at how your practice is doing? How do you even know how you’re doing? What key performance indicators (KPIs) do you track? Do you do strategic planning once a year, or once a quarter? Who are your star performers and who are your weak links — and can you back up those observations?
The first step in adapting to change is being able to see how you’re doing, and having a framework in place to plan.
2. Commit to Incremental Improvement
If you’re reading this post, there’s a good chance you’re a change agent in your organization. (You might be the only agent in your organization if you’re a solo.) If you’re the lone voice for change in a law firm, it can get nasty. You may be dealing with people with turf to protect, people stuck in their ways, egomaniacs who yell and scream, and political operatives who stab people in the back. How can you possibly effect widespread change in such an organization?
The answer is incremental improvement. Teeny-tiny changes seem innocuous, but when well planned they can have transformative effects.
Increments and iterations are at the core of lean, agile modern management techniques. The idea is that you work for a specified and agreed-on amount of time with clear goals in mind and you measure your results. Then, you head into another iteration with awareness, self-reflection and adjustments — and you improve.
3. Work-in-Progress Queues
Work-in-progress (WIP) queues originate from a management methodology known as “Kanban” and are common in lean businesses. The idea of a WIP queue is that by limiting the number of projects that are in any one stage of activity, you can increase the overall throughput of the firm.
You end up identifying where your bottlenecks are and can deploy resources to alleviate what’s holding up the team. There are great project management tools to help you visualize everything that’s going on with your team. We use Trello.
4. Employ Agile Meeting Content and Rhythms
Meetings suck the life out of people and are highly inefficient. Use them with care and keep them short. Two types of meetings I recommend are the retrospective and daily standup meetings.
The Retrospective. (Time: 30 minutes monthly or quarterly.) During the retrospective, participants spend 30 minutes asking themselves three questions:
- What should we start doing?
- What should we stop doing?
- What should we continue doing?
The retrospective is analogous to the team climbing a mountain together and meditating for 30 minutes from a 10,000-foot view of the practice. Should we tweak the client intake system? Should we schedule better reminders with clearer messages? Should we stop ordering Chinese food at 3:00 in the afternoon?
Take care that the retrospective does not become a session to vent frustrations or a chance to whine and complain. A skilled moderator who has the respect and confidence of the group should guide the discussion and take notes.
Similar meetings that can achieve analogous results include a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) or the speedboat game. To discover more, take a look at this post on the Innovation Games blog.
The Daily Standup. (Time: 10 minutes per workday.) Each day the team checks in for a brief “standup” meeting, so named because the participants are required to stand to keep the meeting short. Each individual states three things:
- What they did yesterday
- What they’re doing today
- What’s in their way
To keep the meeting short, you can eliminate the “yesterday” portion of each person’s announcement. People should keep their update to one minute, max.
You keep people accountable by hearing about what they did yesterday and today, and you keep the ball moving by removing dependencies identified by the “what’s in my way” piece. Then, it’s up to group leadership to keep the team forging ahead by eliminating obstacles.
5. Use Your KPIs to Make Data-Based Decisions
What KPIs does your team actively track? A lot of law firms start with the billable hour. You should be able to determine how many hours your team has billed, for example — and how it breaks down per employee. From there, KPIs to examine are realization rates (how much of your available time you bill) and collection rates (how much of your billed time you collect).
For tracking business development, KPIs include how many visitors are landing and engaging on your website and how many potential clients are contacting you per month.
Knowing the numbers that affect your business will tell you if you’re headed in the right direction. Plus, knowing the cold hard facts can help eliminate passionate arguments. If it’s in the data, you know which way to head.
Parting Words: Don’t be Surprised If Your Team Composition Changes
When you increase understanding of your organization, you increase accountability. It becomes very clear when people are unable to keep pace — some won’t ever catch up, others won’t want play the game. Numbers are numbers: If you are serious about your practice’s survival, you will need to deal with these people.
Larry Port is the CEO and Chief Software Architect of Rocket Matter, an online legal practice management software platform. He also runs Rocket X1, an Internet marketing agency for professional services firms. Larry writes on business, marketing and technology topics for legal publications and speaks at legal conferences around the country. E-books and videos of some of these can be found at LegalProductivity.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or connect with him on Twitter @larryport or on LinkedIn.
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