07:00 AM

Documenting business processes creates perfect 'cookbook'

By Jeffrey Schoenberger, senior consultant at Affinity Consulting Group LLC

Depending on your firm’s size, you may be one of several people, one of a few, or the only person who know how to do important firm tasks. This compartmentalization has strengths and weaknesses. For example, limiting access to financial accounts reduces the possibility of theft or falling victim to a phishing or wire fraud scheme. Compartmentalization is a form of security. On the other hand, core business functions must continue even if the managing partner, office manager, or other high-ranking employee is unavailable or compelled to take an extended, unplanned absence. Most such events are unhappy occasions – perhaps an illness impacting the employee or an elderly parent’s health. You can’t put off payroll, health insurance premiums, or rent payments indefinitely because the person who “always does that” is unavailable for an indefinite period.

Moving from the grim to the practical, unlock the knowledge stored in each staffer’s head, including your own, by documenting fundamental business processes. This brings several advantages:

  1. Nobody needs to be interrupted while on vacation because a coworker couldn’t complete a form or find something;
  2. The firm has a resource to help train new hires;
  3. The simple act of documenting your processes naturally leads you and your team to evaluate whether that process still makes sense; and
  4. If you are a solo or small firm, when you choose to retire, your “process cookbook” adds value to the firm, offering interested parties something beyond a rolodex to buy (see this related blog on succession planning for lawyers firms).

Step by step

When working with firms to create good processes, I’ve found it helpful to speak in terms of a “cookbook” and “recipes” rather than “manuals” or “process maps.” Familiar vocabulary helps make what could be seen as a remote and unfamiliar activity more approachable. We’ve listed out what you need to complete a task (“ingredients”) and the order in which you do things to get the right result (the “steps” in our “recipe”). We’ll also group similar recipes together for easier locating later (our “cookbook”). Here’s an example:

Returning original documents to a client
Hopefully your firm has embraced paperless practicing. (If not, see this blog to get started down that path.) A core part of a paperless firm (or paper less if you’re still transitioning) is keeping those original documents you need for specific reasons – such as something that statutorily requires an original document – and returning all other original documents to the client.

To send originals back to the client, we need the following ingredients:

  • the original documents;
  • name and address of the client;
  • a cover letter;
  • a mailing label; and
  • an appropriate envelope or other shipping container.

Here are the steps to prepare and mail the documents:

  1. Confirm that the documents are scanned and in the firm’s document repository.
  2. Decide how documents will be sent (e.g., US Mail, UPS, etc.).
  3. Place documents in an appropriate envelope or shipping container.
  4. Prepare a mailing label with the appropriate delivery service.
  5. Open the cover letter template. If your firm doesn’t use document templates, see the Why Template Building is Critical for All Law Offices white paper and the “how to” checklist on Getting Started with Document Automation.
  6. Type in the client’s information, method of delivery, and delivery tracking information.
  7. If you don’t have a digital signature stamp, print the document for the sender to sign. If you do have digital signature stamps, apply the appropriate stamp to the document and print the letter. To learn more about digital signatures, take this CLE.
  8. Place the cover letter in the envelope or shipping container.
  9. Seal the envelope or container.
  10. Place the mailing label on the envelope or container.
  11. Place the envelope or container in the outbox or call for a pickup, as appropriate.

With that, we’ve written our first recipe together or, in business-speak, mapped our first process. You can probably already imagine similar recipes or processes that would accompany this one in a cookbook or employee manual: sending and receiving intake forms from new clients; sending and receiving discovery documents; and sending paper invoices and receipts of payment.

Learning along the way

The first time you and your team sit down and document the steps in fundamental processes – such as taking information from a client and generating draft corporate formation documents or estate planning documents for a lawyer to review – will take a while. Here are two tips to make this process easier:

Tip 1: Have the people who do the work lead that portion of the mapping. In our “returning originals” recipe above, if one person is responsible for drafting correspondence, that person takes the lead in outlining what happens currently. You gain nothing substantive by just having higher-ups guess or declaim what the process is or should be. There’s a reason the process works this way now. It could be good. For example, the typist always asks the lawyer for the client’s address because the firm’s central client address book is reliably inaccurate or incomplete. Or it could be bad. For example, the typist doesn’t look up the address in the central client address book because that person was never trained how to do so or lacks access to the system. The first step is knowing what happens now.

Tip 2: Through the process mapping exercise, you will discover things you’ll want to note for later examination or remediation. In reading our “returning originals” recipe above, maybe you learned about document templates for the first time. Creating a template so typists don’t continually recreate cover letters from scratch would save time. Same thing with digital signature stamps. Make a note and set it aside as two things to investigate for process improvement.

In the case of our typist lacking training or access to the client address book, that’s a remediation issue. Granting access is likely either a few clicks or the purchase of an additional license. If it’s a training issue, most vendors are happy to help train employees on their products. It’s a simple thing to solve.

Having the employees on the “front lines” leading the relevant process mapping gives you an honest view of what happens now, offering you the clearest perspective of where potential changes might bring great long-term gains or quickly eliminate initially unnoticed bottlenecks.

Getting started

Head over to our Practice Management Center to get started making your recipes for business success. Here are resources to guide the way:

Missouri Bar members have access to hundreds of white papers, checklists, comparison charts, and articles for those looking to open, build, manage, protect, or wind down a law practice. Have questions? At no cost, members can ask an expert their legal technology or practice management questions via email or by scheduling a one-on-one, remote consultation.