Tag Archives: systems

My Newfound Obsession With Process

???????As the launch date for my solo practice approaches, I find myself obsessed in a way I never was before in my law practice about the subject of process. I have developed the belief that my own practice is far more likely to be both successful and satisfying if I establish a solid set of systems for how my business will operate.

This isn’t brain surgery, of course. I’ve been influenced by blogs I’ve read and the excellent law practice start-up books by Carolyn Elefant and Jay Foonberg. Specifically on the subject of process, however, I learned a lot from The E-Myth Attorney, by Michael Gerber, Robert Armstrong and Sanford Fisch.

The central notion of The E-Myth Attorney, about which I’ve previously written, is that law firms, whether a solo practice, small partnership or large firm, should adopt and meticulously implement specific systems for every single thing the business does, from greeting clients, to filing papers to making coffee. Ideally, under the E-Myth model, these systems will be reduced to a handbook that can be handed to every new employee as they walk in the door. As Gerber, et al. write:

“With the right systems, your law firm will . . . reflect your vision about practicing law. What is going to make your firm unique? Why should prospective clients pick your firm over all others? What special place will your practice occupy in the community?

In the beginning, maybe it was just about the money. Get the clients in the door and start generating as many fees as you can. But we all know that’s not a sustainable business model and, more importantly, will not ultimately serve you or your clients.

But when you implement systems, you create the machine that can work independently of you. You give your employees the roadmap they need to do the things that need to get done.

•  This is how we greet clients.

•  This is how we draft documents.

•  This is how we take a deposition.

•  This is how we prepare for trial.

•  This how we manage our finances.

•  This is how we generate leads and convert them into retained clients.

•  This is how we hire great people.

And so on and so on . . .” (Id. at 66-67.)

Applying this concept to my own world, what kind of systems am I developing for my new practice? First, a major priority for my firm is to be as paperless as possible while maintaining a reliable filing system. While litigators in California are still required to serve documents in paper by mail (in addition, perhaps, to email or fax service), I think this practice will soon be history. Already most courts I deal with do fax and electronic filing. Most lawyers I deal with prefer to receive documents by email. So, I suspect there will be only limited need to serve or hand-deliver anything in paper form before too long.

Embracing paperless practices, if done systematically, will reduce overhead associated with having a file clerk (or, gasp, doing it myself), and it will reduce storage space (and attendant cost). Using the system I’m developing will, moreover, make it easier to instantly access a document without the need to carry large, bulky files with me wherever I go. So, the system will be to convert any document I receive by mail, fax or email into a pdf file that can be saved–and is immediately saved–in an appropriate sub-sub-sub folder created for a particular client, matter, category (discovery) and sub-category (interrogatories). Again, I recognize that this isn’t rocket science, but it is one example of how I’m focusing lots of energy at the outset in developing systems for each aspect of my practice that can be reasonably systematized.

Of course, not everything can be done according to a system. Part of the reason lawyers are in demand and charge a financial premium is that we are taught not to think one dimensionally about a legal problem. In other words, the solution to a problem that best serves my client might not be the most obvious solution. It might require an innovative approach that is exactly the opposite of what our system would prescribe. But this is not an exception that swallows the rule. Rather, it is by subjecting tasks that are logically capable of systematization to a rigorous system, that we are freed up to devote time and mental energy to solving our client’s most complex problems in innovative ways.

A System Without A Goal Is Not A Good System


” . . . and a donut without a hole, is a Danish.”

In a media dialogue between two minds I greatly admire, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, and Associate’s Mind blogger and newly-published book author Keith Lee, the notion of setting goals recently took a severe beating.

Adams kicked off the goal-bashing in an entertaining Wall Street Journal piece, “What’s the best way to climb to the top? Be a failure.” Waxing autobiographically about the twists and turns that ultimately led to his huge success as a cartoonist, Adams suggests that goals, like diets, are basically a recipe for failure or disappointment, or both. He says:

“To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose 10 pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal—if you reach it at all—feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary.

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize that you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or to set new goals and re-enter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.”

So, since “goals are for losers,” Adams suggests we settle into a comfortable couch and spark some high-resin Bob Hope, right? Sadly, no. Instead, he suggests the recipe for success is found in developing “systems.” Unlike goals, systems are not only durable but evolutionary. He writes:

“Throughout my career I’ve had my antennae up, looking for examples of people who use systems as opposed to goals. In most cases, as far as I can tell, the people who use systems do better. The systems-driven people have found a way to look at the familiar in new and more useful ways.”

For his part, in a post entitled “Goals Are For Losers,” Lee embraces Adams’ mantra hook, line and sinker. Because Lee tends to focus on our development as lawyers, he suggests that systems are the path to success as a lawyer. He says:

“This focus on systems – and systematic improvement – can apply to almost every aspect of being a lawyer. Want to improve your writing? Develop a system in which you consistently write and receive feedback. Want to improve oral argument skills? Get together with other lawyers and set up an informal meeting/group devoted to affording lawyer the opportunity to engage in oral arguments and receive feedback. Think mock trial team from law school. Hell get your firm or the local bar to sponsor/support it. You can’t just skate by and hope to succeed as a lawyer. You have to work at it.”

I’m here to say that I haven’t heard so much empty linguistic sophistry about “systems” from intelligent minds since I finished that awful Hegel seminar my last quarter at UC San Diego. Both Adams and Lee are spot on that systems are indeed the path to success. And Adams is absolutely right that all of us are going to encounter failure along that road. After all, failure and adversity are what teach us resilience and build our character.

Where both go wrong, however, is in the suggestion that we abandon goals. Whaaaa?

What is a system without a goal? It’s just an exercise. We wouldn’t “consistently write and receive feedback,” as Lee suggests, for the sake of writing and receiving feedback. We use this system to help reach the GOAL of becoming a better writer. If you were going to take time out of your otherwise busy life to “set up an informal meeting/group devoted to affording . . . the opportunity to engage in oral arguments and receive feedback,” you would do so in order to reach the GOAL of becoming a better oral advocate. (Brief aside: don’t bother “setting up” any such thing, just join Toastmasters.)

There are perpetual students who obtain multiple degrees and never really leave school. But they have a system–just no goal. Goals are the key to success, as the authors’ own success aptly–but perhaps unwillingly–illustrate. Keith Lee would never have become a lawyer without setting the GOALS of graduating from college, getting into law school, then completing law school. He wouldn’t have built a wildly successful and influential blawg without the GOAL of building a quality law blog. And, he would not have a new book worth reading if he had not set the GOAL of finishing a book worth reading.

The key here is not to abandon goal-setting. Rather, once you set a goal, develop a system to reach that goal. And be flexible about adjusting that goal if it begins to seem unrealistic or you suffer a major set back, which is reasonably likely.

On the other side of the coin, when you achieve a goal, don’t spiral into depression, feeling “empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you.” Set a new goal! Reach higher and farther.

And read Dilbert. Often.

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