Although developing an employee manual is more complicated than it once was, it is no less essential. Employee manuals are the glue that holds law firms together.

By Lee Rosen, Family Lawyer

Creating an employee manual is harder today than it was a few years ago, because nearly every task involves the computer. It used to be possible to borrow another firm’s manual and type something up. Then grab a three-ring binder, insert your new manual, hand it out to employees, and you were good to go.

If an employee needed to accomplish a task, such as mailing a letter, he could flip to the appropriate page in the manual, read the instructions, and complete the activity promptly. The manual would explain everything from how to type the letter with the proper formatting to how to print it, fold it, stamp it, and mail it. The manual was the essential reference source required to get things done.

Not anymore. Today, a great employee manual employs text, pictures, screenshots, and video. In fact, the manual will not actually be a printed, paper book anymore. It is more likely to be something akin to a website that everyone in the office can visit.

It is more challenging to produce a manual like this. Instead of stamps and envelopes, we use bits and bytes. Letters are infrequently sent via the postal service, and describing in words the steps required to do the necessary things is tricky. Pictures are better than words when describing computer-centric tasks, and video is often better than pictures.

Although developing an employee manual is more complicated than it once was, it is no less essential. Employee manuals are the glue that holds law firms together. These documented processes are a key component of what makes a business an ongoing concern. Documented processes allow for the inevitable coming and going of employees. Without documented systems, we have chaos, and we really do not have a core that keeps the law firm functioning.

Technology to the Rescue

One approach to documenting systems–and it is a really excellent approach–is to reinvent the old employee manual using software from Blue Mango Learning (http://bluemangolearning.com). This software, ScreenSteps Desktop, is entirely designed for documenting tasks managed on the computer.

ScreenSteps Desktop allows you or an employee to sit down at the computer and walk through a process while taking screenshots (pictures) of the task in progress. The software then facilitates easy annotation of the pictures. Each step gets its own picture and written instructions. You can even annotate the pictures with drawings, symbols, and diagrams.

When documentation is complete, you end up with an illustrated, annotated guide to the process. It feels a bit like an illustrated children’s book. It is easy to use and to understand, and a nice picture always helps reinforce the written word.

A well-run firm will develop step-by-step guides for everything from making the morning coffee to closing the office at the end of the day. Systems will be documented, explaining the accounting processes and the restocking of office supplies. Greeting and seating clients will be covered, as will straightening up the magazines in the lobby and, of course, drafting routine documents, keeping time records, and accepting payment for an initial consultation.

ScreenSteps Desktop is such a pleasure to use that it actually encourages the documentation of systems. The company offers a free trial at BlueMangoLearning.com, so that even the most technophobic lawyer can give it a test run. It is available for the PC and the Mac. The standard version sells for $40, and the pro version (offering very few additional features) sells for $80.

In addition to ScreenSteps Desktop, some other tools will help you build your documentation system. Purchasing a good digital camera with video capabilities is helpful. With a little effort, you can record certain processes that are better illustrated with video than with computer screenshots. For instance, video is excellent for showing staff members how to file documents at the courthouse or how to set up a meeting room for a deposition. It is great to have the right tools on hand for building your manual.

Checklists, Checklists, Checklists

Checklists are an essential element of every system, especially if you are building the process over time. Incorporate a checklist into every process. It is important for employees, especially those who must multitask. An employee who is creating a trial notebook needs to be able to walk to the reception desk, process a payment, and return to the trial notebook without getting mixed up. Checklists enable employees to pick right back up where they left off.

Creating systems is difficult. It is challenging in and of itself. Try documenting the coffee-making process as an experiment, and you will see what I mean. It is especially difficult to find the time to document systems in a busy practice in which client demands dictate the agenda. When faced with a client-related deadline and the need to document systems, the client deadline always comes first. That is why most firms simply do not have the documentation they need.

Time is Short, But…

When you carefully study the time usage in law firms, you realize that always putting deadlines ahead of systems and documentation is shortsighted. Over the long haul, system documentation is a major time saver. Three situations illustrate this point. First, consider the employee who fills in for an ill or vacationing coworker. Without documented systems, the substitute is far less effective and may even undermine the efficiency of other employees by asking for help or instruction. Second, sometimes an employee is asked to handle a task that comes up only sporadically, such as renewing the malpractice insurance policy. That employee may interrupt you or someone else for help because he or she has never fully absorbed the process. Finally, consider the new employee who comes onboard after a predecessor has left. Training of the newbie consumes a huge quantity of time.

These three scenarios represent only a few of the challenging situations that arise when well-documented systems are lacking. An effective employee manual could prevent each of these expensive, painful, and time-consuming situations. Think through the ultimate cost of placing short-term priorities ahead of long-term objectives. Documenting systems is critical, so be sure to allocate resources to make their development happen.

Counter the time pressures inherent in running a practice with a culture that demands documentation. Make it a priority for the long term. The key is getting systems developed and documented over time. Use slow periods and downtime to accomplish the mission. In my firm, we draft more documentation in December, when we slow down over the holidays, than during all the other months combined. We keep system documentation projects ready for when employees find themselves with nothing to do. We must be creative and persistent to get this essential work done in the face of ever-present client-related tasks.

Beginner’s Mind is Essential

When time is available and systems are being built, it is helpful to approach the project with what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind.” The idea is to look at things as if you have never seen them before. In this way, you are less likely to make assumptions or overlook important details. In fact, we have had great success in our firm asking beginners to document systems immediately upon learning the task. They really understand the obstacles and are focused on each step of the process.

New employees bring the beginner’s mind to the task, and they often have free time since they haven’t yet been overwhelmed with a backlog of pending tasks and projects. They also are very familiar with the format we use for documenting systems because they must refer constantly to the manual to complete their assigned tasks.

Half the Battle

Building and documenting systems is truly just a start. Getting your people to use the documentation may prove more challenging. Obviously, it is easy to get new employees to follow systems and use documentation. Veterans, however, tend to assume that they already know how things are done, but they may not be up to date on every process. This is where checklists come into play. Some firms require completion of the pertinent checklist for every task and attach the checklist to the resulting work product. That’s a novel concept for law firms, but it is something pilots have done since Kitty Hawk. Increasingly it is required of medical professionals as well.

Regardless of whether you require completion of a checklist, reinforce at firm meetings, trainings, in e-mails, and so forth that systems are documented in the manual. It also is helpful if firm leaders and managers avoid answering questions that are covered in the manual. Keeping systems alive requires constantly referring employees back to the documentation, rather than providing quick answers. Eventually employees will stop asking and turn first to the staff manual.

Outdated Systems are Useless

Once your team uses the systems documentation routinely, they will quickly realize if instructions and checklists become dated or obsolete. As you reinforce your culture of documentation, encourage employees to revise and update systems. It is essential. For some employees, the path of least resistance will be to get the task done without doing the updates. To counter that tendency, make it easy to revise systems and recognize and reward employees who do so.

Great employee manuals require (1) excellent tools for documenting systems, (2) a culture of willingness to document and teach, (3) an approach that keeps manuals alive and present in the lives of employees, and (4) a system that encourages updating the manuals as systems evolve. Pull those four elements together and you will have built something that will survive, thrive, and serve as your legacy.

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Lee Rosen practices family law with offices in Raleigh, Charlotte, Chapel Hill and Durham, North Carolina. You can find him at Rosen.com. He blogs on family-law-practice marketing, technology, and management at DivorceDiscourse.com.