Creating systems helps develop a practice that will work with you.
By Mark A. Chinn (Mississippi)
In Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Robert T. Kiyosaki retells the answer his rich dad gave him to his question as to why McDonald’s makes more money than everyone else when just about anybody can make a better hamburger: “The answer is obvious,” he said. “McDonald’s is excellent at business systems. The reason so many talented people are poor is because they focus on building a better hamburger and know little to nothing about business systems.”
By creating systems, you can develop a practice that will ultimately work without you. Michael Gerber warns that “[i]f your business depends on you, you don’t own a business — you have a job. And it’s the worst job in the world because you’re working for a lunatic!2 Gerber believes the rule of creating systems applies to law firms:
Obviously, if [your business] is a legal firm, you must have attorneys ….But you don’t need to hire brilliant attorneys ….You need to create the very best system through which good attorneys… can be leveraged to produce exquisite results. The question you need to keep asking yourself is: How can I give my customer the results he wants systematically rather than personally. . . .How can I create a business whose results are systems-dependent rather than people-dependent?3
In Fail-Safe Leadership, Linda Martin emphasizes the role of systems in success: “Successful people are those who are effective at achieving desired outcomes because they follow a predetermined set of processes that lead to those outcomes.”4
At every step of the way in your practice, you should be constantly developing systems, procedures, and checklists. Before you have employees to whom you can delegate duties, these systems, procedures, and checklists will help you deliver the same high product level, time and time again, with minimum effort. Once you have established yourself as a true master and technician of your trade, and have developed enough business to hire people, these systems, procedures, and checklists will help your employees deliver the same level of work you would deliver if you were doing it yourself. This will help you distribute work, take in more work, and “leverage” your business-getting ability to make profit.
In The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber teaches that a successful business owner must have three personalities: that of the technician, the manager, and the entrepreneur. All good lawyers are good “technicians” and are masters of their trade. The same is true for most small-business owners, who often make the fatal assumption that since they understand the technical work of a business, they understand the business that does the technical work.5 The problem is that successful business owners must know not only how to do the business, but also how to create (the entrepreneur) and manage business. Most lawyers abhor the thought of being entrepreneurs or managers. You will hear them say, “All I want to do is practice law.” Refusing to train yourself to become an entrepreneur and manager will limit your success significantly, if not send you seeking a job for someone who has done it.
Here is how to create systems and procedures for your office:
- Whenever you confront a problem, ask yourself the following questions: What is the problem? What causes it? What system can I put in place to make sure this does not happen again?
- Create a checklist for everything you do and then make sure the checklist is actually used, “checked off on,” and placed in the file. I learned this technique while training for my pilot’s license. Every flying procedure is broken down into steps and placed in a checklist, which pilots carry with them whenever they fly. No matter how experienced the pilot is, he or she will review the checklist for all procedures. When you board a plane, you will notice that the pilots are going through checklists in preparation for flight.
- Write scripts. lf you want something handled in a certain way, write a script for it. This will help you analyze exactly why you want something handled a certain way. lt will also help you improve it. The script will help you and staff handle things exactly the same way every time.
- Create and write policies. Create policies for everything you do. Communicate and re-communicate the policies again and again. “Some experts say that only after hearing a message six times does a person begin to believe and internalize.”6 You must reinforce your ideas daily in your interactions with all the people in your organization.7
- Train staff to follow policies and fire those who will not. Good employees want to know what you expect of them and are happier when they do. But all members of the team must be constantly reminded to follow the policies and procedures. lf there is a need to deviate from these set policies, the rest of the team must be so informed and the appropriate superior must approve the change. For example, when a quarterback calls a play in the huddle, every player must run that play exactly as it was drawn up. lf someone deviates, the outcome will be disaster. This does not mean that you do not want changes. lf the quarterback sees the need to change the play, then he should, but he must let everyone else know by calling an “audible.” As Gerber says, “What you do in your model is not nearly as important as doing what you do the same way, each and every time.”8
- Those who do not understand the principle of following systems and procedures will argue that this is “micro managing.” This is hogwash! The organization can function well only if all of the members of the team work together.
- Create forms. Every time you write a letter or draft a pleading, draft it in a model form for use in the future. Write it in as generic a way as possible so that it can be used in almost any case with little change. For example, your letters should refer to a “spouse” as opposed to a “husband” or “wife.” This will minimize the need for changes. Save these forms in a three-ring notebook, which is indexed, or in your Word Perfect system in a file called Forms. After a while, you should have prepared every type of letter or pleading that you will ever write, and so all you will have to do is reach for the proper form. There is a caveat to using forms, however: Be careful that the form is correct for the situation; do not just blindly use any kind of form. They are designed to increase efficiency, but they are not a substitute for thought.
- Kiyosake, Robert T., Rich Dad, Poor Dad, p. 126 (Paradise Valley, AZ: TechPress, 1997)
- Gerber, Michael, E., The E-Myth Revisited, p. 40 (New York: Harper Collins, 1995)
- Ibid., p. 100
- Martin, Linda L., Fail-Safe Leaderhip, p.48 (Orlando, FL: Delta Books, 2001)
- Gerber, The E-Myth Revisited, p. 13
- Lencione, Patrick, The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive, p. 168 (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000
- Charan, Ram, and Noel M Tichy, Every Business is a Growth Business, p. 150, (New York: Random House, 1998)
- Gerber, The E-Myth Revisited, p. 107.
This article has been excerpted with permission from “How to Build and Manage a Family Law Practice,” by Mark A. Chinn. Copyright 2006 American Bar Association, Section of Family Law.
Mark Chinn received his undergraduate degree from Iowa State University in 1975 and his Law Degree from the University of Mississippi in 1978. He is admitted to practice in all courts in Mississippi, the Fifth and Seventh Circuits and the United States Supreme Court. Mark is a frequent contributor in periodicals such as the American Journal of Family Law, The Family Advocate, Small Firm Profit Report and Fair Share on the subjects of client relations, service and law practice management.
Reprint with permission.