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CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT PROCESS AND LAW FIRMS: 5 REALLY DIFFICULT (NOT EASY) TIPS

Continuous Improvement Process and Law Firms

Posted by Nick Alcock, Attorney at Law January 9, 2012

In World War II only one P-35 pilot ever shot down a Japanese Zero. The pilot, Lamar Gillett, also survived the Bataan death march and three years of subsequent slave labor. His enduring quote, “It’s better to be lucky than good.”

In comparison with 2 LT Gillett, it’s easy to see that I am an extremely lucky man. I have a great family and own an successful law firm. Every year we have grown, in good economic times and bad. I have also never participated in a death march. So when asked by a reporter about the secret of my success I told him that I was lucky. After the interview, however, I thought about it some more.

I wasn’t lying when I said I was lucky. There were many instances when the right case came along at exactly the right time. When I first started the firm there were many months when things looked terrible but then a great case walked in the door on the 30th of the month. But month after month this became a trend, not an exception. As the immortal golfer Gary Player said, “The more I practice, the luckier I get .” Sometimes the Zeros just fly right in front of your guns.

I believe that some of my luck is due to my adoption of the business model of Continuous Improvement Process I remember when I was attending business school while studying for my MBA. At the time “continuous improvement” was a catchphrase that everybody was talking about but nobody seemed to really understand. After hiring scores of employees and representing over 10,000 clients, I have a greater realization of exactly what is necessary to actually implement “continuous improvement.” Let’s just say that it isn’t easy.

According to Wikipedia, continuous improvement process (CIP), “is an ongoing effort to improve products, services, or processes. These efforts…seek “incremental” improvement over time.” On the surface of it, any attorney who owns a law firm will tell you that they utilize CIP. After all, everybody wants to think that they are getting better over time. Certainly any business owner has that goal. The problem is that the natural tendency for many, including myself, is to get complacent, comfortable and distracted. Actually implementing CIP is a full time war with one’s self. Here’s why.

CIP, the way I have used it, relies on many small changes. There are no quick fixes and no easy answers. CIP is like subjecting yourself to a lifetime diet. Every day your willpower is tested. Every day inertia sets in and it feels like it gets harder and harder to look for ways to improve.

Consider the following. How long would it take you to do 30 push-ups? A minute or two? Imagine you did 30 push-ups when you woke up and another 30 before you went to bed at night. Over the course of a year you would amass over 20,000 push-ups. Obviously a small investment of a few minutes a day would yield huge results. But how many people have the discipline to do this day after day for a year? Gary Player does 1000 weighted sit ups a day. I’m just saying.

Implementing CIP in a Law Firm:

Implementing CIP requires that you get down on the floor and work to make your law firm better every single day–rain or shine. As a mid-sized business owner the problem is even more complex. Not only to you have to get moving every day, but you have to convince your associates to do the same. Naturally you are bound to encounter some resistance. How you handle that resistance dictates how successful you can become.

So with that in mind, here are the 5 really difficult (not easy) tips to implement CIP in your law firm.

1) Self Discipline:

Lead by example. I don’t do 1000 weighted sit-ups a day, but I do work out almost every day. I don’t eat red meat. You won’t find me at a bar on a Wednesday afternoon unless I am taking pictures of a crime scene. If you aren’t disciplined, your employees won’t be disciplined. If you aren’t disciplined, you won’t be clear-headed enough to be able to assess problems and work to fix them. Attorneys, in particular, need a clear head for their self preservation.

The key here is routine. Every Monday and Wednesday I work out with my friend/trainer Abay Best. I have seen him every Monday and Wednesday for TEN years. Establishing one routine makes it easier to establish another routine. Every day I receive a financial report from my firm. Every business day I meet with my office manager to find out what’s going on. Routine is the only way CIP works.

2) Get the employees to buy in:

Some people just have that spark. Now that I’m more experienced hiring people I am better at identifying who is more likely than not to succeed in a CIP oriented business. There is not an easy litmus test. Here’s the hard part, if you have interviewed a prospective attorney and you have 1 reservation about them–even if your concern is kind of minor–DO NOT HIRE THEM. It takes a ton of discipline to interview scores of applicants. At some point you want to say, “Good enough.” The problem is “good enough” will at one point become an obstacle to CIP.

3) Give employees that don’t buy in all the help they need:

An employee that punches the clock on time but isn’t invested in making the business better will become problematic. The employees who are doing their proverbial daily push-ups might resent the staff members who don’t. Give them time to improve. Guide them and push them in the right direction.

4) Take down time as an opportunity to look for problems:

When it is slow, you have to get your hands dirty. Audit files. Call clients and ask if they are satisfied with the service they are receiving. Just because it is quiet it doesn’t mean that all is well. Maybe it is quiet because other attorneys are out-competing you. The biggest threat to your firm is the little detail that you don’t know about. You need to go dig to find the missing court date or the statute of limitations that is about to run. Then when you find mistakes, you must change the systems that allowed the errors to be committed in the first place.

5) The tough, intractable and repetitive roadblocks–fix them yourself:

For years I struggled with IT issues. That’s “information technology” issues to people who don’t know. Most attorneys who don’t know a thing about IT. I used to be one of them until I realized that our computer problems represented a real threat to the survival of our firm. I couldn’t speak the language of networks to the people who were running our servers. As a result there were constant irritating issues that threatened morale and productivity.

Remember when I pointed out that these tips were (not easy)? I was never a computer guy. I dislike computers and I hate just about everything about Windows. However, there came a time when I realized that I couldn’t hire somebody to fix my problems. The problems were mine and I was the only person who really cared at the end of the day. I spent an hour or so for about a year to figure it out. We replaced our servers with a more secure RAID configuration. (See, I sound smart, right?) I replaced or upgraded just about every desktop in the office. After 11 years, people are happier. The system doesn’t crash anymore. Knock on wood.

Conclusion:

CIP isn’t for everybody. If you read the literature on CIP, it sounds easy. All you have to do is dedicate yourself to small and cost-effective little improvements. You need to be willing and able get on the floor every day, every week, every year. And you need to sweat.

Nick Alcock is an attorney in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the owner/president of The Law Offices of Alcock & Associates, P.C.

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