How toolkits and checklists can increase efficiency and profits
You can work more efficiently by creating toolkits and checklists that guide your workflows and put relevant forms and pro-forma documents at your fingertips, writes Kirsty McPhee.
Toolkits and checklists can be invaluable workflow instruments.
How do you develop them in-house, though? Or which commercial providers can be trusted? And how can you effectively use collaboration across teams to improve task-driven workflows? Well, read on.
As with all knowledge-management strategies, the aim is to develop bespoke systems and tools that support efficiencies and workflows, which in turn should ultimately improve the experience of staff and clients while increasing profits.
It is easy to create toolkits for legal work. They can be done by subject, by type of matter, by type of task, by team – the options are limitless.
Such toolkits are often helpful for work that your firm does all the time, whereby staff want handy access to relevant documents, legislation, cases and forms that are often required. However, they can also be really useful for work that the firm does not do very often and which, in such instances, becomes highly prescriptive and time-consuming to find all of the appropriate documents, cases, forms and legislation.
One easy form of toolkit involves creating an electronic folder that has copies and links to all of the cases, guides, forms and documents required for each new matter – for example, client details, file opening forms, timesheets etc. When a new matter is opened, just copy and paste these documents from your toolkit folder into the new matter folder and, rather than spending time finding and identifying what you need, get straight to work.
More sophisticated toolkits can be created in SharePoint (a web-based collaborative platform that integrates with Microsoft Office) on your intranet, or using any tool that you and your team find easy to use and update.
When building these tools, make the best possible use of your skills across the firm – lawyers are typically best placed to determine the selection of cases and legislation; secretaries are usually best placed to collate administrative forms; and your IT or information professional may be best placed to create access to the kit and determine its form. Each team in your firm will have different kits, so collaborating across teams when creating the kits should result in a better outcome for all teams.
Not everything in that folder may be needed for every matter, but having one central repository will reduce the time spent looking for information and documents. It also creates a roadmap for what and when certain documentation and resources can or should be used.
One important point to note is that your kit should only include links to court forms, legislation and legal research database searches – do not save PDFs or Word copies. Relying on resources that change, sometimes without warning, is dangerous and checking the currency of these resources every time you use them will negate any wins in terms of efficiency.
Checklists are another great way to work more efficiently. They save time, reduce the risk of missing something and create a clear workflow, regardless of how many people are working on a matter.
Legal Workflow systems and solutions, plus commercially produced checklists, can be purchased from practice-management specialists and commercial legal publishers, or they can be developed in-house. Such checklists can be complex, comprehensive documents, or they may simply take the form of basic notes (even just a collection of sticky notes, if that is what helps you).
If purchasing your checklists from a commercial provider, consider the following issues carefully:
- How much do they cost? Is the purchase price a one-off fee, or an annual subscription?
- Are they customisable once purchased?
- Does the provider truly understand your practice and what it needs?
- Are the checklists jurisdictionally relevant? Due to less purchasing power, the smaller states or territories – Western Australia, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Tasmania – are not always covered properly or at all by the big publishing houses.
- How much is the full investment – that is, the cost and time involved in reviewing, installing, customising, training staff and rolling out the lists, and, if they are automated, the IT investment (both time and cost).
- What is the cost and value in creating these checklists in-house?
When considering value, examine your team structure and consider how junior or inexperienced staff can work more efficiently with a detailed checklist and flow. This will reduce time spent following up and supervising for senior staff, and it teaches legal and administrative staff to work autonomously when appropriate. It also enables you to build in touch points in your task-flow; for example, calling a meeting before or after a certain task to run through how to approach it, or tracking how long staff are taking to work through the tasks by requesting updates at particular points.
Task-orientated checklists sound sterile, but they can be used to improve communication and information flow if these elements are built in successfully. As with your toolkits, the format of your checklists should be determined by what works best for your team – Word documents, intranet pages, complex workflow programs and calendars are just a few of the options available to you.
Remember that investing time to create your toolkits and checklists can increase profits. So, consider how you can use toolkits and checklists effectively in your own work, and look for opportunities to create these for your practitioners or managers. Any system or process that reduces the time a solicitor spends finding or identifying relevant forms and documents, or which reduces the risk of forgetting a step or task, represents a direct cost-benefit and risk-management opportunity for the firm. Lawyers bill in 1- or 6-minute increments, so searching the system or court website for a form for even two to three minutes is time that could be better spent on legal work that can be billed to the clients.
For support staff in every organisation and at every level, it is important to remember that your role in the firm is to provide support. Always look for ways to make processes and legal tasks faster and easier to complete for everyone in your team, or even across the firm as a whole. Whenever possible or practical, discuss and share toolkits, checklists and new processes or systems with members of other secretarial and support teams. The content of the kit or list may not be relevant to a different practice area, but the idea and process used to create the tool could easily be transferred to another team to use and adapt.
Collaborate across teams, departments and roles when creating or updating kits, lists and processes so you can benefit from the firm’s collective knowledge and experience. It is also possible to source guides, examples or ideas from external resources.
Other tips? Make sure you search for information; participate in industry associations, groups or online discussions; and attend conferences or events with colleagues from other organisations in the legal industry. And remember to always seek permission from the relevant senior manager or partner before sharing specific information or copies of documents, especially outside of the firm, as the information may be confidential and is almost always considered to be the firm’s intellectual property.
Collaboration is important, but information sharing should be carefully considered to ensure innovative ideas and competitive advantage is not lost.
Kirsty McPhee is an Information Manager in the mining industry. She has previously worked for the past decade in law libraries and has been responsible for library, research and knowledge services, as well as IT and administrative functions.