Catherine Sanders Reach is Director for the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association....
Sharon D. Nelson, Esq. is president of the digital forensics, managed information technology and cybersecurity firm Sensei...
Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program, Jim Calloway is a recognized speaker on legal...
Why does your law firm need documented standard operating procedures? Sharon Nelson and Jim Calloway find out with guest Catherine Sanders Reach. Catherine outlines the common problems that arise when operating procedures are lacking and explains how to create a ‘law firm cookbook’—plus, which tools will help—to cultivate dynamic efficiency in your firm.
Learn more from Catherine’s recommended articles:
Your Firm Cookbook: Why and How – North Carolina Bar Association (ncbar.org)
Unseen Risks And The Great Reshuffling – North Carolina Bar Association (ncbar.org)
What You Need to Know About Project Management – North Carolina Bar Association (ncbar.org)
Catherine Sanders Reach is director at the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association, providing practice technology and management assistance to lawyers and legal professionals.
Special thanks to our sponsor Nota.
Intro: Welcome to The Digital Edge with Sharon Nelson and Jim Calloway. Your hosts, both legal technologists, authors and lecturers, invite industry professionals to discuss a new topic related to lawyers and technology. You’re listening to Legal Talk Network.
Sharon D. Nelson: Welcome to the 174th Edition of The Digital Edge: Lawyers and Technology. We’re glad to have you with us. I’m Sharon Nelson, President of Sensei Enterprises. An information technology, cybersecurity and digital forensics firm in Fairfax, Virginia.
Jim Calloway: And I’m Jim Calloway, Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association’s Management Assistance Program. Today, our topic is Your Law Firm Cookbook: How and Why.
Our guest today is Catherine Sanders Reach, who is Director for the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association, providing practice technology and management assistance to lawyers and legal professionals. Formerly, she was Director of Law Practice Management and Technology for the Chicago Bar Association and the Director at the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Resource Center.
Prior to her work with those Bar Associations, she worked in library and information science environments for several years, working at Ross and Hardies as a librarian. She received a Master’s degree in Library and Information Studies from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa in 1997. Thanks for joining us, Catherine.
Catherine Sanders Reach: Thanks Jim and thanks Sharon.
Sharon D. Nelson: Having seen So, many frazzled lawyers, I know that you have a wonderful answer to why does a law firm need documented standard operating procedures?
Catherine Sanders Reach: Well, Sharon, it’s my current obsession because of two primary reasons, one at the North Carolina Bar Association my job is to help attorneys with practice management issues and that ranges from startups to wind downs and everything in between. So, I do a lot of needs assessment with firms that are trying to kind of — I think the pandemic spurred a lot of realization that their technology was not up to Snuff. When they went remote, they found that their systems weren’t really optimized for that, and So, they started investigating how they could do things better
But throughout the process of doing the needs assessment, what our finding was that no one attorney and even small firms answer the questions the same way in terms of how they even did things, how do they assign tasks, how do they do collections, how do they get the bills out, where do they store documents, what’s technology they use and I started realizing this stuff is not documented.
And then the next thing that kind of came about was the great resignation and it’s not just people resigning and moving to another firm or leaving, leaving firm world all together, it’s also retirements unfortunately, sudden demise all sorts of things where basically the knowledge is walking out the door or disappearing.
And So, I started really getting focused on standard operating procedures and this isn’t just in law firms either, my husband started a new job and two weeks into his job people started saying, well no one showed you how to do that, you don’t know how to do that. And So, from an onboarding perspective if you ask a lot of young attorneys, what kind of onboarding procedures they had in the firm a lot of times I was thrown to the wolves. And so, that’s not the best way to introduce people, whether they’re firm attorneys or they are support staff how to get things done and how to get things done the way the firm prefers them to be done.
Also obviously business continuity is a big motivator for getting your standard operating procedures documented in case something happens and also because once you develop those checklists and keep those checklists up-to-date, you’re going to reduce the risk of somebody forgetting to do something, somebody forgetting to close the file, somebody forgetting to send in a particular notice to the court, whatever it is, when you’re working off a checklist.
And I know Jim and Sharon, y’all are both familiar with ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ by Atul Gawande and how that has changed some industries like Madison where they were able to track reductions and infections, mistakes. I mean you always hear especially if you’re in Med-Mal, the horror stories about to having peoples have the wrong leg operated on and I’ve noticed that when I go to the doctor now they have a checklist that they ask and they have you repeat things over and over with every different person. What’s your first and last name, what’s your date of birth to make sure they’re actually working on the right person. It’s a bit comforting, I think.
And then of course, increasing your efficiency, you start looking at your written down processes and realizing hey, you know what, we got three people re-keying information in three different places, how can we become more efficient and consolidate those efforts and save time and spend less administrative hassle.
Jim Calloway: Well, Catherine, how do busy lawyers make time to do this?
Catherine Sanders Reach: And it’s not just the busy lawyers, it’s the busy everybody in the firm. And I think the best way to do this and this is going to be the lowest tech thing I’m going to ever say, get a legal pad and a pen and write down what you’re doing. If that is the comfort level that someone has so that everyday people just start documenting what they do on a daily basis. And obviously there’s plenty of tools that you can use but at the very base level, just kind of getting people to track how they do things as they do them and not trying to come up with some master list of every single thing because you’re going to spend more time forgetting what you should have documented than just letting everybody do it all day.
Sharon D. Nelson: Well, you mentioned tools, Catherine, So, what kind of useful tools are out there that will make this whole process a little easier?
Jim Calloway: Well, there’s a whole lot on the market and I did send you a link to an article that I wrote that describes, some of the tools that are out there. One that I really think is interesting that I think was born during the pandemic is called Loom, and it’s about $8 per creator per month, and Creator means the person who’s actually creating the little video tutorial and you just use your screen and webcam which we all have now and it’s lets you document, what you’re doing on the screen and narrate it as you go. It really couldn’t be any more simple and then they will host those video tutorials for you that Creator price doesn’t include the people who are watching the video, it’s just the people creating it. So, if you only have two or three people actually creating these procedures, everybody can see them and they don’t have to pay eight bucks a piece and then it’s held in a private team Library, So, it’s — that’s one of the kind of easy ones.
Now, recognizing that not everybody is video-oriented. If you go, well we want actually step by step guides, something that’s written down, there’s another tool called Scribe and it also lets you record, but with a lot more annotation around that recording on how to create different procedures, your non-engagement agreement or how to add a new client to the system, things like that. So, and it’s similar and that it’s a closed environment just for the firm to have access to those procedures.
And then there’s things like SweetProcess which has been around for a long time and SweetProcess’s another product that’s a major competitor called Trainual. They’re divided up into processes, policies, people and company. And So, you start filling in the blanks, I really am surprised and somewhat chagrined at how many firms I’ve talked to who don’t have written policies and procedures in place. It is definitely the cobbler soldier in that area.
And so, having this stuff documented, realizing what you don’t have and even in a small firm, having who works for whom is important So, you can start building out that org chart and everything like that and that’s — those two products are Trainual and SweetProcess. SweetProcess is a bit more expensive and a little bit more extensive than Trainual.
Sharon D. Nelson: Well, that’s a lot of good tips there. The nice products that take a look at and see what will work best for your firm.
Catherine Sanders Reach: I should mention if you don’t have the money to buy one of those products or just don’t want to, look at the tools you already have even a shared Word document, it doesn’t have to be expensive or extensive, if you want to just get started somewhere, using tools that you have on the desktop, there’s a video recorder built into Windows and in the Mac, there’s share documents in Microsoft Word or Google Docs or whatever, So, you don’t have to rush out and buy a product especially if you’re just getting started and getting people up to speed on using a tool in and of itself is intimidating.
Jim Calloway: Catherine, what should we document?
Catherine Sanders Reach: I think legal how-to is definitely one of them. So, if you do Probate, there’s a whole lot of steps. They’re all important, it’s important that they are done in the same order. So, starting to document how you do certain legal things, a real estate closing, a corporate business creation, things like that, but also your daily processes, the client intake, the conflicts check, when do you send out the engagement agreement, which version, closing the files. So, Jim and I have talked about closing the client portal.
So one of the things that we’re going to, I think discuss a little bit later is all of those sound like, you know, we’ll document our client intake. You start documenting it and you realize that thing is a beast in and of itself. It branches, it has different, you know, if and then’s. So, even just one “simple thing” like a conflicts check, it can grow into quite a substantive list, but it’s also going to point out where you’re not doing the things that you might should, for instance with conflicts check. If you’ve got your office administrator before she opens a file go in and run a conflicts check by searching through a database. Is that really all you need to be doing? Maybe you should also send out an email to everybody in the firm to double-check that there’s no conflict and it’s not just sending out an email. But it’s also tracking that you get responses from everybody and so on and so forth. So, you can start looking at your processes holistically and making sure that you’re really doing everything that you need to do. And then again kind of figuring out where things aren’t being done, effectively or efficiently before
Jim Calloway: Before we move onto our next segment, let’s take a quick commercial break.
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As a lawyer, keeping up with developments and information security, cyber threats and e-discovery is a never-ending process. Fortunately, the Digital Detectives Podcast does the hard work for you. I’m Sharon Nelson and together with John Simek, we bring on industry experts to discuss the latest tech developments that help keep your data secure only on the Digital Detectives Podcast.
Welcome back to the Digital Edge on the Legal Talk Network. Today, our subject is “Your Law Firm Cookbook, How And Why.” Our guest is Catherine Sanders Reach, who is our friend, and the Director for the Center of Practice Management, at the North Carolina Bar Association, providing practice technology and management assistance to lawyers and legal professionals. Formerly, she was director at Law Practice Management and Technology for the Chicago Bar Association and the Director at the American Bar Associations Legal Technology Research Center. So, Catherine, as somebody who does cybersecurity I know there’s a really good answer to where should we store the cookbook?
Catherine Sanders Reach: Now, I’m afraid Sharon to answer your question. Qualified, thus, I mean, when I was thinking about my responses to the questions, I thought online. However, obviously there’s some protections that you want to add to that. And so if you’re in a Microsoft 365 environment with a SharePoint setup for a server replacement there, if you really want to protect it, if you’ve got some secret sauce in there, password protect the document, but I do think something and then of course the tools that we talked about like notion and Scribe and things or password-protected online repositories. I think it’s important that everybody who needs to have access has access. You may create a read-only document and give permissions to certain people to be able to edit it or create a workflow so that is approved before its finalized things like that.
In our modern environment, I don’t think that it’s really effective to have a printed manual and a binder under the receptionist desk, which is how firms used to do it. It’s not available to people when they need it. They may, you know, not be fully backed in the office or they’ve enjoyed the freedom of movement and they still need to know how to do something. One firm that I talked to about how they do things, they keep it all online because they have hired talent from around the country even though they’re a North Carolina-based firm and so they have everything stored online. So, did I do okay Sharon?
Sharon D. Nelson: You did really-really good about protecting it. I would offer also two-factor authentication in order to get into the cookbook. That’s always a good idea. And the other thing is something we have seen with an incident response plan, which is sort of like a cookbook and that it has great value. And this one firm got hit by a ransomware and, you know, their incident response plan, it was in one place and one place only. So, it got encrypted along with everything else.
So now they had no incident response plan. So, with the cookbook I think it’s the same thing. You’ve got to make sure it’s in more than one place and never connected to the network entirely. So, one version could be connected to the network, but you have to have just like in the backups, you have to have the cookbook in a backup that’s not connected.
Catherine Sanders Reach: Yeah, absolutely. And you know point well-taken. The incident response plan doesn’t do you much good if it’s been hacked and encrypted with everything else. So, I feel like that you might want to print the stick on the wall, or at least an outline of the plan. If worried, do this next. And I have had panic calls over the weekend. So, I’m not the person to contact, Sharon is.
Sharon D. Nelson: It’s funny, we should have our own realms, right?
Catherine Sanders Reach: Yes.
Jim Calloway: Well that’s very interesting. Anything else we can do with the firm cookbook?
Catherine Sanders Reach: Well, one of the things you know, that used to be a big topic of conversation that seems to have kind of slid out of interest at least in the small and medium-sized private firm market that I generally run around in is the concept of knowledge management. It’s not that it’s gone away. I think maybe we express it like that and it wasn’t resonating with people, but I think that something else you can have in your firm cookbook, you know, especially if you look at some of those products that have policies and people is creating some sort of knowledge management information about the people in your firm and what they know.
So, you might go to LinkedIn to look for this kind of thing, but not everybody keeps their LinkedIn up-to-date or they don’t include everything but maybe it would be nice to know that your new lateral worked for certain companies before going into law or that an attorney has skills that they are not using in your current firm from a previous firm or that your paralegal also is — which is pretty often the case, a notary, things like that. All the things that you might need to know to leverage the people in your firm as well as the processes. I think could be well documented.
And right now again, a lot of firms are back in the office. But in my world, we’ve hired so many people over the pandemic and haven’t fully gone back to the office. I’ve never even seen some of the people that I work with. I wouldn’t recognize them on the street. So, you know, having a kind of a Facebook of sorts, and I don’t mean Facebook, I mean, having a picture along with the descriptions of person, skills and background.
Sharon D. Nelson: So what are the best tools do you think Catherine for task management?
Catherine Sanders Reach: So we’re switching gears a little bit because process documentation and standard operating procedures often do include sort of tasks lists. But then, the other thing that I was finding with my needs assessment, is that when I ask, how do you manage tasks in the firm, it would be a combination of email, post it notes, walk down the hall and I thought well, my goodness, you know, what happens, when Susie turns under two weeks’ notice and you have no idea what she was doing, where she was in any particular project.
So, you go through that process of standard operating procedures and start generating the, how to’s of doing things, which turned themselves conveniently into a kind of a checklist. And so, for task management, my favorite personal tool that does have some accessibility in terms of minor assignments other people within the organization is to do, why? Well, a couple of reasons one, to do is part of the Microsoft 365 Suite so it doesn’t cost me anything extra and it also lets you basically if you get tasked with something from some other part of the suite, it appears in your to do if you flag an email for follow-up, appears to in to do. And then you have a whole section where you can create groupings and repeatable task lists that can be assigned to whomever you want to invite into the group to do it. So, I think to do for personal use and for small firms is really effective and then for larger groups, you might want to look at a product like to do list, which is similar but built for a little bit more robust task management among larger groups.
Jim Calloway: What’s the difference between task management and project management?
Catherine Sanders Reach: How long do we have again? The way I kind of break it down as that task management can be somewhat divorced from a full checklist of things to do that apply to a matter or a case so that you start creating projects. So, for instance, you’re going to do a commercial real estate deal and pick three different types of standard real estate deals, commercial real estate deals you do, turn that into a project where the project is broken into milestones.
The things that absolutely need to be done by a certain time in order to move everything forward then within that there are tasks that have to be accomplished in order to meet that milestone and within each task, there may be subtask, dependent task, things like that. That’s when we start moving into project management tools like anything from what’s built into your practice management product to more robust things like Monday.com or Asana, Microsoft 365 has planner, the world’s most robust project management tool and if you’ve never used a Gantt chart before don’t start now. Just start documenting those processes, figuring out what tasks belong in them and then starting to create these repeatable processes so that everything has a task and assignment at a deadline. And I think what’s most important with a project management tools that distinguishes it from project task management is that you can get reporting. So, I, as the administrator over the project can go see who’s late, what’s been done, what hasn’t been done, where we’re in jeopardy of not meeting our deadlines. That kind of thing.
Jim Calloway: Before we move on to our next segment, let’s take a quick commercial break.
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Sharon D. Nelson: Welcome back to The Digital Edge on the Legal Talk Network. Today, our subject is your Law Firm Cookbook: How and Why. Our guest is Catherine Sanders Reach who is the Director for the Center for Practice Management at the North Carolina Bar Association, providing practice technology and management assistance to lawyers and legal professionals. So, now that we know the difference between task management and project management, what are the best tools for project management?
Catherine Sanders Reach: Many firms that are using a law practice management application, I say application because we distinguish that from software. Some of the software has it in there too but you’re more modern browser-based practice management applications are starting to build more and more project and task management workflows. And so I’m always a big proponent for starting with what you’ve already got.
So start investigating the tools that you use every day to see if there’s some sort of project management tool. Now, they may not match the description of project management so I just provided and if that is something that is a value to you to see it like that, then you can kind of move into the more project management standalone applications. Some of which may integrate with your practice management application. I know that teams in Microsoft 365 is not a project management tool on its own, even though they’re starting to build in some interesting workflow tools into the chat itself, but you can also add planner to a team’s workspace and create little projects there.
They are by default in the Kanban visual orientation so that you have these what they’re called Swimlanes. And Kanban is basically it’s a board and the Swimlanes can be your milestones or it can be something as simple as to do doing done, that’s the default. And then with each one of those there are cards and those are the tasks cards. What is it? Who’s supposed to do it? When it’s supposed to be done in any reference material documentation? And they also built-in some conversation around that task itself and then you move those or just check them off and find them in the done column.
I love the done column. It’s very satisfying. So, other tools start giving you a lot of different ways to envision your project. So, I really like Asana, the paid version because you get dependencies, you get subtask, you can look at it in a list view, you can list it, look at it in board view. It gives you a lot of bells and whistles and you can create reporting, filtering that kind of stuff.
I think that’s one of the easier tools for lawyers to use because it kind of matches how they think. There’s, of course, Trello, if you’re more visual. And then Monday.com is a really interesting product because the templates that you can create based on how you create them can recalculate deadlines so you kind of count backwards from a certain day and they’ll change the deadlines for you which is somewhat unique at some of these lower costs project management tools. There is a ramp up so if you’ve created those standard operating procedures, you’re getting closer to leveraging project management tools without having to spend a ton of time getting everything set up.
Jim Calloway: Well, once it’s successfully implemented what’s the return on investment for the Cookbook?
Catherine Sanders Reach: Well, one hopes that if you lose somebody, you don’t lose everything. They know when they walk out the door that when you bring in new people, they can get up to speed and you can focus on a positive experience with starting with the firm and not feeling kind of just left out there to figure things out for themselves. Again, looking for those efficiencies and where things are breaking down, where things aren’t happening, and also recognizing and this is another thing that I’ve heard on all the time is you’ve got a lot of tools on your desktop already that you may or may not be taking advantage of and it is simple little automations and things can go a long way to making your life easier. And so, when you see when people are taking multiple steps to do something that could be automated or simplified, it’s hard to recognize that and so you start doing it and look at it holistically.
Sharon D. Nelson: This has been great because there were so much that you said that I did not know about so of course, what I don’t do is what you do which is practice management for lawyers and this is just a great summary of tools for them to look at. So, I know everybody that listens will enjoy it a lot and learn a lot from it. I consider you Catherine one of my most valuable resources.
Catherine Sanders Reach: Thank you, Sharon.
Sharon D. Nelson: Well, thank you for joining us today. And that does it for this edition of The Digital Edge Lawyers and Technology. And remember, you can subscribe to all the editions of this podcast at legaltalknetwork.com or on Apple podcast. And if you enjoyed our podcast, please rate us in Apple podcast.
Jim Calloway: Thanks for joining us. Goodbye, Ms. Sharon.
Sharon D. Nelson: Happy twirls, cowboy.
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|Published:||August 25, 2022|
|Podcast:||The Digital Edge|
|Category:||Practice Management , Best Legal Practices|
The Digital Edge
The Digital Edge, hosted by Sharon D. Nelson and Jim Calloway, covers the latest technology news, tips, and tools.