Most lawyers drag their feet and hesitate building systems in their practices because they believe that it is impossible to do the same things for every case, because every case is unique. And while that rings true – Jay Ruane of Ruane Attorneys and FirmFlex – has proven that to overarching objection to be false.
In 2001, Jay joined his father to start a practice after being a public defender for many years. It was in his time as a public defender that Jay developed his first rudimentary systems as a stopgap to keep his head above water, and survive the “onslaught of cases” that he constantly had.
Jay says that Monday nights were his “jail nights’, he would have the same Correctional Officer each Monday line all of his clients up so that he could meet with them. This basic system helped him keep each case organized, on-schedule and progressing forward.
It was that experience as a Public Defender that led him to recognize the importance of having systems in any business, let alone a law firm. Since, then, Jay has created over 1,500 systems for his practice. He notes that having a systems-based practice has allowed him to pay attention to the details – or have his employees pay attention to the details – so that he can do higher level legal thinking.
Jay says that while each case is certainly unique, there are some things that are not unique. For example, how you file a motion at the court house, which motions to file immediately, and the information and materials that you must cover with a client to prepare for court.
Since building a systems-based legal practice, Jay notes that systems equal freedom, and systema ensure consistency. Building systems in your legal practice may feel or seem overwhelming, but if you follow the model that Jay did, over the course of a few years, you will be able to systemize your entire legal practice.
How To Make Employees Feel Apart of the System
“One of the reasons why I want to push it onto them to create the systems – is that I want them to feel a sense of ownership over the system and say ‘this is best practices, this is how I’ve done it and I’m apart of this team.’ I want them to have a desire to be apart of the systems in place.”
– Jay Ruane
How To Begin Building Systems In Your Legal Practice
So, where do you begin? For Jay, it all started on a Sunday afternoon in 2008 when he was getting ready for trial the next day. He had to send something off in the mail, but soon realized that there was only $0.38 on the postage meter, and he needed $0.41 to send off the parcel of mail.
It was at that moment that he realized he had no idea how to add postage to the meter, and became frustrated. Here he was, this successful and accomplished lawyer who had no idea how to add postage to the owner postage meter in his office. There were a lot of things that his staff knew how to do, that he didn’t.
So, that following Monday he instructed his team to begin documenting the simple systems that help smoothly run the firm. Everything from how to add postage to the postage meter, to how to answer the phone and make a copy at the copier machine. The inception of the systems in Jay’s practice didn’t start with some fancy or complicated format. It began with a three-ring binder, and gradually working to write the systems as they happened naturally.
Now, Jay has over 1,500 systems for his law firm. What started as a three ring binder, evolved into Microsoft Word documents saved on an internal server, to Google Docs drive documents saved on the cloud, to what it is today. Recently, Jay built what he calls “their own Wikipedia for their office that has over 1,500 – 1,600 systems in it”. And every week, his team adds more and more systems. If there’s ever a question as to how to do something, any of his staff can quickly and easily access the step-by-step guide on how to do it. Jay notes that it was important to get all of this knowledge out of their heads, and into a system so that the business could essentially function without anybody at it’s helm.
The important takeaway here is that systems do not need to be over complicated, perfect nor pristine. The best way to get started with building systems is to write down the step-by-step actions that it takes to accomplish simple tasks in your firm.
The Benefits Of Building Systems In Your Legal Practice
Having systems in your legal practice allows for higher level thinking, planning and prioritizing. Instead of getting “bogged down” with the mundane details such as having to remember what forms must be filled out, and in which order, you and your employees will have more mental capacity for higher level thinking.
Systems also help to create a “checks and balances” culture, where the outcome is clear and communicated freely to all. It brings clarity and consistency to how clients are treated, how each team member is treated, and much, much more.
How Get Your Employees On Board With Your Law Firms Systems
Jay says that – as a lawyer, and business owner – you have to realize that your staff may subconsciously like to hold onto knowledge in their head because they think that it makes them valuable to the firm.
He also reiterates the importance of hiring team members that can think at a higher level and are able to contribute creative ideas to the mix. However, if they’re constantly dealing with the barebones tasks, like having to remember in their heads which motions to file at the courthouse, it takes away from the mental bandwidth and time that they are able to think of those higher level ideas. When you take the “think” out of the simple things, it allows for more mental capacity for ideas that will actually change the business.
When ever someone at his firm asks a question, the response is always, “Did you check our systems index?” In most cases, there is already a system for the question that they are asking. However, if there isn’t a system, one is created. If it’s a system that a staff member can create, and they do it, there is a financial reward for creating the system.
If it’s something that requires Jay’s time – then he creates the system, communicates it to his team, and asks for any feedback on how the system could be more clear or actionable. Once agreed upon, the system goes into his Systems Index.
Ultimately, Jay believes that pushing the system creation onto your employees helps them feel a sense of ownership over the systems, and allows them to feel apart of the team. Additionally, Jay wants his employees to have a desire to be apart of the systems in place.
To get people to buy into the systems in your law firm, have your employees help co-create them. It also creates a self policing culture, where each team member can hold each other accountable for sticking to the systems, and following them.
For more information on how to build law firm systems, check out Jay Ruane and I’s full interview here.
Lawyer Lightbulb Moment
Don’t overcomplicate the systems in your legal practice. If you’re just starting out, begin with the small, simple and routine things. Write them down and document them.