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Firms Should Always Analyze Ways to Increase Efficiency
by Barbara Lewis MBA and Dan Otto MBA

If you are overwhelmed by work, your first impulse may be to hire people. However, today's small pool of job seekers limits the number and caliber of available employees. And even if you could easily find ideal employees, you may end up eroding your profit margin. So when you're so busy that you can't sleep at night thinking about the matters you are juggling, skip your first impulse to hire more bodies. Instead, examine ways to improve your operations so you can handle the extra work.

For many years, the manufacturing environment has analyzed methods to increase efficiency. However, service businesses have been slow to adopt similar procedures. Instead, law firms allow employees to develop systems and procedures. The problem is that these employees don't have the necessary skills to see the big picture and thus can't design efficient procedures.

In one recent example of this situation, three partners found themselves performing new tasks because of  the departure of a key employee. The partners queried other employees about what needed to be done. Much to their surprise, the other employees either didn't know how to do the tasks or described convoluted steps to accomplish the projects. It became clear that the firm needed to document all procedures and align tasks with the proper level of employee.

Law firms that are similarly inefficient should start with describing in detail every position's duties and putting the information in a manual. The manual would describe everything from how to answer the telephone to how to generate an invoice to how to handle clients’ billing  queries. As all of the tasks become standardized, the task is always performed in the same way regardless of employee turnover.

These manuals reduce training time for new hires and decrease the amount of time that seasoned employees spend answering questions. Thus, when new employees obtain answers to questions from manuals rather than bothering other employees, the new hire learns the efficient way to perform the task. Manuals should be periodically updated and reviewed.

The next objective is to align tasks with the proper level of employee.  First, have all employees keep Excel or Lotus time sheets on all tasks performed for one month. Tasks should be divided by clerical, secretarial, paraprofessional, paralegal, associate, senior associate and partner. For example, a typical matter for a business attorney may be setting up a corporation. The tasks include registering the name with the secretary of state, drafting the articles of incorporation and filing the document with the secretary of state. Each task is assigned a level of staff. For example, the secretary opens the client file and registers the name, the paralegal develops the draft documents from a template, the attorney reviews the documents and the clerk mails them to the client.

When assigning tasks, don't allocate very simple ones to higher-paid employees. This situation has become prevalent in law firms, where secretaries with free time (because of attorneys who use computers) do clerical work, such as faxing, photocopying and preparing documents for messengers. Law firms thus end up paying secretary rates for clerical work.

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