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Good Procedures Can Increase Profitability
by Barbara Lewis MBA and Dan Otto MBA

Developing comprehensive procedures for all the tasks in your firm can enhance productivity, increase efficiency and, ultimately, increase profits. One of the major problems that we find in law firms, is that there are no written procedures on how even basic tasks, such as answering the telephone or filing documents, should be done. Often times, procedures are handed down from person to person and the way that the newest employee completes the task is considerably different from the original employee training, perhaps several years ago.

Recently, one of our clients faced a situation where nearly half of the support staff was out of work for one reason or another. Consequently, the three partners had to pitch in and help the administrative staff complete their tasks. The partners realized that all of the employees did the same task differently, and not one of them was performing the task in the most efficient manner. The firm, only a couple of years old, had grown so fast that no one paid attention to standardizing the procedures. The result was that as new people came on board, each person developed his or her style of completing the various tasks, which they shared.

Each firm should have a procedural manual that describes the steps in the most efficient way of completing a variety of tasks. Assembling such a manual can be an overwhelming task; however, if each employee is responsible for writing specific sections, the manual can be completed in a relatively short amount of time.

The firm should identify the set of tasks that an employee completes such as answering the phone, opening the mail, using messenger services, handling clients, etc. The employee who is responsible for drafting the description for the procedure should be the one who is most familiar with it. The procedure description should have a specific format, which includes the purpose as well as the general overview of the task.

For example, in describing how to answer the telephone, a sentence or two should be written about the receptionist as the frontline public relations person and the importance of treating the clients on the phone as graciously as possible. This lets the new employee know about the firm’s expectations when answering the phone. Employees learn faster and they learn better when the task they are learning is described in terms of the rationale behind the procedure. They realize why a task is completed in a certain way and understand why they are supposed to do it that way.

Procedures should be developed as steps with headings and numbers. This makes it easier for the employee to glance at the procedures and remind himself or herself about the exact procedure rather than reading a narrative. Tasks can be developed with automatic table of contents numbering, which facilitates moving the pages to different positions in the manual.

When the drafts have been completed, the supervisor or the office manager should read everything. At this point, grammatical corrections and syntext changes should be made.

The newest employee should be given the section of the manual with his or her procedure directions and be expected to learn from the written description. This serves two purposes. One, the new employee can discover whether or not the written explanation is understandable. If he or she has difficulty in completing the task by reading the description, then he or she is expected to change the procedure to a more understandable language for the next new employee. The second advantage of the procedural manual is that less time is required of the seasoned employee to train the new employee. The seasoned employees continue to work on their projects, while the new employee is undertaking tasks that are described in the manual.

Finally, procedural manuals are an excellent way to cross train employees. An employee can learn a new task by reading the description. When employees are out of the office, for one reason or another, other employees can easily fill in by referring to the procedural manual.

All these benefits can lead to an increase in profitability as the law firm operation becomes increasingly efficient and productive.

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