Written by:

Jane Oxley

7 Organization & Time Management Best Practices for Small Law Firms

August 10, 2016

Organization is crucial to your small law firm’s success. Studies show that executives waste as many as six weeks a year searching for lost items and information, and if you’re like most small law firm leaders we know, that’s time you can’t afford to lose.

Unfortunately, searching for lost items isn’t the only productivity black hole that small law firm staff fall into. Responding to emails, preparing documents, recording activities, managing tasks and to-do lists, participating in non-essential meetings and networking without a strategy are some of the most common activities lawyers and paralegals engage in that diminish productivity and profitability. But if you’re spending too much time on things like these, all hope is not lost. We’re here to help you break away from these productivity roadblocks with dozens of organization and time management best practices and ideas you can put into action at your small law firm today.

Productivity Pitfall #1: Never-ending Email Management

Managing an overflowing inbox can eat up a good chunk of your day, leaving little time for productive and proactive work. Get ahead by limiting internal emails, allowing important client emails to rise to the top of your inbox, and connecting your email with your case management system.

According to a study by Harris Interactive, most employees can only handle about 50 emails a day before they fall behind. The study goes on to mention that juggling regular work-related tasks and an overflowing inbox can dramatically impact time management, as well as quality of work on tasks across the board.

But at your small law firm, managing just 50 emails a day or less may not be realistic because on average, a lawyer receives about 120 emails per day. So what are you to do?

First things first, it’s time to limit internal emails.

According to the Guardian, over 40% of staff time is wasted on internal emails. And for a growing firm with a healthy client caseload, that’s simply not going to fly. Inter-office chat systems like Slack (which we use ALL the time here at Smokeball) can greatly reduce the time you spend in your inbox, while making sure that client emails take priority.

Now, manage client emails.

Client emails are another story. They’re crucial to your small law firm’s working relationships, and while you can manage them smartly, you can’t eliminate them. Long response times can throw your clients off, but on the flip side, spending a long time in your inbox can throw you off. For this reason, it’s important to find that oh-so-delicate balance between managing client emails and managing your other priorities. Instead of sorting through your inbox manually, invest in an email management system like Smokeball’s to ensure that your client correspondence is automatically organized by matter and client.

Enter: Smokeball email management.

Smokeball’s seamless Outlook integration makes sorting emails a breeze. Our software automatically detects which matter an email pertains to and files it away for your future reference and recordkeeping. If you’re still using keyboard shortcuts or “dragging and dropping” to file your emails, or worse yet, printing them out to include with your paper files, Smokeball’s email management functionality could quite literally change your life. Smokeball also provides firms with the opportunity for growth by helping attorneys spend less time on menial tasks like email and carve out the extra hours they need to focus on business development.

Productivity Pitfall #2: Poor Case Management Practices

Juggling dozens, if not hundreds, of matters can take a toll on any law firm. But with effective case management processes and practices in place, it doesn’t have to be such a struggle. Invest in the software, systems and processes your firm needs to scale.

An average lawsuit takes around six months from start to finish. In some areas of law, the lifecycle of a matter can be much longer. The longer a case goes on, the more difficult it can be to keep all of its moving parts organized and orderly. This is especially true if you’re still working with paper files and haven’t yet invested in digital systems.

In order to truly scale your business, your firm needs to invest in case management.

You need to go digital. Not only will having a digital case management system limit the time you spend looking for misplaced files (remember, executives waste up to six weeks per year trying to locate lost information), but it it will also free you up to work remotely and help you keep your clients happy. Perhaps most importantly, it will position your small law firm to grow.

Smokeball keeps every detail related to your matters in one place so that all members of your team can access relevant information no matter where they are. This makes it easy to bring new players onto a matter and to onboard new staff. It’s nearly impossible for a small law firm to scale when all its resources are contained to paper files, but with Smokeball, it’s a breeze.

But don’t just take it from us. Watch the Strohschein Law Group testimonial video for more insights on how to scale with Smokeball.

Case management software helps you pick up where other team members leave off.

Think about it. If one of your team members comes down with an unexpected illness that coincidentally coincides with a client emergency, are you in a position to pick up the reins? If all of the information about their matter is stored in paper files, the answer is probably no, and this scenario happens all too often. Instead of disappointing your clients by telling them their urgent need will have to wait, or scrambling to fulfil it without the necessary information at your fingertips, go digital and make it easy for anyone at your firm to access any document, record or piece of information at any time. Trust us, your clients (and your bottom line) will thank you!

Productivity Pitfall #3: Lack of Document Automation

Do you find yourself creating the same types of documents over and over again? Is entering the same basic matter details and doing ctrl + find searches to ensure you’ve swapped out every incorrect personal pronoun putting you to sleep? Document automation may be the answer to your frustrations.

As any legal professional knows, document creation can be extremely time consuming. In fact, some lawyers clock the amount of time they spend on document creation at five or more hours a day on average. And the thing about this that is especially hard to stomach is that much of this time isn’t spent doing smart, strategic legal work. It’s spent proofreading, checking for errors and repeatedly swapping out matter-specific details like names, addresses and personal pronouns.

Document preparation may be, frankly, a waste of time.

In most cases, the documents attorneys spend their time on are not highly customized. They are replicable and templated, and they shouldn’t be taking hours on end to create and perfect. So stop wasting time making the same repetitive updates over and over again, and let document automation to do the work for you.

Smokeball’s document automation functionality automatically fills your firm’s letters, documents, contracts and court forms with client and matter-specific information, making it nearly impossible to make errors. We’re sure you can think of better things to do with your time – like providing better strategic legal counsel or bringing in new clients – than search a document for every reference to “he” that should now become “she,” right?

Productivity Pitfall #4: Manual Activity Reporting

Do you have a hard time keeping track of the tasks you engage in every day? Do your co-workers have the same struggles? If so, you’re missing out on key business intelligence that could help your small law firm improve its performance. Here’s why activity intelligence matters and how to get it without spending too much time tracking your activities.

According to Inc., 61 percent of employees waste up to an hour each day at work. While this might not have an immediately noticeable impact on larger companies, small firms that are trying to scale will find that wasted time adds up quickly. Unaccounted time is almost as problematic. This is time that isn’t necessarily “wasted” on non-work related activities, but it’s time that can’t be accounted for, simply because employees can’t remember what they were working on. The more multi-tasking an employee does, the more unaccounted time they’re likely to report, and the more your firm’s bottom line will suffer.

Understanding daily activities on an employee and a firm-wide level is crucial to your small law firm’s health.

However, when employees are expected to be accountable for every minute of their day via manual time tracking, gaining activity intelligence can be more of a hindrance than a help. Employees will spend more time than your firm can afford simply recording their activities, and yet their data will likely be far from accurate.

While writing tasks down manually may seem like the right move at first, it can become unappealing quickly when you realize how long it takes and how inaccurate it can be. Luckily, there’s a better way, and you guessed it: it’s already built in to Smokeball. Smokeball’s Activity Intelligence tool automatically tracks every activity your team members engage in throughout the day and produces meaningful reports rich with data and business insights. Because Smokeball pulls together all of the tools that small law firm employees use every day–from email to Outlook and Word–the tool can capture extremely accurate and precise data on what each individual is actually doing while at work.

Staying organized each week is important.

Putting these new insights into action is crucial for a firm that is working to scale. Smokeball Activity Intelligence gives your firm invaluable data that can help you identify unproductive work patterns or prevent your employees from becoming overwhelmed with certain tasks. What you do with that intelligence is up to you, but the last thing you should do is spend gobs of time accounting for your time.

Productivity Pitfall #5: Ineffective Task Management

When business is good, your days are full of activity, and that’s exactly the way it should be. But if you’re spending a significant portion of your time simply managing the tasks and to-do lists you need to keep track of to do your work, you might have a productivity problem. It’s time to get smarter about task management so you can get more work done every day.

Understanding exactly what tasks need to be done and when is key for your small law firm and its’ staff. Sounds simple, right? Maybe, but according to LifeHacker, only 50% of set to-dos are completed within an average employee’s day. For a small law firm that values productivity, those numbers aren’t ideal. Here are a few reasons why certain to-do lists tend to fail.

People have too many tasks.

Having a to-do list won’t help employees prioritize if they have three times as many tasks on their list as they can realistically complete. It can be hard to see what needs to be done when amid all the clutter and to weed the “must-do now” tasks out from the “nice to do someday” ones. Instead of giving everyone on your team a to-do list that is a mile long and expecting them to run with it, assess workloads and make sure you’re allocating resources and responsibilities appropriately so that everyone can achieve what’s expected of them.

Priorities are off.

Again, if your employees have more on their plates than they can handle, they may misjudge what’s really important. If your employee has something urgent coming up in the days or weeks ahead, they need to know it. Put a system in place that separates the key items from the rest of the pack.

People don’t respond to “being told what to do.”

Sometimes, giving your employees a premade to-do list can undermine their work style. If your attorneys are managing their own matters, make sure that they have autonomy when it comes to tasking themselves and the rest of their team with work.

Fortunately, Smokeball’s Daily Digest provides a quick and easy solution.

While traditional to-do lists may be filled to the brim with tasks employees simply can’t complete or compare, Smokeball makes it easy to plan and prioritize.

Each task can be easily broken down into subtasks and then assigned to the appropriate team member. Even better? You can filter tasks by categories to find the most urgent tasks. And if something slips through the cracks, Smokeball will catch it before it becomes a problem. Overdue tasks will show up in red, drawing your attention to them the next time you check your Daily Digest.

Productivity Pitfall #6: Meeting Madness

If your firm seems to waste hours in meetings, read on to learn about best practices for eliminating unnecessary meetings and making necessary ones as effective as possible.

According to The Muse, people in upper management positions spend 50% (yes, 50%!) of their week in meetings. And while some meetings are no doubt crucial, part of the problem is the tendency to schedule unnecessary meetings. And even when a meeting is needed, it can quickly turn from a quick conversation into an all-day affair if it’s not planned and prepared for properly.

Less meetings are (probably) the answer.

While there are certain benefits to meetings (why else would you have them?), you don’t have to schedule time every time you have a question and want to meet with someone. This might seem counterproductive, but scheduling meetings often brings about what we like to call the “round number problem.”

The “round number problem” might be alive and real at your firm.

Think about it this way. Normally, you’ll throw 30 minutes on the calendar for a meeting that could be handled in 20 minutes or less. While you could argue that everyone in the meeting could instantly go back to work afterward, in reality, it’s not that easy. Transitioning from a meeting back to productive work takes time.

At the very least, try to schedule your meetings for the amount of time they’ll actually require to be successful. And if you’re really ambitious, take a page from Psychology Today and ban meetings one day a week, which 45% of executives think would add hours back to their employees’ days.

Understanding when meetings are necessary is also a skill.

While your firm should strive to take on less meetings, having a short, organized meeting can also act as a time saver and eliminate unnecessary meetings and phone calls. If your firm needs to have a last minute meeting, make sure you have an agenda in place beforehand.

Productivity Pitfall #6: Networking Without a Strategy

Networking is the best way to bring in new business leads, but are you being strategic about your time?

Finding the time to network can be tricky.

Allocating time to connect with prospective clients is essential for your small law firm’s growth. However, as anyone who has ever been involved in business development knows, building strong relationships takes time and strategy.

Approximately 95% of people rely on face-to-face meetings before committing to long-term business relationships. But how are you supposed to find time for all the face-to-face meetings you need to keep your pipeline healthy if you’re in over your head managing your day-to-day work?

Keeping an organized calendar is key to successful networking.

With all of the daily work you and your team members have on your plates, the only way to ensure you have time to expand your prospects is to keep track of your schedule and make the time. While many iPhone and Droid users swear by the traditional calendar app that comes with their respective phones, there are a few other options you should consider.

Cal by Any.do is available on both Apple and Android devices and provides a much cleaner template than most traditional apps. Even better, if you want to supplement your Daily Digest into after work hours, Any.do offers a task list to keep every hour of your life organized and scheduled.

Once you find new relationships to pursue, the rest is up to you! Fortunately, with an organized calendar and by adopting a few other time management best practices, you will have much more time to set up meetings with potential leads and keep a clear head during the process.

After a few months of tracking your calendar and networking/relationship building activities consistently, go back and analyze the return on the time you spent. Were there certain types of events or meetings that proved most fruitful for your firm? If so, do more of those things in the months ahead and limit the time you spend on networking or relationship building activities that have not yet delivered new business to your firm. Networking strategically is really that easy.

Adopting smart time management and organization practices will help your firm bring in the business it needs to scale, as well as form better relationships with clients and with one another. It will also help you maintain your own sanity so that you can find more fulfillment both at and outside of work. And what’s not to love about that?

Do you want even more tips on organization and time management best practices for small law firms? Get in touch with a Smokeball representative today.

 

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