"If it Aint Broke…"
In many cases when I am out consulting to legal firms, I am presented with that old chestnut…"if my system is not broken then why should I try to fix it?" I then have to delve a little deeper through some key questions to get to the bottom of what the prospect actually means by saying "it aint broken"!
Here are my observations of the most common realities that I find after a little deft probing:
- In most cases the partners are just unaware that there are many problems. Just because everyone is looking the other way does not mean that there are no problems!
- Many issues that would be highlighted by a good practice management system are not highlighted because the "problems" are invisible:
- If a practice merely has a bookkeeping system in place with users having limited access, it is highly likely that there are many (current) transactions that are not in the system so they cannot be managed.
- This means that the majority of transactions are sitting in Word documents; on the physical file or in spreadsheets. Even more common is that many of the transactions don't get recorded until the end of the matter or periodically as the practice goes into a "cash flow panic crisis".
- In the above scenario to say that the system is not broken merely because accounting entries can be processed without the system giving errors or "problems" is a gross misrepresentation of whether the system is "broken" or not?
In another example I was told by a client that I was wasting my time showing them GhostPractice if implementing the programme, meant replacing the existing accounting system which has worked like a Swiss watch for 10 years. It only took one conversation to strip away the "illusion" that this system was so untouchable:
Q: How do you and your staff debit fees?
A: We make notes on the file or dictate and then capture the fees periodically into a fee book. From time to time, in certain matters the secretaries then type up a fee note advice into a template on their computers. The accounts personnel capture the fees into the accounting system and run off statements.
Q: So that is a 3 and in some cases 4 step process to get fees out?
A: Mostly 3 step but yes.
Q: So if GhostPractice could turn this fee process into a 1 step process and do the same things that your accounts system does (and a lot more besides), would that not be a worthwhile reason to consider change?
Better Management takes Effort
The human condition is universally at home in a series of comfort zones. Human beings in the business environment are no different. We also know that progress does not happen without change and we also know that change is unlikely when you are in a comfort zone.
The fact is that if you care about your law firms future, you have to constantly innovate and work to make your business better. As we see it the key components that you can work with are:
No one of these 3 vital components are independent and you cannot be truly successful without all three working together. In fact if there is a lack of cohesion and connection between these three factors, your business may appear to be working smoothly…and you will only discover the consequences of the "comfort zone" when it is already too late!
A classic example of a problem surfacing out of the "blue" is the old cash flow conundrum:
- You have a centralised accounting system which is manned by your somewhat overworked bookkeeper. This system runs soundly and you never have any problems.
- All fees; invoices; business creditors; receipts and payments are done by the bookkeeper and usually you are consulted to sign off authorisations; cheques or to do the actual banking entries from time to time.
- According to the system all seems well because your creditors are under control and you have virtually no outstanding invoices.
- Problem is all the upcoming fees are sitting in files and in your staff's heads.
- From time to time a counsel's fee is handed to the bookkeeper later than it should be, or is simply forgotten about with everyone thinking that the other has seen to it that the expense has been processed and invoiced to the client.
- Fees for a couple of large matters have not been put through yet and there is no way of managing this as they don't exist on a system yet.
- One morning the bookkeeper comes to see you to say that the creditors outstandings are a little higher than expected as they found a couple of invoices had slipped through the net and had not been processed until recently.
- Knowing that your practices fees are pretty consistent, there is no panic, so you enquire about what will likely be invoiced?
- No one really knows but there are a couple of big matters which need to be invoiced soon. A buzz erupts around the office as the word gets out that the partner is "hunting for fees".
- By the time the invoices are drawn up, the realisation hits home that the matters have not been invoiced regularly and combined with the business creditor invoices, the respective clients are in for a bit of a shock. These invoices need to go out immediately and then the money has to be collected…quickly!
Oh dear…cash flow crisis…but the system is still working? So who gets the blame…is it bad personnel; bad management or bad systems? The reality is that all three need to be looked at.
The BIG 3
In evaluating whether you should look at a new system (like GhostPractice) you should also evaluate the following:
Are your people empowered to do the best job possible?
The strength of people is their ability to think on their feet and find solutions with the tool available to them. The problem is that they will often find a cumbersome and inefficient way of reaching the end goal. The quality of the result may be highly satisfactory but how they got there could be totally unacceptable!
Example: A large client of the firm needs a report on all their matters. The staff member gets all the files out; goes through each and every one and then types up a summary of the required information into an Excel spreadsheet. This staff member burns the midnight wax comparing accounting system print outs to the information in the file and after 2 hours sleep gets the report off to the client, on time , the next morning.
Are your processes supporting your people?
Instead of dealing with issues as they pop up, most practices eventually do happen upon a reasonably efficient way of doing daily tasks. These manual processes develop over years and attempt to promote efficiency and guarantee certain controls. The problem with a manual process is that it usually involves a number of duplications where the opportunities for errors abound.
Example: Usually there is a formalised process when it comes to recording fees and invoicing clients. Without a system in place to manage this, although the "processes" designed to support this daily task may be sound from a logical stand point, the processes are unnecessarily duplicated and time consuming. Personnel know what to do and how to go about it, but it also becomes the nightmare of their working month to make sure accounts go out accurately and on time. Long hours and much frustration are the order of the day.
Do your systems support your processes?
Good technology takes simple repetitive tasks and automates them. Systems don't think or reason and will simply enable a process by removing duplication and taking the grind out of repetitive; administrative tasks. Poor systems can do the opposite by making the task cumbersome and difficult. Users end up reverting to the tried and tested manual processes all the while working around the system.
Example: Some of the legacy practice management systems are just too cryptic and cumbersome for the average computer user. Many of these fee management systems are just not integral to the way people work. Instead of helping the user, they create another process that ends up running in parallel with the manual processes. The whole point is lost and the systems end up making life more difficult for the user.
The GhostPractice Way!
- Empower Staff: Embrace peoples strengths. Make sure that they are doing what they do best (thinking; reasoning; innovating and communicating). Make sure that all their time is spent as productively as possible and that they are not wasting time because of deficiencies in processes or systems.
- Design Best Practice Processes: Make sure that you think through how results are being achieved rather than purely focussing on the result. In the long term this makes all the difference. There are two sides to this facet. You must make sure that processes support your people but also that people support the process. When you make policy and procedure decisions, ensure that the staff expected to execute these processes have bought in and understand why they are doing things in a certain way.
- Systems must Support your Processes: You should be getting the idea that none of these 3 vital elements lives alone. Systems are merely the tools that allow you to execute the most elegant business processes efficiently. If your systems are great, then your processes will be efficient and your people will be happy.
In short having all three cylinders firing together makes for a successful and well run business. Unfortunately you just can't get to this ideal business state without constantly looking to make things better. You cannot slip into the mode of "if it aint broke"!
If you would like to discuss any of these issues and have a look at how GhostPractice can put on the road to progress, please email the writer at [email protected] or call directly on 082-568-4738.
Yours in Law