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Checklists in your law practice

Most lawyers use a variety of lists – “to do” lists, task lists, checklists.

Because lawyers tend to be deadline driven and the consequences of missing certain deadlines can be quite severe, many use their calendar as a primary organizational tool. And almost every one of us keeps a “to do” list.

Such a list may take the form of a massive computerized task list of everything that needs to be done and by when, or a scrap of paper with the seven things that need to be done by the end of the day scribbled on it. If the lawyer doesn’t personally keep a “to do” list, it is probably because an assistant keeps the list on the lawyer’s behalf.

In addition, almost every lawyer also uses a checklist for some projects. A checklist may be used to make sure all contingencies of an estate plan have been discussed or that all required allegations are included in a court pleading.

Lawyers may think they know all there is to know about checklists, but most law firms are only scratching the surface in using them successfully. One improvement we should see in law firm operations in the next several years is the development and use of more sophisticated checklists.

I have to credit my new-found enthusiasm for law office checklists to a solo practitioner named Tim Green from Guthrie, Okla. He directed my attention to a short, easy-to-read book called The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.

Gawande’s book is a great read that covers a range of topics, from how checklists eliminated many airline crashes and saved lives in surgeries to the real reason why Van Halen’s David Lee Roth famously demanded a bowl of M&M’s be placed in the band’s dressing room with all of the brown ones removed.

We lawyers tend to think of using forms and checklists only for complex projects. But both Green and Gawande assert that checklists are extremely valuable for the routine and the mundane.

As Green notes, “We have to do a lot of thinking as lawyers. Anything that frees us from having to think about something makes our lives better and us more productive.”

A checklist allows lawyers to handle a routine task accurately and quickly. A good checklist also makes it easier to delegate to someone else when necessary.

Draw on your own experience. If there are ten steps that need to be done to accomplish a task and 100 people try to do it from memory, how many would you think correctly recall all 10 items? Certainly no one would answer 100 percent. Perhaps 80 percent? And what if the step missed is a critical step?

Green starts every day with an opening routine set out on a checklist that begins with turning on his computer as he sits down at his desk. Is that because is he is concerned he might forget to turn on his computer some day and leave it off all day? Of course not. It is simply a planned sequence to beginning his workday.

Operating with checklists allows a lawyer to complete tasks more quickly, in the right sequence and with 100 percent accuracy. And you do not have to strain your brain thinking about it. Achieving perfection with less time and effort is quite an accomplishment.

Lawyers tend to be creative problem solvers. The idea of spending the work day following detailed checklists may strike many as a rigid and unappealing business model. But the opposite is actually true. If you are going to have to do many simple and mundane tasks (and we all do), it is better to get them completed in less time and with less effort. That frees up more of your time for the valuable and creative work of lawyering and it might even allow you to go home a little earlier at night.

Highly skilled surgeons who were told that they should use pre-surgery checklists often did not support the concept and were even a bit insulted, according to Gawande’s book. He noted that the initial reaction of many was along the lines of “why should a list tell me to wash my hands? I wash before every surgery.”

Yet in the initial study, with a very simple checklist, post-operative infections, which always result in more expense and can lead to a patient’s death, were reduced so dramatically that even the most scornful naysayer had to admit that this was a valuable tool.

The story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of the US Airways plane that crashed into the Hudson River is well-known. He is truly a hero. Yet, when a flock of geese disabled the airplane’s engines, he turned to the checklist prepared for the situation. Many people had thought and planned for this event, calmly, with no blaring alarms or falling airplane.

In addition to providing the sequence of attempts to restart the engines, there was also a step that stated, in effect, “Look for a safe place to land, preferably in water.”

A lawyer who reads The Checklist Manifesto and implements its lessons may not get an invitation to the White House, but that lawyer may become a hero to co-workers, clients and possibly even family.

Jim Calloway is the Director of the Oklahoma Bar Association Management Assistance Program. He publishes the weblog, Jim Calloway’s Law Practice Tips at http://jimcalloway.typepad.com. He serves on the ABA Law Practice Management Section Council and is also chair of its Practice Management Advisor’s committee.  He is a frequent speaker on law office management and technology issues.