Have you ever walked into your office, looked around and wondered, what happened here? Keeping our busy workloads under control can be a big challenge. Practice management is a competence to be honed and developed throughout our careers.
The practice management competency requires a lawyer to run their business practice in compliance with all legislative requirements and to manage office staff, files and finances.
While this competency varies across practice settings, there are many common themes such as time management, working with colleagues, as well as staff and file management.
Time management includes scheduling practices such as arranging and documenting court dates, setting up client or business meetings, and knowing and working towards deadlines. Whether in a traditional or non-traditional practice setting, time management is a skill most of us can improve upon.
Working with colleagues and staff looks very different in a sole-practitioner setting than it does in a mid-sized firm, large corporation, or government office. All of these settings require different types of practice management. Managing work flow to assistants and other colleagues will form part of this, as will managing the office space. For a new lawyer, this will look much different than it will for a managing partner. No matter the work arrangement or situation, this is an important area of focus as lawyers spend a great deal of time at the office and working with others.
Another important element of practice management is file management. Whether these are case or client files, project files, or any other form of work, there are common best practices to follow. This includes managing the progression of files as well the way they are stored and organized. Depending on your practice, this can also include conflicts issues, as well as document, evidence and disclosure management. Privacy, retention and destruction of files are key areas of file management. All lawyers should know and understand their obligations under the relevant privacy legislation. Learning more about this area could be an activity in your CPD plan this year.
One often overlooked area of practice management is succession planning. Life happens; we take vacations, experience health and family issues, change positions and, eventually, retire. Each of these events requires a plan.
The most basic starting point is: how will your practice be managed during a scheduled or unscheduled absence? Is there someone available to take over during an emergency? Who will look after any issues that arise while you’re away?
While you may not have current plans to change jobs, and retirement may be a long way off, it never hurts to think about what will happen with your practice. Will you have someone else take on your practice or will you wind it down? What will you do with your files? Different practices have different document retention requirements and it is important to learn about the types of files you have and what happens to them if you change jobs tomorrow. In a large firm or big corporation, frequently there will be someone there to take over but that isn’t always the case. In-house counsel need to be aware of the internal retention and destruction policies in addition to limitations periods and other legal requirements for retention. This is also the case for crown prosecutors.
In any practice setting, are your files organized in a way that someone can come in and pick up where you left off, if that becomes necessary? In a traditional practice, can someone access and administer your office, your client files, your trust accounts, any client property, your office bills and general accounts? Is someone designated to do that? Succession planning brings up many questions we should ask ourselves at every stage in our careers. We, at the law society, see what happens to practices when emergencies arise and the unexpected happens with no plan in place. Learning about, and developing the elements of, a succession plan will protect both you and your clients.
Consider learning some new time management and office organization best practices this year. Work to develop a succession plan as part of your CPD activities.
Written by: Jennifer Freund, Policy Counsel