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Checklists: The Basis for Excellence

By Irene Leonard

"Get comfortable with checklists. Appropriately used, they can be a tremendous asset in personal productivity."
-David Allen
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Since the practice of law can be so difficult, why not implement a strategy that's bound to make things easier and result in fewer mistakes? You can do this by using checklists to systemize your law practice and to ensure getting great, consistent results.

Checklists are the groundwork for an excellent, well-run practice that is mistake free and less stressful. Set up systems using checklists for every procedure you and your staff do to make sure that every time something is done, it is done consistently and nothing important is forgotten.

Your initial reaction might be that you don't need or can't rely on checklists to practice law because everything you do is unique. But if you put your mind to it, you'll be able to come up with many areas in your practice where the use of checklists will make your work easier, smoother and foolproof. While the content of your work might be unique, you will find your steps are those you repeat over and over again, and anything that you do repeatedly is ideal for checklist use.

In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande very persuasively illustrates that the use of checklists by doctors and pilots saves lives. If doctors and airline pilots can use checklists in the midst of emergencies to save lives, surely lawyers can use checklists to protect their clients' livelihoods, too.

I'm a big believer in checklists. I use them frequently and recommend them often to my clients. The creation of a new checklist is often the result of a client forgetting or overlooking something. Susan (not her real name) now has an Out of Office Signing Checklist as a result of forgetting to bring extra copies of the document that needed to be signed while she was out of her office.

Checklists obviously help deal with complex issues. And while helpful for repetitive tasks, checklists are invaluable for work you do less often. The more unfamiliar an area or the more infrequently you handle something, the more you need a checklist to maintain control.

I Don't Need To Use Checklists

"When you create and follow systems you create the machinery that ensures consistency in your practice. That consistency ensures good work is repeated."
-Michael E. Gerber
The E-Myth Attorney: Why Most Legal Practices Don't Work and What to Do About it.

Something in our human psyche makes many of us resist the use of checklists. Reasons for not using checklists include thinking that using a checklist will slow you down or, since you have done something hundreds of times, you know what you're doing and don't need a checklist.

Unfamiliarity also breeds contempt. If you don't ordinarily use checklists, employing one in a new situation can be daunting. It also is not easy to create your own effective checklist the first time around and this sets up another roadblock.

However, no matter how skilled you may be, well-designed checklists will help you improve results. No matter how good your memory is, there are times where without the use of a checklist you will forget or miss something. Lawyers are always being interrupted and interruptions are a typical cause of forgetting or omitting something.

Law Practice Checklists

Checklists can be created for so many different areas and aspects of your practice. They can help you:

Checklists can be used before, during and in the completion of a project. Checklists help you and your staff be predictable and reduce mistakes that occur if left to rely on memory or judgment.

Checklist Resource

The Law Society of British Columbia has a Practice Checklist Manual that provides a listing of sample documents to help lawyers manage their practices: Check­lists from "Asset Purchase Procedures" to "Wills and Estates" drafting are included. Use these templates to help create your own personalized practice checklists.

Extensive use of checklists is one of the best business practices for excellence a lawyer, or any professional, can have. Using checklists helps you reduce stress, increase productivity, defeat procrastination, make fewer mistakes, keep you focused and maintain control.