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Is Your Firm's Success Hindered by Too Many Rules?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 31, 2016 12:57 PM

Lawyers like rules. They are, after all, our bread and butter. And good firms establish some basic rules that govern their operation: intake policies, conflict checks, accounting procedures, and the like. They're essential to making sure the firm runs efficiently -- and stays on the right side of its ethical requirements.

But too many rules and procedures are also stifling, driving away talent, slowing down the firm's ability to function, and limiting firm success. Here are some ideas on where and how you can strike a balance.

Learn from Netflix?

When a small or solo practice is looking to identify worthwhile procedures, it's smart to start by looking at other successful firms. But, there are also important insights to be taken from other industries.

Take Netflix, for example. The Netflix model of office management is similar to that of many fast-growing tech companies: pay a lot, fire mediocre employees, and keep the focus on innovation and hiring the top talent. And there is a pronounced bias against corporate process.

Yes, there's a lot of the typical Silicon Valley "move fast and break things" stereotype, but there is one valuable lesson lawyers can take from it: separating good process from bad. Here's the formula in a nutshell, as taken from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings's (admittedly dated) 2009 presentation on Netflix culture. Taken from a slide in the presentation:

  • "Good" process helps talented people get more done
    • Letting others know when you are updating code
    • Spending within budget each quarter so don't have to coordinate every spending decision across departments
    • Regularly scheduled strategy and context meetings
  • "Bad" process tries to prevent recoverable mistakes
    • Get pre-approvals for $5k spending
    • 3 people to sign off on banner ad creative
    • Permission needed to hang a post on a wall
    • Multi-level approval process for projects
    • Get 10 people to interview each candidate

Time for a Process Audit

Obviously, your mileage will vary and you'll need to adapt these ideas to the legal sphere. (Five grand is a lot to blow without approval at most small firms. and you'll luckily never have to update your code.)

But the lesson is simple. Ask yourself, what rules am I imposing on my firm? Which of those rules help people get more done or prevent major mistakes? Which rules hinder productivity or seek to prevent only minor errors?

Such an accounting could help you identify the rules and procedures that matter, while lessening the burden unnecessary limitations place on your firm, freeing up talent to take more individual responsibility and initiative.

It's worth a try.

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