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Doing battle with law firm forms and procedures

Speed is life.

A board game I played in high school stated this matter-of-factly. Star Fleet Battles, the classic game of starship combat (based on the even more classic show Star Trek), could have been describing the law. Though, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say “inertia is life.” It doesn’t usually matter so much that you go really fast as it does that you keep moving.

The law is like a chess game — it’s important to keep moving or the game stagnates. Too much time between moves and you forget where the pieces are: you have to reacquaint yourself with the board. That takes more time and prevents further moves.

This is why the hardest file in the office to work on is the one that is just a little outside of our comfort zone. It might be that collections case a family law attorney randomly picked up or the contract case a personal injury lawyer is working on for a friend. It’s difficult sometimes to get over the fear or uncertainty of “Exactly what is it that I’m supposed to do?”

This can even apply to files of the same ilk as the majority of your cases. If you are too busy, a new file might come in and lay around for a few days. Then you get even busier and it gets shoved to the bottom of the pile or lost in a heap of “to-dos.”

This is why it is important to have forms and procedures for every typical step in the life of a case. Something comes in and the next steps can be assigned without much thought.

I practice personal injury. The key to making sure that my cases keep moving is checklists and forms. The checklists start with the intake. The last page features a list of things that may need to be done: which insurance companies receive letters of representation; which medical records/bills must be ordered; whether I need a police report; what needs to be done with property damage; and what notice or statue of limitations date should be entered into the calendar, among other details. It is simply a function of circling the appropriate actions and those next steps are automatically assigned.

The same thing applies for settlement files and litigation files. Each stage has a specific list of things that must be done. Cases to be settled have a checklist to make sure that I have everything I need to draft the demand letter. Cases to be filed have a checklist to ensure that I have the background information necessary to file the lawsuit and a list of every document necessary (letter to clerk, complaint cover sheet, complaint, discovery, identification of experts, etc.).

Along those lines, most of what is done in a case follows what has been done in prior cases. Every lawyer should have a Model Documents file which contains the templates. For my practice, the documents I use the most include:

  • letters of representation (liability insurer)
  • letters of representation (PIP insurer)
  • letters of representation (medical provider)
  • demand letter
  • complaint (district court and circuit court)
  • interrogatories (district court and circuit court)
  • requests for production of documents
  • requests for admission of fact
  • notice of deposition
  • identification of experts
  • settlement/verdict distribution spreadsheet
  • closing letters (client, referring lawyers, medical providers)

The problem in many firms is secretaries or paralegals are forced to write these documents on their own or else they base them on imperfect models used in past cases. If they are based on earlier samples, it’s like a game of telephone. The original “perfect” document has been watered down from case to case until it only loosely resembles the template.

Lawyers should spend some time every year working on their model documents and training their assistants to rely on those documents for case work. For example, I have my garden variety interrogatories, then a list of other interrogatories that apply to the case types that I frequently work on — medical malpractice, automobile negligence and general negligence cases, to name a few.

Most cases require that documents be customized to some degree, but using models is the best way to ensure that nothing important is missed. This is how the cases keep moving with a minimum amount of interruption.