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MANAGING THE OFFICE

How the “broken windows” theory applies to your law business

By Liz Miller bio

The “broken windows” theory is that a building with broken windows is evidence of abandonment, neglect of the property and a lack of respect for the law. In its simplest form, the “broken windows” is the beginning of the decline of a neighborhood which begins to deteriorate. It starts with “broken windows” and then leads to graffiti, trash, abandoned vehicle, and other obvious signs of neglect. A broken window left unrepaired turns into more broken windows and the downward spiral of the property.

When this kind of neglect is allowed to fester without consequences to the owners or the perpetrators, it makes other believes that these kind of infractions are, in fact, acceptable.

By this time you are probably wondering what does the “broken windows” theory have to do with the managing the business of practicing law? Good question—here’s the answer.

Think of your law firm as a self-contained city run as a law business that does not embrace the processes and business management necessary for a law practice to be a successful law business.

Lawyers see at a glance that their firm is surviving, employees are getting paid, work is getting done (albeit not necessarily timely but nevertheless), the operating account runs low often, billed time is not entered contemporaneously and clients are not billed timely. Employees show up late for work, leave early, or surf the internet during the day and then want to incur overtime. Or, because work is not getting done timely, more employees than are actually needed are hired at an unnecessary expense to the firm.

Instead of functioning as a law business, things are going from bad to worse. Morale declines and the staff has no work ethic. Over time, discipline is deteriorating and employees who used to care no do because they have withdrawn.

Why don’t lawyers see it? Because they are so focused on the practice of law that all aspects of managing the business of practicing law is being neglected. Make the connection—if you are practicing law, but your operating account is running on empty and you cannot make payroll, there is a problem. If timekeepers are not meeting their monthly billable requirement, there is a problem. If preparing documents means re-inventing the wheel every time a document needs to be drafted, means finding a document in another case and changing all the names and information (hopefully—because if you don’t find it your client will), there is a problem.

Managing the business of practicing law is akin to the “broken windows” theory. If you do not “fix” a problem, another problem will ensue, and another. Then you find yourself worrying about whether documents were timely filed with the court, if your calendar is accurate, why you missed a mediation and why no clients are paying their bills.

When business management protocols and procedures are in place, you cannot one day say “oh, we aren’t doing it that way today because we are too busy”. Similarly, when a monthly billing quota is set, it has to be met. You cannot allow deviation or exceptions from the processes and legal project management protocols put into place because everyone is “too busy”. That has to be unacceptable if you want your firm to be profitable and successful. Remember, efficiency + productivity = success + profitability.

The lessons of “broken windows” is to start paying attention to even the minutest detail of managing your law practice as a “law business” and there will be a lot less things keeping you up at night worrying.


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