When Seyfarth Shaw hired me fresh out of law school, one of the first rules I learned was that all written work had to be proofread by a secretary who did not type it. As a partner explained, “Everything leaving this office reflects on the firm, so to ensure 100% quality, we have a second person proof it because people often fail to catch the mistakes in their own work.”
But most law firms do not follow that approach to control the quality of their underlying legal work. Typically, firms rely upon a partner or a trusted senior associate to review everything significant. That means lawyers are essentially checking their own work, even when an associate drafts a document at the direction of the partner who ends up checking it. Because any quality control system is only as strong as its weakest link, ask yourself, “Are all of my partners uniformly excellent lawyers?” We all know the answer is “no.”
That means it’s just a matter of time before courts, clients or adversaries will end up with documents that lack the quality of content your firm must deliver in order to preserve let alone strengthen its reputation and its future viability. Most likely, your firm already has encountered quality problems. Think about Warren Buffet’s old adage, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.”
If that makes you anxious, then the thought of you suggesting that your firm start having everyone’s work checked by a different partner may send you screaming for the Xanax or Cymbalta. So how can your firm protect itself and meet your clients’ growing demands for an effective quality control system?
Step 1 is to reorient your Practice Groups to function as Quality Control Centers. It’s already well-established that half the law firms’ practice groups underperform and those that are deemed “satisfactory” can do better. Altman Weil’s Practice Group Performance Survey (2012). So why not turn your firms’ Practice Groups into Centers of Excellence, keepers of the cutting edge of law and practice in their area? Fostering a hotbed of collegial competition within the firm, Practice Groups should help lawyers stay ahead of the curve in their areas, sharing knowledge and perspective with one another, and thereby building your firm’s overall capability.
Then have all new work run past one of the appropriate Practice Groups’ recognized masters to ensure it is conceptually and strategically designed well from the onset. After all, getting work right from the beginning will save time and money for both your firm and your clients by preventing major revisions and rework. Then designate a few senior experts from each Practice Group to serve as Quality Reviewers, operating as the “second set of eyes” before key pleadings or instruments leave the office.
These two quality checks not only would be billable time, but most clients would welcome the investment. “Companies simply have fewer dollars to spend on legal matters and therefore are less tolerant of poor outcomes and lost trials.” See “Quality Control is Next,” my Oct. 14, 2012 blog entry.
Consumers who experience too many quality defects in the new car they just bought will switch car companies next time. Your clients will do the same if the quality of your firm’s legal work disappoints them. We all hate having someone else check our work. But isn’t it worse to lose your firm’s reputation because your ego prevented one of your partners from sitting down with you and saying before-the-fact, “You know, I would have approached this a little differently. Can I suggest you consider doing it this way?” Which would you and your partners hate more: having a colleague catch something before it goes out the door or having a judge or adversary pummel you with it later?
I’ll have more ideas about effective Quality Control in future blog postings. Meanwhile, this should give you something to chew on other than Zoloft.