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A Pre-Year-End Checklist for Solos and Small Firms

Posted By Sara E. Rust-Martin, Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Original article written by Megan Zavieh | Dec.05.17 

On Balance Legal Ethics

As we approach the end of the year, it is a great time to run through your practice’s systems to see which ones may be ethics risks in their current state. This will help you prepare for an end-of-year audit of your biggest risks — and plan how to fix them in the new year.

The purpose of evaluating risks before the end-of-year crunch and New Year’s resolution time is to narrow your focus, so you can set priorities and zero in on bigger projects ahead. It seems we spend a lot of time in self-reflection at the tail end of the year. How great would it be to head into the new year with a clearer idea of where to focus?

Think of this “pre” year-end checklist as like a syllabus for your year-end coursework.

List Key Areas of Your Business

To begin this process, list the key components of your practice.  For most of us, this will include at least the following:

  • Advertising
  • Client intake
  • Maintenance of client files
  • Calendaring of key dates
  • Closing/destroying client files
  • Trust accounting
  • Operating account bookkeeping
  • CLE
  • Insurance
  • Billing
  • Time tracking
  • Client communication

You may also have:

  • Employees
  • Office space/sharing
  • Contractors
  • Virtual assistance (receptionists, assistants, paralegals)

Each practice will differ, but these are some common components of a solo and small firm practice.

What Keeps You Up at Night? Write It Down

With your list in hand, separate the components of your practice into those that keep you up at night and those that do not. Use a yellow pad or simple spreadsheet with three columns labeled “Concern,” “Worry” and “Not Worry,” respectively. Or download the worksheet here.

Do you ever awaken in the middle of the night worrying about a CLE deadline? Put that in the “Worry” column. Know that you have a kick-ass paralegal who keeps excellent track of all client deadlines? Put calendaring in the “Not Worry” column.

The items that keep you up at night will be the first-tier items to tackle when you begin your year-end audit. These may not actually be your biggest areas of risk, but if they raise your stress level, they need to be fixed straight away.

Evaluate Your Systems and Processes Honestly

Beyond the late-night heartburn, are there systems and processes where you really do not have it all together? Be honest with yourself — you know how to spot them.

  • Perhaps you operate with spotty client files, yet always manage to find what you need. If you look closely at your systems, you might realize there is not one single complete client file in either electronic or paper form. Put maintenance of client files on your tier-two list for your year-end audit.
  • Or maybe you know your malpractice insurance is not adequately protecting you. Are you overpaying because you never shopped around? Are you under- or over-insured? If you updated your practice areas, did you tell your carrier that you expanded into a new area of law? Or, do you just copy last year’s renewal application and send in a check each year?

Any part of your practice where you know you need to do better — even if it doesn’t bother you on an emotional level — needs to be identified as something to improve this year-end.

Remind Yourself Why

It is easy to get swept up in holiday festivities and enjoy a slower time of year for law practice. But remind yourself why it is worth investing time and energy in improving your systems.

Being investigated by the state bar over an ethics complaint is a major stress and serious time drain. Plus, consequences of a bar complaint can range from private admonishment all the way to disbarment.

You might think that ensuring your calendar is syncing to your phone or practice management software is helpful, but not critical, for ethics compliance. In truth, simple systems that help you keep on top of deadlines and return client calls might save you from a major headache with the state bar.

It is well worth the time and effort to shore up weaknesses in your systems.

Begin Looking for Resources

Once you identify your practice’s main pain points, take the next couple of weeks before the year’s end to gather resources for making improvements. Read legal blogs, take a crack at Googling your issues, and begin talking to colleagues. Get a handle on where you can turn when you actually sit down at the start of the new year to make some serious improvements.

Laying this groundwork will make that precious year-end time more productive and valuable. Make 2018 the year your practice runs more smoothly and is more ethically compliant than ever before.

Megan Zavieh is the creator and author of "The Playbook: The California Bar Discipline System Practice Guide." In her law firm, Zavieh Law, she focuses her practice exclusively on attorney ethics, providing full and limited scope representation to attorneys facing disciplinary action, and providing guidance to practicing attorneys on questions of legal ethics. Megan is admitted to practice in California, Georgia, New York and New Jersey, as well as in multiple federal courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. In "On Balance," Megan writes about the issues confronting lawyers in the new world of practicing law. She blogs on ethics at California State Bar Defense and tweets @ZaviehLaw.

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Tags:  Checklists  Ethics  Law Practice Management 

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Could Checklists Help My Practice?

Posted By Sara E. Rust-Martin, Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Many of us use checklists – for home projects, honey-do lists, and lots of other places. Yet, when you start talking about and suggesting using checklists in the daily practice of law folks look at you like you’re a bit crazy.

One of the problems for the disconnect could be the definition of checklist. “As lawyers, we love definitions, even definitions of something as simple as a checklist. [W]e refer to checklists, but what we are really talking about are systems or making sure that (1) tasks get done (2) correctly (3) every time. It is that simple and that complicated.” [i]

When you really think about it, we rely heavily on checklists in our daily lives. We make Christmas lists, shopping lists, lists for planning a wedding or other event, and lists for almost everything else we do. [ii] Sometimes we put them on a sticky note, or neatly write them down, and other times we keep them in our heads – but too often when we keep them in our heads, we forget something. [iii]

The value of checklists is clearly apparent to some, while others need some convincing. Many authors, researchers, and practitioners have contributed to assert that checklists will add value to your work by making your office more efficient and your practice more effective. Checklists can help lawyers mitigate malpractice risks and comply with ethical implications. Why? Because they assure that you will be doing what you say you will do and what you are required to do. Additionally, checklists can reduce training costs and help orient new hires on your firm’s practices. Once you have these checklists developed and streamlined you will not need to re-establish them each time a new employee is hired.

All of this is contained in the book: “Checklist for Lawyers” by Daniel Siegel. This book is the newest addition to the LOMAP Lending Library. Two of the most exciting contributions provided by this book are the recommended lists of checklists and the sample checklists. This book is available to check out from the Lending Library for 30 days by contacting Sara Rust-Martin at

Finally, if you’ve not read the “Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right” by Dr. Atul Gawande then please consider purchasing this game-changing book about the critical need for checklists. While the context for the need for checklists in this book centers around the medical field, the larger issues are still ever-relevant for attorneys (eliminating mistakes). In the book, Gawande discusses how the modern-day accumulation of knowledge has become so unwieldy that it cannot be delivered reliably even by highly-trained and highly-skilled professionals. Instead, “[a]voidable failures are common and persistent.” [iv] Gawande argues that this is why checklists are essential as they “improve outcomes with no increase in skill.” [v]

Lawyers are facing complex problems every day. Checklists are systems designed to break down these complex problems into manageable, measurable tasks. All in all, checklists can simplify your complicated practice. They can assist you in meeting deadlines allowing you to provide the best representation to your clients so those clients not only remain your clients but sing your praises!

[i]  Daniel Siegel, Checklist for Lawyers (ABA Law Practice Division, 2014).

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right (Metropolitan Books, 2009).

[v] Id.

Tags:  Checklists  Practice Management 

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