If I try to schedule an appointment at my doctor’s office and my general practitioner or nurse practitioner (we’re assigned to both) aren’t available, either because they’re out of the office or don’t have time, guess what happens? I see someone else. If a client calls or e-mails her law firm and the partner & associate (usually assigned both as well) are either out or too busy to respond, which is often the case, guess what happens? She waits for them to become available.
Why the difference? Healthcare patients can be flexibly transitioned between different practitioners for general matters, while legal clients are generally stuck with the people they always work with, even for completely basic stuff. You’d think that with the cost of a medical error seeming to be much higher than the cost of a legal error, reality would be reversed… but it’s not. While part of the answer has to do with professional culture and the way law firms are structured, the more practical reason has really to do with only one thing: records.
Any remotely competent medical practice maintains a thorough set of internal historical records on its patients. More importantly for purposes of this discussion, they maintain a narrow set of standardized, easily reviewable information that a physician could quickly read to understand the most critical issues that are likely to interact with whatever the patient needs addressed at the moment: prescriptions, previous medical conditions, previous procedures, family history, etc. Let’s call this an electronic health record, noting that we are talking about internal records within a practice, not the bigger problem that standards for maintaining records across practices in our healthcare system leave a lot to be desired.
Shockingly, for most law firms anything remotely resembling a well-organized, easily reviewable electronic legal record is completely absent from their business processes. Want to know the key info about a company that needs you to quickly draft them some bridge documents? Start reviewing the documents the last guy drafted. This is equivalent to a doctor having to review all of another physician’s dictated notes every time he’s assigned to a new patient. It’s inefficient, if not frustratingly moronic.
In our office I introduced a very simple concept that addresses this problem only for the most basic of information. We call it a Company Snapshot – a single page document that anyone assigned to a client can review in 3 minutes to know the exact name of the Company, state of incorporation,address, key contact info, who’s on the board, and a few pieces of other useful information. It doesn’t go anywhere near addressing the fundamental problem described above, but it still prevents a fair amount of pointless document reviewing whenever a junior attorney needs to draft a simple document for a newly assigned client. One could easily imagine the concept being extended to providing a clear timeline of key events/transactions in a Company’s history, a summary of its capital structure, and notes regarding any abnormal issues that would usually throw a wrench in getting some basic legal work done (equivalent to an uncommon medical condition –mine would be having only one kidney– that any physician treating a patient needs to know about).
I don’t have the clout, at least not yet, to push anything broader in scope than the Snapshot, but I would hope that other firms are working toward a similar goal. The lives of attorneys would be much-improved if they could optimally shift work among themselves when a single attorney is too busy to serve all of his usual clients. And clients would be better-served if, when all they need is to grant some options or issue some bridge notes, they don’t have to wait for their attorney to close that big M&A or VC deal that’s been consuming his week. One partner in our firm described it as a shift from tribal knowledge to institutional knowledge. Whatever you want to call it, it needs to happen.