Why law firms should act more like medical practices.

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.

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2 thoughts on “Why law firms should act more like medical practices.

  1. Luke OBrien says:

    Back in the day,before I washed up on the shores of legal document automation at http://www.brightleaf.com,I helped found and run a start-up (still chugging along nicely!) that would help gather and collate and update medical records from disparate sources. So I completely get and totally approve of your idea here.

    One issue though…My experience with medical records showed that they weren’t always as complete or up-to-date or as easily obtained as they were supposed to be. I guess that’s why my old company had value.

    I think you might see the some of the same thing with Snapshot (good branding, by the way!). At Brightleaf, we’re proud of our ability to hook our drafting tools into popular CRM platforms, so that firms and legal departments can import client data right into the deals they’re drafting for those clients. But firms often tell us they aren’t confident that their CRM records are up-to-date and that they need to email back and forth to the client in order to verify those records and (usually) update them.

    So if you keep Snapshot flexible and easy to update and make its version control or “last updated” information intuitive and apparent, I think it’s win-win. Which makes your idea of keeping this on one-page even better…clients won’t waste time updating a 27-page beast.

    Putting my GC hat on, I’d look very favorably on anything that makes me think that outside counsel is behaving efficiently and proactively and is being respectful of my time. If a firm asked me to verify a one-page Snapshot before launching a bridge loan matter, I’d be inclined to feel they had hit all three of those points.

  2. Thanks as always for reading and commenting, Luke. We have it as the responsibility of any attorney completing a transaction to update the Snapshot and note the “as of” time when closed, and it’s just a word doc on iManage. Keeping it simple/familiar made adoption much easier (and free).

    A more wholesale CRM-style approach would certainly be better in theory, particularly if document generation could flow from it (that would be dreamy), but nobody in our office really uses the CRM software the firm pays for beyond contact info. I think we need something more tailored for corporate lawyers (hint hint).

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