desk top with papers

Getting things done requires that we confront reality at its most basic levels in the firm. Documenting internal strategic priorities, business plans, and commitment to and expectations of our people is a fundamental step for getting things done. One of the most common characteristics of firms that fail to implement decisions well is that they try to short-cut documentation, or omit it completely.

Why is documentation so critical in law firms?

At every step in the execution of our plans, documentation is a catalyst for action. It produces a foundation for planning, decision-making and the execution of future goals. It gives us the measurements and results to evaluate whether our actions are bearing fruit and how to continuously improve.

The specific documents that each firm needs to get the best results from its people are somewhat unique to each firm. The documents may be in different states of evolution, from basic "rules" to more sophisticated plans for motivating professional performance. In some cases the partners might present a prioritized plan for improved documentation, so that lawyers and staff know that the key issues are being managed, not simply ignored.


  • Documentation lays out "the rules," such as the policies for participation in social media and procedures for prompt and accurate entry of time records. It applies to the policies and procedures, protocol expectations, performance standards and other requirements for professional conduct by lawyers in the firm. Motivation increases when lawyers know what they need to do to succeed.


  • Documentation provides the foundation for professional relationships, productivity, and profitability in modern law firms. Without it, the resulting ambiguity causes stress and distraction, which only increases if documentation needs remains unaddressed.


  • Documentation communicates the firm's expectations clearly. It allows each lawyer to make well-informed choices about how to participate as a firm member in the day-to-day life of the firm and in interactions with clients and the legal community. It provides a foundation for understanding what the firm expects of each lawyer and what the lawyer can expect of the firm.


  • Documentation opens the door to meaningful dialogue between firm members, because it provides a factual basis for sharing views and exploring alternatives.


  • Documentation gives the partners a way to evaluate and measure the contributions of all lawyers based on their position descriptions, their commitment to professional standards and their management priorities and business goals.


The documents evolve with the growth and internal needs of the firm and its external clients. For example, early in the development of the firm, a document may be "bare bones," meeting only the essential requirements. However, in order for the documents to continue to be useful, they need to be reviewed at least annually, or when circumstances warrant.

What needs to be documented?

One of the biggest causes of internal inefficiency -- and resulting vulnerabilities in profitability -- is that people are not quite sure what was decided or what they are supposed to do. Consequently, even otherwise well-managed law firms waste lots of time and effort trying to agree what was decided or what the people in the firm are expected to do. Internal inefficiencies, mistakes, and a lack of follow-through usually can be traced to weak or non-existent documentation of matters such as:

  • position descriptions, including those of senior management roles
  • the firm's operating agreement and management structures
  • individual performance and development goals
  • career paths and advancement criteria
  • performance evaluation procedures and tools
  • document and file management procedures
  • orientation information and procedures
  • quality assurance policies, standards, and procedures

Clear, concise documentation is also essential to achieving a law firm's external objectives in marketing and client relations. If you want to be sure that your documentation of externally-oriented policies and procedures is adequate, start with these four areas. Most problems can be traced back to a weakness in the documentation of policies and procedures in one of these four areas:

  • responsibilities, actions, and measurements in the implementation of the firm's strategic plan
  • marketing plans, especially for practice groups and individual partners
  • client acceptance policies
  • client engagement letters

credibility and realism

Increasingly, for a firm to be taken seriously, it needs to demonstrate commitment — at a minimum level — with written documentation of its intentions and practices. The most sophisticated clients today do not accept slogans on faith; they want to see documented evidence that a firm, as well as a network of law firms, can live up to its promises. How effectively firms answer clients' questions about this issue will influence their growth and competitive evolution, domestically and internationally.

Documentation is a tool for looking outside the firm, too. It provides a "check" on partner perceptions that might lead to wishful thinking, selective hearing, and unrealistic expectations of fellow lawyers. But it also challenges partners to study, analyze, and act on important information about clients, competitors, and markets – minus the denial, emotional over-investment, and fear mongering that sometimes takes place.

In order to make well-informed decisions that can be implemented successfully, we need to look to what is documented in the firm as a realistic basis for moving forward with any planned actions. Are we basing our decisions on facts or wishful thinking? Have we really thought out what we are trying to do and whether we can do it at all?

Lisa M. Walker Johnson