… to improve Production

(way back in 2008)

This article is the ninth of a series that was published in the De Rebus, the South African Attorneys Journal, and it is designed to let the smaller practice identify with practice management issues and to assist in increasing the productivity of smaller firms.

Fifteen years ago the party and party fee for drafting a summons on scale C in the Magistrates Court was R277. In 2008 the fee for the same summons is . . . (wait for it . . .) still R277!! The same argument applies to conveyancing fees.

Every South African lawyer is challenged by finding ways in which to make our outdated fee structures pay for the upkeep of our firms. In reality, if your fee is fixed, the only ways in which to increase your fees are:

– Do more work with the same infrastructure and staff (i.e. increase your fees without increasing your expenses); or
– Do the same amount of work at a lower cost to your firm

This article will attempt to identify two ways in which to do more with what you have. Firstly, you need to start thinking in batches (instead of one file at a time); and, secondly, your staff need to start using technology to auto-generate their documents instead of drafting one document at a time.

Sadly, for most of us, practicing law simply goes about document generation. The conveyancer registering bonds has numerous forms to complete but eventually has to produce a document that needs to be registered. Similarly, the debt collection lawyer who needs to foreclose on fixed property needs to generate a summons. Sure, there are other little things, like proper progress reports, that we add to the process in order to satisfy the needs of the client, but in essence, they really don’t add value to the process. They only make you more likable in the eyes of the client. In the end, if you cannot print your summons, you cannot carry out your instructions.

But as the prescribed fees have remained unchanged for as long as it has, lawyers these days need to be far more innovative than in the past. My grandfather was able to generate one summons a day and make a decent living. Lawyers now have to generate a hundred to maintain the same quality of life. It is all a question of numbers. If you want to make money these days, you and your staff need to learn how to work with batches of files at a time.

Batch-working . . . bad grammar or useful concept? Consider the concept of batch-working as opposed to working with one file at a time. A day only has 24 hours and you need to sleep some of those. Therefore, the amount of files dealt with in one day has a limit if you deal with one file at a time. But, if you were able to walk into your office in the morning and point to a heap of files on the left of your desk and say: Sandy, we are waiting for the Sheriffs return on these 100 files . . . please call them today, and then, while pointing to the second heap, say: Cheryl, we need to apply for default judgment on these 80 files, please draft them today; you will be able to get through so much more.

In this way you will clear your desk of all the files that can be dealt with in batches, and you will only be left with those that need your specific attention. It all starts with your diary. When diarising a file, most lawyers simply write down the file name or number. Include a note as to what should happen when the file comes up for diary (e.g. Sheriffs return received?) and this will allow the staff member responsible for drawing your diary in the morning to heap the like-filed together … all the Sheriffs return received on one heap and all the apply default judgment files on another. This will allow you to give instructions to your secretaries in batch-mode.

Batch-drafting . . . how do we draft 100 summonses in the time we used to do 1? The evolution of document generation and related communication has gone through various stages. Let us walk through time for a moment.

During the early 1970s we had secretaries with pre-printed forms and typewriters. The secretaries would receive instructions to proceed with a collection matter and would type out the copies of the summons and the relevant documents. More advanced secretaries used carbon paper in order to reduce the human input required while increasing the paper output.

Later, the world developed to such an extent that a secretary was issued with a computer and the traditional pre-printed form was recreated as a template. When the secretary received her instructions to issue a summons, she would access the relevant template and then type in all the required details. Once this was done she would print the required number of copies to a printer. She still had to type out the entire summons at least once and the computer had thus not yet given her an advantage. Later on in the 80s, we entered the Database Age and properly started to experience the value of computer technology. For the first time, we could populate a database with information and then print a summons on various matters without having to duplicate the process. Databases enabled us to store information electronically and merge it with a word processor in order to produce and reproduce documents.

This is the minimum level at which lawyers need to operate in 2008, in order to generate batches of documents in one go. Then, in 1995, along with the Internet, came the e-Commerce Age. It enabled the seamless transfer of data from one point to another. Combined with the correct software, it is now possible for your client to click a button on their screen in their offices and the files will automatically be opened on your computer in your office, as well as in your accounting software. This can be followed by the automatic generation of a Section 129 letter to the debtor or a summons without anyone touching the file.

In the very recent years software technology has developed to such an extent that one would find intelligent communications auto-generated by software applications. Some firms have entered this age and are clearly laying claim to the title of leaders in their industries. They are able to mass-produce the documents required in order to, in turn, generate their profits with fewer staff members (and therefore less office space, fewer desks, etc) than many others.

This sort of program will reduce your overheads as you will need fewer staff members to deal with your workload. The future will see technology performing more and more tasks that are not deemed important enough to be done by a human being.

Practicing law has moved into the e-Commerce Age and those who adapt quickly enough will benefit from the advantages. Those who don’t get with the program (excuse the pun) will be left behind.

This article was first published in the October 2008 issue of De Rebus, the SA Attorneys Journal, and it is republished here with the permission of the Law Society of South Africa.