In the four years since the release of Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, the topic of lawyer checklists has been making the rounds on the blogs and speaker circuits. Which is good because checklists are a valuable tool that can help lawyers keep their practice running smoothly, stay out of trouble and explain the various steps of the legal process to a client to moderate expectations. But as the practice of law becomes increasingly dependent upon technology, there’s an even better reason for developing high-quality checklists that’s rarely mentioned: money.
Think about it. In many ways, mastering black-letter, substantive law is the easiest part of legal practice. You scan a few treatises and law review articles to get the lay of the land, read the key cases and consult the blogs for recent developments. Of course, there’s more to it than that; it can take time to master the subtleties and really understand the concepts, but my point is that substantive law is accessible.
By contrast, consider the mysteries of legal procedure. Court rules are often opaque or a particular district may have a unique practice that isn’t well-known – and even when you understand them, there are usually a dozen steps needed to prepare documents to comply. Transactional matters have their own specific steps of rules and processes – such as running due diligence on a deal or compiling documents for corporate filings. There is enormous value to clear, accurate and proven checklists for all of these steps.
Most of us don’t really appreciate the value of a good checklist, because as with many retainer agreements, many of the checklists available for free on-line are junk. But I believe that there’s a market for time-tested checklists – and in fact, I’m not the only one. In some ways, a checklist is a crude form of a business method— which is still a patentable process that confers value and IP assets.
And while most law firm checklists won’t rise to the level of a patentable business method, a well-done checklist can still be a source of revenue. The Practical Law, a company started a few years back and quickly acquired by Thompson Reuters saw that value, and checklists one of the core features of its original offerings. Practical Law company is proof that lawyers are willing to pay for checklists both because they’re difficult to develop and because of the benefits they carry for lawyers.
Although Practical Law is targeted at large firms, there’s no reason that a similar model couldn’t work at price points and practice areas of interest to solos, thus providing a potential market for checklists. Legal vendors are another potential market for checklists. For example, checklists can be automated or used to populate deadlines in a calendar or create folders in a practice management system. A library of checklists that can easily be integrated in a practice management or billing system would be an added draw for users.
Even without third parties, lawyers can still extract value from checklists. If you’ve developed a great or unique checklist or system, you can convert it into an ebook or offer it along with a webinar and sell it yourself. And if you are nearing retirement and planning to sell your firm to a younger lawyer, checklists can make your firm more valuable to potential buyers.
So if you haven’t done so already, add “creating checklists” to your to do list for the coming year.