Checklists, practical tools with enormous (under-used) benefit for lawyers

A recent book extols checklists as a commonsense way to help us manage the complexity of our activities. A reviewer, writing in the NY Times Bk. Rev., Jan. 24, 2010 at 7, says that the author argues that in many tasks failure “results not so much from ignorance (not knowing enough about what works) as from ineptitude (not properly applying what we know works).”

This insight surely applies to lawyers, whether in-house or in firms: everyone needs to get the basic stuff right, at the least, and a checklist pushes us to make sure. If the payment was more than 90 days before the bankruptcy filing, are we sure it was a preference? More, a checklist can “foster the communication required to deal with the unexpected.” Those who use them have a framework around which to discuss a problem.

The book makes the point that checklists save us from ineptitude especially in relatively straightforward processes, but even very complex legal transactions consist of some number of simpler sub-processes. Lawyers, like the doctors discussed in the book, may believe their profession is as much an art as a science, untouchable by simplistic check-offs, but it is highly likely that more diagnostic and memory aids would improve the quality, increase the speed, and reduce the costs of legal services (See my post of Aug. 27, 2005: model litigation audit checklist; Aug. 31, 2005: Schering-Plough checklist for employment contracts; Oct. 4, 2005: checklist for reviewing bills; Dec. 20, 2005: checklist of what clients need to gather before calling; April 13, 2006: give clients checklists of legal issues to consider; April 22, 2007: audit-committee checklist; Jan. 21, 2009: value-indicator checklist; Feb. 14, 2009: demand management checklist at Royal Bank of Canada; and Dec. 21, 2009: risk management checklist.).

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