Friday, August 24, 2012

Check Yourself

One of the more useful but lesser-known sources of legal information is the checklist. Checklists break down complex tasks into the individual steps that all need to be completed to finish the task effectively.
In his “Checklists for Checklists,” Atul  Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, states that “A checklist is NOT a teaching tool or an algorithm.” Rather, checklists are designed to prevent mistakes in performing complex tasks, like surgery or flying an airplane. Many services that lawyers provide for clients also fall under the category of complex tasks.
Indeed, checklists should not be mistaken for a guide on being a lawyer. First of all, many of the individual items on a checklist require skill to complete on their own. More importantly, you need to understand why you are doing what you are doing. Without understanding the steps, you will not know if you have really successfully completed them.
So where do you find legal checklists?
Both Westlaw and Lexis have checklists scattered throughout the secondary sources on their websites. There are too many to just search across all secondary sources for “checklist.” If you are searching in a particular source, like the Massachusetts Practice volumes on Family Law, you will find around eight checklists, although one is really more of a template or form. Topical practice guides are the best places to find checklists, because those resources are aimed at attorneys with specific practice needs.
The most comprehensive collection of checklists in print is the aptly named Legal Checklists from Thomson/West. This three-volume set contains hundreds of checklists, including checklists on substantive areas of law, procedure, and running a law practice.
Some of the checklists in this resource are really more like legal outlines of an issue than a true “checklist.” This makes sense, because in law one is often just as concerned with “did you consider x” than “did you do x.”
This also means that a checklist is something you need to find when you begin a project. If you wait and check at the end, you may find you forgot to consider an issue at a point that would have greatly changed all of your subsequent actions. In addition, while checklists are not supposed to be used to learn how to do something for the first time, they can be used to learn the scope of a project.
A checklist book geared toward law students is Austen L. Parrish and Dennis T. Yokoyama’s Effective Lawyering: A Checklist Approach to Legal Writing & Oral Argument. Their focus on students leads them to occasionally blur the line between a checklist and proscriptive directions on how to accomplish a task. Even so, the book forces students to consider every choice they make while writing, and even experienced writers will benefit from seeing all of the steps that go into effective communication presented so explicitly.
No checklist can turn someone who has never learned to fly a plane into a master pilot. Similarly, no checklist can turn someone who is unfamiliar with law into the next Matlock. However, as you learn about legal writing, argument, and client representation, it can be difficult to remember every step to successfully completing a project. Checklists can be a valuable tool in providing excellent service to your clients.  

No comments:

Post a Comment