The devil’s in the detail, or maybe it’s in the coffee?

Air crashes and matter management

My friend Frank, the aerospace engineer, told me about a mysterious electrical fault that developed in the fleet of passenger jets he maintained. Electrical systems are vital for survival, as was demonstrated in 1998 when the electrics of Swissair flight 111 failed and it plunged into the Atlantic. A problem might seem small, but the consequences can be catastrophic.

The problem

The problem with the fleet arose after the crew arrived for the first flight of the day. They switched on the electrics and went about the business of preparing the plane for take-off. The crew tested the systems, all in the order of the manufacturer’s detailed checklist; configure the instrumentation, and check the weather, routing, weight, and balance.

But before the passengers boarded, circuit breakers would kick in and switch off the whole electrical system, delaying the flight and causing chaos for the rest of the day.

Frank couldn’t find any reason for the failures. The crew appeared to follow the manufacturer’s checklist for switching on the many electrical systems. Running out of ideas, the engineers decided to observe the crew in action. Frank and his engineers boarded the plane before the crew arrived and watched as they started for the day.

As they compared the crew’s actions to the checklist, the engineers discovered that the crew was adding a new step not recommended by the manufacturer.

The discovery

Arriving early, the first thing the crew did was to turn on the coffee machines so that they could enjoy a quick cup while they set up the plane. That small but unforeseen drain on the power was enough to trip the circuit breakers.

How does this relate to legal operations?

Lawyers, by their nature, prefer to use their professional judgment rather than follow a set checklist. They’re trained to be independent thinkers, who pride themselves on their professionalism and high standards. But sometimes those ad hoc decisions mean deviations from best practice.

One of the advantages of a legal matter management system is that it suggests the best practice steps for matters. The system ensures that every step is signposted and the activity at each step is recorded.

Or is that just micromanagement?

Some might argue that this is objectionable micromanagement, that lawyers should be free to use their professional judgment about the next step. However, that argument misses the whole point. Modern clients don’t want to pay their lawyers to use their brains for the matters that can be handled by machines or non-lawyers.

Many studies show that workflow systems improve outcomes. The volume and complexity of business demands have exceeded our individual ability to deliver without error, every time. We need systems to help. It’s the little stuff that typically gets lawyers into trouble most often, simple administrative errors like missed calendar dates, a failure to file a claim before the statute of limitations expires, or clerical screwups.

Using a matter management system with workflows lawyers can configure themselves pays for itself.  Well-structured workflows are precise, easy to use, and provide reminders of the most critical and important steps. The costs are modest and the benefits of improved outcomes and reduced errors are considerable.

Small things can make a big difference. For more information about how Dazychain can make a difference in your work processes visit

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