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Practice Builder EDGE: If you want a better practice, perform file autopsies!

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Today's post is by Rod Burkert. Rod has been performing business valuations since the late 1980s. In July 2000, he started Burkert Valuation Advisors in Philadelphia where he ran a "traditional” valuation practice for 10 years.

Quincy. CSI (pick a city). Bones. Crossing Jordan. Body of Proof. Just a few of the old US medical examiner TV shows that I can recall off the top of my head. The docs are all working toward a common goal – determining how their victims lived and died.

Not to be overly dramatic, but we can live and die in/by our engagements. (At least it feels that way when you are in the middle of a “good” or “bad” project.) But really, tell me life isn’t just strawberries and cream when you’re working on a fun/interesting/profitable case. And that life doesn’t just suck when you’re not. Wouldn’t it be nice to have more strawberries and cream?

So if you’re interested in (a) identifying the work you love to do, (b) learning how to serve your clients better, and (c) seeing your profits grow you may want to spend some time playing medical examiner.

Imagine your old engagement files on the slab, so to speak. Time to open them up and perform an autopsy. Here’s one way to go about it. Pick up a scalpel and ...

1. Grab five of your old engagement files that have been closed for at least a year. Though you can choose files randomly, it might work better if you select some know you liked and others that you’d rather never think about again.

2. For each file, complete a File Autopsy using this downloadable toolkit. Be brutally honest as you answer the questions, which cover:

About the client:

• Did the client like me? Did I like the client?

• Were the client’s expectations met?

• How would this client describe me to their peers?

• What value did I deliver? Where was that demonstrated?

About the work:

• Did I like the work?

• Was I good at it? How could I have done better?

• If I liked the work, should I become an expert at it?

• If I didn’t like the work, how can I do less of it?

About the money:

• Was this a profitable matter for me to work on?

• Was my time budget and fee estimate accurate?

• Did the client feel my fees were fair?

• If I quoted this engagement again, what would I do differently?

Kitchen sink stuff:

• With 20/20 hindsight, should I have taken on this engagement?

• Were there any red flags I should have noticed?

• Did I worry or lose sleep over this engagement?

• Did I produce anything that can be re-used or re-purposed in a future engagement?

3. Every week or so (schedule it!), rinse and repeat with a few more files. If you used staff on the engagement, make sure your ask for their input as well.

4. Write down the common themes (good or bad) you start seeing.

Once you’ve performed 20-30 autopsies, you should have a better sense of the work you like doing, the clients you enjoy serving, and alternative ways of pricing your services. But more importantly, you’ll understand the work you don’t like, the clients you don’t want, and the pricing mistakes you don’t need.

After you’ve completed the file autopsies on your old engagements, stay current going forward by using the same toolkit as an “After-Action Review” on your just-completed engagements. Not only will this keep you focused on the work you want, you’ll constantly be looking for better ways to serve your clients and price your services.


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