Four ways to simplify legal process improvement (Part 1 of 3)
Traditionally, lawyers have been trained to place enormous emphasis on avoiding risk, and little or no emphasis on increasing efficiency. As Ron Friedman put it:
Clients often want to know if there are any major risks: “Let me know if there are any boulders in this playing field.” Lawyers often hear that and think they need to find not just the boulders, but also the pebbles. The fear of being wrong—and of malpractice—runs deep. “Perfection thinking” makes it hard to approximate, to apply the 80-20 rule, [or] to guide in the right direction but with some imprecision.
But as in-house departments are increasingly pressured to control costs, they in turn are pressuring outside law firms to find ways to increase efficiency. Business process improvement is one path to the lower costs that many clients are demanding.
While there is widespread agreement that clients also want legal project management (LPM) and that it pays off for firms, the field is so new that experts still disagree about exactly what should be included and excluded from its definition. These arguments have slowed LPM’s progress. For example, consider these remarks from one AmLaw 200 firm leader we interviewed for the book Client Value and Law Firm Profitability (p. 89):
We were just at a board meeting last week where we were talking about whether we should do formalized project management training. My answer to that is obviously yes, we absolutely should. But first we need to agree on what legal project management is.
We first became aware of the seriousness of this problem a few years ago when the director of professional development at an AmLaw 100 firm asked us to explain the differences between project management, process improvement, Six Sigma, and Lean. This was an extremely sophisticated client who had been researching this area for months, but she had heard so many different claims from competing consultants that she had trouble keeping them straight.
Process improvement, has gotten a lot of headlines in the legal world as a result of Seyfarth Shaw’s highly publicized success in using it to streamline work, along with Six Sigma and Lean. All three approaches originated in the world of manufacturing.
Six Sigma is built around techniques Motorola developed to eliminate the causes of manufacturing defects and errors. Lean was developed by Toyota to increase manufacturing efficiency by eliminating the “seven wastes” (excess inventory, excess processing, overproduction, transportation, motion, waiting, and defects).
Process improvement typically starts by defining the exact steps that are required to perform a legal process. This includes looking at every process from the client’s point of view, analyzing whether each step adds value for the client, and eliminating the steps that don’t.
Writing in Law Technology, Alan Cohen has noted that this traditional approach “can take weeks to create a map, but the result is a template that spells out the various phases of a matter—and an efficient way to do them.” If you consider the fact that Seyfarth has developed over 500 process maps, each of which took a team of lawyers and staff weeks to develop, you can see why Six Sigma for Dummies (p. 10) says the approach is “not for the faint of heart. It is intense and rigorous, and it entails a thorough inspection of the way everything is done.”
In my book, Legal Project Management, Pricing and Alternative Fee Arrangements, I described how Seyfarth has spent more than 10 years and millions of dollars refining its system. They have trademarked the term SeyfarthLean® and formed a separate company—SeyfarthLean® Consulting—as a wholly owned subsidiary which offers advice to law departments on how to work more efficiently. However, the Seyfarth model has been so widely publicized that some law firms think that LPM equals process improvement.
We have frequently argued for a much broader definition of LPM, including any activity that increases client satisfaction and firm profitability by applying proven techniques to improve the management of legal matters. Thus, we see LPM as an umbrella term that embraces a very wide range of management techniques, including pricing, communication, process improvement, and much more.
Under this broad definition, process improvement, Six Sigma, and Lean are simply specialized approaches that fall under the more general umbrella term LPM. They are simply tools in the belt, to be used in some cases and ignored in others.
And when they are used, we recommend always looking for simpler and more efficient approaches, starting with the four approaches described in the next two parts of this series.
This post was adapted from the recently published fourth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.
 Link to the book on Amazon