« September 2016 | Main | November 2016 »

5 posts from October 2016

October 26, 2016

Four ways to simplify legal process improvement (Part 2 of 3)

By Jim Hassett and Tom Kane, LegalBizDev

There is no shortage of theories, tactics, or opinions about the best way to increase efficiency, and hundreds of books and articles have been written on business process improvement and related techniques. Many of these systems have become so complicated and demanding that you can earn an MBA in the field. As Susan Page has written in her award winning book  The Power of Business Process Improvement: 10 Simple Steps to Increase Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Adaptability  (p. 5) this supports “the myth that business process improvement must be time consuming and complex.”

(Although we use Page’s book in our Certified Legal Project Manager® program, her full process is too time consuming for most lawyers most of the time. For example, the last chapter of her book is a case study applying her 10 steps to a real world example for the human resources department of a large bank. That chapter includes 67 pages of text, charts, and diagrams, and the simplification project took one year. Lawyers don’t have a year.)

Parts 2 and 3 of this blog series describe four approaches to business process improvement that we have developed with lawyers to increase legal efficiency quickly. They are listed in order of ease of use. We recommend that most lawyers start with Approach #1, which is limited to two simple questions. For critical, time consuming, and repetitive processes, we outline three increasingly sophisticated options which require more time, but can be more effective in simplifying the way you handle legal matters.

Approach #1: Two questions to improve a business process

Ask yourself:

  1. Of all the things you do for clients, what legal work provides the biggest opportunity to deliver greater value quickly or to increase efficiency?
  2. What could you do to improve this process?

Then do it.

Yes, this is so simple that it sounds trivial. But if in fact you stop and think about where inefficiencies lie, and act on what you already know, chances are you can increase efficiency very quickly.

No, it isn’t brain surgery, but for some lawyers, Approach #1 is a great way to get started. If you prefer an approach that is a bit more detailed, read on.

Approach #2: Ten questions to improve a business process

  1. What steps and activities are typically included in this process?
  2. Which steps and activities does the client value most highly?
  3. Which steps and activities do not add value, and could be eliminated?
  4. Could you standardize and/or streamline the process?
  5. Could you reduce or eliminate repetition?
  6. Could you reduce or eliminate bottlenecks?
  7. Could you improve communication within the team and/or with clients?
  8. Could you reduce cost by delegating some tasks to junior staff who bill at lower rates?
  9. Could you reduce cost by “delegating up” some tasks, to senior staff who can complete a task quickly at a low total cost?
  10. Could you reduce cost through legal process outsourcing of selected tasks to another law firm or a legal support services company in the US or in another country?

The final post in this series will describe two more approaches that are a bit more complex than these, but still far simpler than traditional, orthodox process improvement.

This post was adapted from the recently published fourth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

October 19, 2016

Four ways to simplify legal process improvement (Part 1 of 3)

By Jim Hassett and Tom Kane, LegalBizDev

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.


[1] http://www.prismlegal.com/wordpress/index.php?p=1026&c=1

[2] http://www.dailyreportonline.com/id=1202566995546/How-six-big-law-firms-get-serious-about-legal-project-management

[3] Link to the book on Amazon

October 18, 2016

My podcast on business development and LPM

If you’d like to listen to a 20 minute discussion about what lawyers should be doing to develop new business, try the recently released podcast of my interview by LeftFoot founder Nicole Giantonio.  The conversation is available for free in iTunes format on the LeftFoot website, and also on iTunes, Soundcloud, and Stitcher.

I talked not just about the key concepts from my Legal Business Development Quick Reference Guide, but also about the importance of legal project management.  After all, according to Altman Weil’s survey of Chief Legal Officers, the top three things that clients want these days are greater cost reduction, improved budget forecasting, and more efficient project management.  All three are related to LPM, and business development begins and ends with giving clients what they want.

October 12, 2016

Accelerating legal progress with Scrum

By Paul Saunders

In addition to using Kanban to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance responsiveness to clients’ needs, Stewart McKelvey is also experimenting with Agile management techniques known as Scrum.

Scrum provides a framework for team members to organize themselves and conduct team meetings in relation to any project. Scrum originated in the software development world and has been defined as “a simple framework for effective team collaboration on complex software projects” and as “a management and control process that cuts through complexity to focus on building software that meets business needs.”

Scrum can be easily adapted to legal projects, which often have many moving parts that need to be coordinated frequently.

In Scrum, teams engage in periodic meetings in which team members are asked to give short and focused status updates. The frequency of these meetings is based on what makes the most sense for a particular team. For example, when working on a complex and time-sensitive corporate transaction with a looming closing date, meetings may be scheduled every day or second day to keep everyone on track. For a portfolio of litigation matters with less time sensitivity, meetings may be scheduled once every week or two based upon the needs of the team.

Regardless of the frequency of the meetings, each team member takes a turn answering three questions in two minutes or less:

  1. What did I do since the last meeting?
  2. What will I do before the next meeting?
  3. What is blocking me and/or what do I need help with?

Meetings are often held with everyone standing up, to keep them short. A critical aspect of the meetings is to ensure that the updates remain relevant to all team members by focusing on these core questions.

One of the essential aspects of Scrum is that every team member, no matter how junior or senior, must report his accomplishments and what is blocking him from proceeding to the next step. This creates accountability. Everyone on the team knows that he will need to report progress, or lack thereof, on a specific topic at the next scheduled meeting.

If the senior partners are not getting what they need, this technique gives them an easy forum to say so. By the same token, if a junior team member finds that he is blocked by something that a senior partner did or did not do, this gives him the chance to make it clear. It enables juniors to manage upwards. This is very effective, because the person is saying that it’s not me or you, it’s the requirement of what comes next.

When Scrum is used in combination with Kanban, when people provide their updates, each team member moves any cards that have progressed on the Kanban board and updates their capacity flags to indicate what they’ll be working on before the next meeting. Meetings are expected to last no more than two minutes multiplied by the number of people attending.

Everyone has attended meetings where one or two attendees wasted meeting time by discussing issues with little or no relevance to the rest of the group. However, requiring team members to stick to the three questions can sometimes be challenging, particularly where more senior team members are accustomed to directing to the discussion.

To address this, Scrum calls for a Scrum Master role. This is often someone who is not expected to carry out work on the project but instead is responsible for managing the process and ensuring that team members are properly adhering to the protocols. This person must have the authority to ensure that all team members answer their three questions and ensure that no one person is monopolizing the floor.

In our law firm’s culture, mid-level personnel, including senior associates and junior partners who aren’t expected to complete substantive work on the matter, are ideal Scrum Masters. In certain cases, the lead lawyer on a matter or alternating individuals can also serve the role, provided that she is able to ensure the team sticks to the protocol and isn’t afraid to intervene if the rules aren’t being followed. In other law firms, different individuals might be more effective. The key is that the Scrum Master has some influence over partners. Since he isn’t accountable for project deliverables he can serve as a more independent enforcer of the rules to keep everyone on track.

Scrum works best when the team also periodically conducts a lessons learned or after action review, often called a retrospective. These typically occur at the conclusion of specific projects or at set intervals (perhaps once every month or two). These meetings could run longer than the daily stand-ups (approximately an hour), but still involve all team members speaking an equal amount of time. The discussion would focus on reaching team consensus around the following three questions:

  1. What is working well?
  2. What is not working well?
  3. What should be tried that is different?

Based on the outcome of those discussions, the team would agree to fine-tune their approach and incorporate lessons learned that could be applied to future work.

Scrum can be seen as a laboratory in which a law firm applies the scientific method. If a series of steps has not worked and you haven’t made progress, it will quickly reveal the lessons learned and let you modify your plan to find a new series of steps.

Stewart McKelvey has seen immediate and significant results in its pilot tests of Scrum. The pace at which matters progressed through the various stages and were closed was significantly improved. This was largely caused by the discipline and transparency that was brought to the process. Team members were committed to move matters along each week and were held accountable for results in the meetings. Many of the participants remarked that they had never seen so much progress on so many matters in such a short period of time.

In addition, the process made it easy to see that some time entries were being rejected by the client because they weren’t sufficiently detailed to meet requirements. As a result, the firm developed a standard set of time entries to conform to each of the stages identified on the Kanban board and created text expansion codes in its time entry system. Now all lawyers and staff are able to type in pre-determined codes, and pre-approved and detailed time entry narratives appear automatically.

Scrum, Kanban, and other Agile techniques are not magic cure-alls that fit every legal process, but they can make a significant difference when they are used properly in the right situations. In the next few years, we expect the use of Agile techniques to grow rapidly at our firm.

This post was adapted from the recently published fourth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.


October 05, 2016

Tip of the month:  Beware of optimistic budgeting

It is human nature to be optimistic about how many hours tasks will take.  When budgeting, plan for the worst so you don’t underestimate costs.

The first Wednesday of every month is devoted to a short and simple reminder like this to help lawyers increase efficiency, provide greater value to their clients, and/or develop new business. For more about this tip, see Chapter 4 in the recently published fourth edition of our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.