Lean for Law Firms?
Many professions today are faced with a fundamental shift in their environment, where the bar is continually being set higher. Higher quality is expected with greater speed and efficiency and, of course, at the same or lower cost. Those called to the bar are no exception. So why consider Lean as a solution? Lean is not the latest weight loss fad or celebrity endorsed diet. It is a proven methodology for enhancing client satisfaction while eliminating wasteful activities. Lean is a way of doing business that emphasizes continuous performance improvement by creating a more efficient workplace, while enhancing value for clients. It is based around the application of a number of tools and strategies aimed at streamlining all aspects of a process. These tools are intended to reduce unnecessary labor time, space, capital, materials and equipment involved in the delivery of appropriate services to customers/stakeholders.
Lean Thinking is not a manufacturing strategy or a cost-reduction program, but a philosophy that can be applied to all organizations. This is because it is focused on processes. All organizations are made up of a series of processes, sets of activities or steps intended to create value for people who are dependent on them, such as clients or colleagues. While Lean has its origins in the manufacturing sector, it has grown from those roots and is now being applied with tremendous success across a wide variety of industries – from financial services to healthcare. The legal sector can also benefit from the methodology. Legal work is seen as being highly specialized, customized for each client and dependent on professional judgement. This, in the minds of some legal professionals, may not make their work amenable to process improvement techniques.
The contrary is, in fact, the case. There are many aspects of legal work that would benefit from greater process discipline – for example, gathering client information, drafting contracts and compiling research. Undertaking this work in a variable non-standard way introduces waste without delivering any added value to the client. Lean allows firms to eliminate inefficiencies in order to reallocate the resources to more value-adding work. Consider the amount of time law firms spend on the review of legal documents. Often hundreds of emails and documents are exchanged, depending on the nature of the case. This involves paralegals and junior staff working with senior lawyers. This effort also includes the clients themselves, as they need to provide timely and accurate information in order for the work that is done on their behalf to proceed effectively. There are also excessive costs incurred through document handling, storage and retrieval.
When viewed as an approach that enables law firms to better meet client expectations in the most efficient way possible, Lean actually becomes a lawyer’s best friend. It frees up the time to carry out highly specialized work, while allowing the more routine tasks to take their rightful place. Also, not only does this help control excessive costs through the elimination of wasteful activities, it also enhances employee engagement. Those individuals within the firm who provide support functions will also be more motivated and engaged as they work in an efficient environment where best practices and striving for continuous improvement are embraced.