Legal Process Improvement: Transforming the Way Lawyers Work

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This article is a part of a series dedicated to lawyers, legal teams and law firms of all shapes and sizes. It helps them intuitively understand the concepts of Legal Project Management (LPM) and its related disciplines of Legal Process Management and Legal Portfolio Management. These frameworks change the way legal professionals undertake their work on a daily basis.

These transformations are essential for the legal industry to grow and develop its sustainability. It’s a “change or die” proposition that started with the economic turmoil of the Tech Wreck and the Global Financial Crisis and has continued with the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a leading global expert in legal innovation, I have worked with thousands of lawyers over the last decade to raise their awareness of Legal Project Management and Legal Process Improvement. I also helped them gain new skills in these two branches. Despite client pressure and considerable evolvement of the legal profession, most lawyers and law firms are struggling to implement Legal Process Management practices. This set of disciplines aligns with Legal Operations, although there are various models across large law firms, in-house legal teams, and the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC).

In the previous articles, I covered the topics of Legal Project Management and Legal Portfolio Management. This time, I will elaborate on Legal Operations and process improvement for law firms.

What Are the Benefits of Legal Process Improvement?

Legal Process Improvement (LPI) includes Business Process Redesign and Lean Six Sigma techniques to provide lawyers with the following expertise:

  • Understand client expectations more clearly;
  • Improve the quality of customer services;
  • Reduce lead times for delivery; 
  • Increase customer satisfaction, loyalty, and retention; 
  • Cut costs and increase value; 
  • Boost current resources to deliver more with less; and
  • Reduce stress for legal teams.

Lean Six Sigma is a statistical process improvement approach used for more than 50 years to improve processes in order to gain efficiency and increase quality.

Sometimes it conflicts with law firm objectives of reduced costs and increased profit. On the one hand, clients want to be billed less. On the other hand, law firms want to cut their expenses but charge at the same prices, since they keep the billable hour, or 6-minute increment, policies.

Any redesign effort should be always focused on a client, as Legal Process Improvement (LPI) implies. Clients insist law firms effectively implement LPS in their daily tasks.

What Is Legal Process Improvement?

Legal Project Improvement and Legal Process Improvement first appeared a decade ago after the Global Financial Crisis emerged. Many law firms and in-house legal teams were forced to transform their workflow and their legal services pricing. There were other changes:

  • Firms were closed down;
  • More specialists joined in-house legal teams;
  • Clients required better services and flexible fees;
  • The whole legal industry became clearer.

Nevertheless, law firms started searching for better ways to engage clients and new ways of staying productive. That’s how Legal Process Improvement was born – within the idea of being more efficient and cutting costs.

Legal Process Improvement (LPI) is a trendy discipline in the legal industry that applies Lean Six Sigma frameworks and tools equally for in-house departments and external firms. Legal teams and law firms of all shapes and sizes can use these techniques to deliver efficient client-oriented results.

These frameworks and tools are indispensable when it comes to improving quality, reducing source requirements, and quick delivery of legal services. You can always launch your legal process improvement and sourcing and make it more efficient on the way to your legal goals.

Difference between LPI and LPM

There is a considerable difference between Legal Process Improvement and Legal Project Management (LPM), although these disciplines work synergistically together. It is frustrating when inexperienced professionals can use wrong practices to solve wrong issues. In simple words, LPM should be used in a project-based work with specific dates and agenda. LPI comes into action in an ongoing process when it needs to be improved. Legal Process Design is closely related to LPI, and it applies the same tools and techniques when it comes to law firms’ business process improvement and creating new processes and services.

Process Improvement Concepts

Let me stress the statement that any type of work is a process, and you can improve any process. A process is a number of steps and decisions that help to get the job done, while improvements focus on removing errors and useless activities from the process.

The key process improvement concepts are:

  • Efficiency includes resources and costs. The goal here is to reduce the efforts to achieve consistent or improved quality, which cuts the process expenses and improves future viability.
  • Effectiveness is about meeting clients’ expectations. Here, effectiveness ensures key performance indicators (KPIs) and service level standards for WCQ are met and exceeded across the board.
  • Lean Manufacturing helps reduce the process time framework by removing errors and useless activities.
  • Six Sigma helps legal professionals improve the quality of process results by identifying and removing the causes of errors, or defects, and minimizing variability. 
  • Lean Six Sigma encompasses the following Legal Process Simplification tools and methods:
    1. Reviewing the approach of a specific legal task to define what can be improved;
    2. Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma provide their tools and techniques to improve quality;
    3. Removing defects and streamlining legal work to deliver more efficient results;
    4. Meet exact clients’ expectations in less time and at a reduced cost.
  • Quality Assurance is the activities made before and during a process to ensure quality results, decrease errors and avoid overtime work. For example, these are recruitment and training events, development and use of precedents, regular work reviews, co-worker reviews, cooperation, coaching and mentoring.
  • Quality Control provides necessary actions, e.g. supervisor reviews, at the end of the work process to detect errors.

Legal Process Improvement Framework

I developed the Legal Process Improvement Framework to help clients understand the core of process design and improvement. From my perspective, all lawyers benefit from some understanding of these concepts, so that legal professionals can improve their workflow and satisfy clients’ needs. Law firms are recommended to hire Lean Six Sigma specialists (LSS Black Belt*) for assistance from time to time.

Below you can see all the essential elements of Legal Process Improvement.

Lean Six Sigma professionals usually have a university degree, and then they participate in long-term training and competency assessment. In the end, the graduates can become certified LSS Green Belt or Black Belt specialists. Green Belts are eligible to be legal team members of LSS process design or improvement projects, while Black Belts are certified to lead them.

Involving external specialists in specific activities or firm’s legal operations is much more efficient than re-qualifying lawyers in this niche. Since lawyers don’t necessarily have to be LPI experts, the framework below clearly explains the steps for positive legal process improvement. Consider it as a law firm process improvement as well.

Legal Process Improvement Step-By-Step

  1. Choose a process to improve via the following criteria:
    • The highest client priority;
    • The most negative client feedback;
    • The biggest number of errors and rework;
    • Switch to reducing profit, not revenue.
  2. Define your current processes considering the following:
    • Model the current process to indicate areas of improvement – you will be VERY surprised by what you find!
    • Agree on the process flow – it can be MUCH harder than you think!
    • Study your legal and non-legal processes that play a big role in client outcomes.
  3. Collect contributions from all team members in order to:
    • Indicate room for improvement;
    • Create exact plans and share responsibilities;
    • Gain buy-in to the improvements;
    • Maintain consistency across your team.
  4. Streamline the processes, including the following actions:
    • Get rid of errors and rework;
    • Don’t do things that your clients don’t appreciate;
    • Improve delegation;
    • Simplify processes;
    • Decrease the number of handoffs;
    • Split your activities based on specific skill sets;
    • Embed quality into the process to develop quality assurance.

Comparing Lean Six Sigma to Design Thinking

There are several leading principles that help professionals change their legal work, and one of these ways is Lean Six Sigma. It emerged during the 1980s and 90s in Japan and the US, when Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma methods of process improvement established the Total Quality Management.

It’s a highly mathematical approach to process improvement that aims to cut all errors to 3.4 per every million units or opportunities. Total Quality Management is applied to produce physical deliverables in manufacturing processes, and it has been applied in service-based principles since the early 2000s. In service-based processes, the Six Sigma unit measure for errors is often unreasonable and leads to statistical analysis and a broader usage of the concepts and principles.

Recently, more firms have been looking towards more modern frameworks, such as Design Thinking. Legal Design merges the basic principles of process improvement and streamlining with a more human-centered and client-oriented approach. LSS does this as well by taking the Voice of the Customer into account when improving or designing processes. As the benchmark for process performance, LSS also relies on the client’s definition of quality.

More and more forms can commonly adopt Legal Design, unlike the more accessible LSS, which doesn’t need mathematical rigor or statistical analysis. The diagram below shows the difference between the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve, Control) approach used in LSS and a common EDIPT (Empathise, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test) approach from design thinking.

As you can see, there are many similarities between both frameworks. Indeed, I prefer a hybrid approach when Legal Process Improvement is a combination of Lean Six Sigma and Legal Design Thinking.

Conclusion

Legal Process Improvement is an essentially client-centric and statistics-free Lean Six Sigma framework. The lack of statistics within Legal Design frameworks makes them more accessible to the average lawyer. The greatest implementation success comes when human-backed Lean Six Sigma is merged with Design Thinking to highlight the human elements and de-emphasize the mathematical elements. I used to teach a successful masterclass called “Lean Six Sigma Without the Statistics”.

Now we are developing a similar version to help lawyers and legal teams implement Legal Process Improvement frameworks and get better client outcomes. These tools can enhance client satisfaction and loyalty while increasing income and boosting the work of legal teams in the future.

Article by Therese Linton

Therese Linton is a global leader in Legal Project Management and Legal Process Improvement. She wrote the book on Legal Project Management, published by LexisNexis in 2014. She is also the creator of The Positive Lawyer ® program, which combines online learning and coaching to transform legal mindsets and ways of working. Over the last decade, she has worked with thousands of lawyers to develop their capabilities and expand their skills in all areas of legal transformation and personal productivity.

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