About the Process

Workshop Small Group“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.”     ~W. Edwards Deming

Excellent legal advice is, of course, essential, but HOW lawyers work as they get to the delivery point of legal services is becoming increasingly important.

As a case in point, the UK-based law firm Clifford Chance recently released a white paper, five years in the making, of its “continuous improvement process” that is the cornerstone of its commitment to better client service.

What Is The”Continuous Improvement Process” ?

Building on the Lean Six Sigma approach to reduce wasted time and effort, the continuous improvement (CI) process requires an understanding of law as a process, not as the acquisition of knowledge or expertise. The Report notes while legal processes are rarely repetitive or consistent, in particular those at self-described high end law firms like Clifford Chance, there are always opportunities for improvement.

With the assistance of CI experts, Clifford Chance asks all relevant stakeholders involved in a certain process to do the following: define; measure, analyze, improve and control. Several case studies are included in the Report. In one example, Clifford Chance CI’ed the process of making a bound volume, the indexed compilation of transaction documents prepared at the end of a matter. The firm brought all the people involved in the process together – from partner to print room – to explain how the process could be made more efficient. The result: reduced costs of 60% and reduced time of 80%. Another example: a two-day workshop with Clifford Chance partners and associates along with representatives of a banking client. Together, they all looked at a transaction process from top to bottom and analyzed every step in the existing process. After implementing continuous improvement changes, Clifford Chance is now completing these transactions up to 40% faster.

The Rise Of  The CI Projects

About 450 lawyers across the offices have been involved in CI projects and now the firm is focused on training the rest of the attorneys in order to build a widespread “efficiency culture.” Looking forward, the firm predicts:

“CI will at some point shift from being something we do ‘to’ the way we work and will simply become the way we work. This will involve an even greater focus on understanding the client’s particular requirements for each piece of work. We expect to see our legal teams increasingly incorporated into the client’s team, not as a supplier or external advisor, but as an integral element of the transaction.”

Now many may point out that not all of us have the client base or high end legal services characterized by a Clifford Chance. Moreover, on this side of the pond, we have different rules about the coziness of lawyer and non-lawyer teams working together. Nonetheless, clients are increasingly demanding greater transparency and accountability for how we do our work.

You may recall that about a year ago, corporate counsel at KIA, Casey Flaherty, took a stab at making sure outside counsel was efficient by developing an Outside Counsel Technology Audit. All of KIA’s outside counsel took and failed the audit. Much was written criticizing the wisdom of the approach, but there is a general consensus, reflected now in the comment to the Rule of Professional Conduct defining competency that lawyers need to understand the benefits and risks of technology.

Whether the CI approach represents an innovation that is superior and will be adopted by other firms remains to be seen. Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, who writes frequently on improving the delivery of legal services through collaboration and process re-engineering, recently wrote that he sees three possibilities for the CI and similar approaches:

  1. The legal-by-design innovations are really not superior and so will die an appropriate death.
  2. Although the legal-by-design innovations are superior, they will be adopted extremely slowly because law is inherently slow to change.
  3. Because the legal-by-design innovations are superior and well-aligned with what’s happening in other fields (especially the world of clients) and because lawyers tend to follow their peers, the rate of adoption will be extremely fast once it gets started.

Adoption of this legal-by-design innovation or not, gone are the days when lawyers may practice by doling out advice armed only with a legal pad, ball point pen and access to law ensconced in hard-covered books organized in a fashion inscrutable to the average citizen. The information on which we have long held a monopoly is now accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. What value do we add to Google searches? We need to answer that question now, not later. And if that means analyzing our work as a process, maybe it means we will finally understand what it is that we are doing.

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