Legal Project Management. Lean. Six Sigma. Have your eyes glazed over yet?

August 24, 2017

That would be a lawyer’s typical reaction to discussion of these types of concepts.  We don’t see the need.  In many respects, we think getting lean and efficient are anathema to our business model; we get paid by the hour, right? Well, at least most of us do.  But even those who work primarily on flat fees may resist the idea of re-examining our daily work habits.


The truth of the matter is, there are plenty of hours we spend working, both on behalf of our clients and simply trying to handle our law firms’ business concerns, that no one pays us for.  It’s an unavoidable reality, but that doesn’t mean it’s not manageable.  And the more you can reduce the time you spend on things no one is paying you to do, the better off you will be.


Trying to manage that unpaid time is where these principles come in.


At their most basic, the ideas of Lean and Six Sigma boil down to a fairly simple concept: Do the right things and do them every time.


Examine the workflows you engage in as part of your daily routine and see if there are things that are redundant, unnecessary, or just plain inconvenient.  Then figure out how to make them better.  Put a process in place that you can follow every time you encounter the task so you know you’re not taking unnecessary steps.  Then follow that plan.  Do that, and you’re just about ready for your Six Sigma Yellow Belt.


I’ll share a personal example.  When I was in practice, I worked at a firm where it took nearly an hour to open a new client file.  Clients would fill out a paper intake form, which we would then have to input by hand into a master client spreadsheet.  We have to look up the prosecutor’s office address on the internet or in a paper rolodex (yes, seriously, and yes, it was in this decade).  Same for the court’s address for filing.  We had form letters to the prosecutor, court, and client, but they weren’t set up for a mail merge or any sort of automatic data population.  Documents were printed in triplicate, signed by hand, walked down the hall to the copy machine to be copied, then paper copies were manually placed into the physical file folder.


Nothing was automated.  Nothing was in the cloud.  And we only had one paralegal, so I ended up opening most of my new files by myself.  All of this had to be done in the office, so it consumed a fair number of my hours in the office.  More productive work like researching, reviewing discovery, or drafting arguments was done after hours at my dining room table (after hauling paper files home for the night).


This is not an exaggeration.  It ultimately affected my ability to generate new business and limited my capacity to absorb work.  A bad situation all around.


I’m sure many of your reading this cringe as you think about how much time this must have taken away from billing.  I’m sure plenty also see some parallels to pain points within your own work day.  If you can spot even a few areas for possible improvement in this process, then you’ve got the right mindset to engage in a little process improvement.


The good news is there’s plenty you can do about it.  Process improvement can be an incredibly complex and involved process, but it doesn’t have to be.  To start, simply identify a process that just feels too burdensome.  Write the steps out on post-it notes.  Then look for duplication.  Look for things that you may be able to automate.  Look for things that you are doing that would perhaps be better handled by non-timekeeper staff.  Reducing duplication, increasing automation, or properly staffing tasks are all key strategies to right-sizing workflows.


In the end, you’ll create capacity for new work, reduce frustration, and if you’re like me and poor workflows are causing you to take work home, even improve your quality of life.  Worst case scenario, you try to improve the process, realize you can’t improve on it, and you stick with the status quo.  What’s there to lose?


Want to learn how to streamline your workflow? Download our matter management checklist for tips on how to improve.