Thinking Lean: Five Steps to a More Efficient Legal Practice

Most of us have tried (or been told to) do more with less. But what exactly does that mean, and how do you do it? The Lean philosophy of continuous improvement provides a framework and set of tools/activities to help you reduce costs, improve quality, and increase production. In other words, Lean helps you do more with less. By focusing on value-added activities, Lean can help you create more value for your clients, improve your work-life balance, reduce costs, and increase profits. This article will give you five quick steps to start making your legal practice Lean.

What is “Lean?”

The Lean process improvement philosophy comes from a management system developed in post-war Japan by Toyota. This system was designed to eliminate waste and inefficiency from a manufacturing process, creating opportunities to increase quality while simultaneously reducing costs. Over time, Lean expanded beyond manufacturing and has been adopted by and adapted to nearly every major industry, including health care, finance, construction, engineering, and technology. While the legal industry has been slow to embrace the Lean philosophy, that is quickly changing as major national and global firms like Seyfarth Shaw and Clifford Chance establish lean practices, and corporate law departments look for ways to control legal costs.

If you’re interested in making your legal practice “Lean,” taking the first step can be intimidating. Hundreds of books, seminars, and experts offer the latest and greatest techniques. Not only that, but you’ll find an exceptional amount of jargon. If you talk to a Lean practitioner, they may ask you about Muda, Mura, and Muri; they might suggest using a Kanban to implement your Kaizen; they might even offer to conduct a Gemba walk. But fear not! You do not need to know any of this terminology to become Lean. Just remember that at its core, Lean philosophy is simply about focusing on value-added activities by eliminating inefficiency—as mentioned above, doing more with less. And as long as you understand that basic concept, the methods become common sense.

Step 1. Choose a process or a problem to fix

We all have tasks we complete at work that feel like a waste of time or that we know have unnecessary steps. Lean will help you identify those unnecessary tasks and eliminate them. The first step is to decide what process to analyze. This is sometimes called project scoping. If possible, try to choose something discrete and tangible. For example, drafting a research memo, filing a complaint, or conducting discovery. Your process may initially take the form of a problem statement, for example; settlement negotiations are taking too long, time is not being billed accurately, or we have a backlog of subpoena requests.

Once you’ve identified the process or problem to fix, you will need to define the scope or parameters of the process. Try using 20 words or fewer to answer the question: what is the purpose of the process? At a minimum, you will then need to identify start and endpoints of that process. Ideally, you will also identify five to seven high-level steps between the start and endpoints. Don’t worry about the details yet—you will get to those later.

Step 2. Stakeholders and gap analysis

Now that you know your project scope it’s time to start analyzing. As we’ve said, lean is all about eliminating waste and focusing on value-added activities. But value to who? Depending on the process being analyzed, and your role in the process, your goal might be to create value for your client, for your boss, or for yourself. To sort that out you need to know who your stakeholders are.

Stakeholders are the “customers” of the process. In this context, “customers” means anyone that provides input into the process or receives an output. It is not just the client. For example, if we are analyzing the process of drafting a research memo, our list of customers will likely include an associate, administrative staff, a manager or partner, and the client. A typical process will have three to five customers.

Now determine what your customers need from the process. Think from the perspective of each customer. Staying with our example of the research memo, the client needs a clear concise answer, the partner needs an error-free draft, and the associate needs time to complete research. Each customer will typically have three to five needs.

After you have your list of customers and have identified needs for each customer, conduct a gap analysis to determine how well customer needs are being met. You have several different gap analysis tools to choose from—the method you use is less important than the result: you want to end up with a comparison of actual performance with potential or desired performance. The gaps between these two states are where needs are not being met. And these gaps are the first place to target for process improvements.

Step 3. Map your process and identify issues

Now it’s time to get into the details. A process map is a visual representation of the tasks completed in your process, similar to a flow chart. To begin process mapping, start with your high-level steps, then begin filling in the detailed tasks underneath those steps. Place your “trigger” at the start of the map, then ask yourself “what happens next?” Try to use simple verb-noun formatting and indicate who is responsible for each step. For example, the trigger for a research memo might be written as “client requests legal opinion.” The next step might say, “Partner assigns question to associate,” then, “Associate begins researching case law” and on like this until you reach your defined endpoint. Your process almost certainly will not be a simple line, so you will use decision points to indicate where the process breaks off into different branches. To create your process map, you can use a program like Excel, Visio, specialized process mapping software, or use my preferred method—3×5 sticky notes.

An example of a process map is below:

Once your process is fully mapped out, begin using the map as a tool to identify and eliminate inefficiency. Review your map and challenge each step—does it add value? Is there a simpler way of completing the step? Is the right person doing the task? Look for ways to remove or streamline decision points. Is the right person making the decision? Are there too many layers of review? Are there unnecessary approvals that cost time? Manual processes that can be automated? Where are the excess wait times or delays in the process? What is causing these bottlenecks and how can you remove them? Make note of all of the issues you identify during this analysis.

Step 4. Root cause analysis and idea generation

An important principle of lean is to make process changes that address the root cause of an issue, i.e. you don’t want to just put out fires, you want to prevent them. A simple but powerful lean tool used to uncover the root cause of a problem or issue is the “5 whys.”

The “5 whys” method of root cause analysis is exactly what it sounds like: take your issue statement and ask “why?” Repeat this five times, and by doing so—according to Taiichi Ohno, one of the creators of the Lean philosophy at Toyota—the “nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear.” A well-known example of this technique being used in real life involving the Jefferson Memorial can be seen here.

As you generate ideas through this root cause analysis, also revisit your initial gap analysis. Are your ideas addressing each need? What changes need to be made to close the gaps you identified? Begin sorting your ideas into categories. Typical categories include forms, technology, training, and communication.

Step 5. Implementation and continuous improvement

The final step in your Lean process improvement is the implementation of your ideas and process changes. Depending on the size and scope of your process, this can become very complicated. Review your list of ideas and determine what kind of resources you will need to successfully make your process changes. Do you need authorization from others in your organization? How many people need to be involved? Will it require funding? How much time will it take to make these changes? Your answers to these questions will help you begin drafting an implementation plan.

Several tools and methods for designing and executing an implementation plan are available. A traditional Lean method is a Kanban board, but many projects can be managed with a Gantt chart, a timeline, or even a simple checklist. The important thing is that it works for you, so research project management tools online and choose the method that you are most comfortable with.

After you begin making your process changes and seeing results, you might think that your Lean journey is complete, but in reality, you are only getting started: Becoming lean, or incorporating Lean principles into your legal practice, is not necessarily a short-term solution or a quick-fix. Practicing Lean is a way of thinking—it is about embracing continuous improvement. That means constantly analyzing your processes and making adjustments to eliminate inefficiencies. And by doing this, whether you use these steps to manage your email inbox or standardize high-volume litigation work, you will continue to reap the benefits through happier clients, lower costs, and improved work/life balance.

About the Author

CasbyMatthew Casby is an attorney with the state of Michigan, and a certified facilitator of the state’s Lean Process Improvement (LPI) methodology. He works in the state’s Office of Continuous Improvement (OCI), facilitating the analysis and redesign of processes that are customer-focused, statutorily aligned, and streamlined for efficiency and effectiveness.

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