An Introduction to Lean in the Practice of Law
By Karen Dunn Skinner and David Skinner
If you asked someone whether their processes needed improvement, they’d probably stare at you blankly. Their processes? That’s just the way they do things. It’s their normal. But once you open their eyes to a new normal, everything changes. The DOWNTIME framework we introduced in our last article is the key to opening their eyes.
We begin every process improvement project by asking people: what are you doing every day that seems harder or more complicated than necessary? What takes longer than it should? And then we teach them to look at their work as either value-adding or waste, using the value criteria we introduced to you last time.
If work isn’t adding value, it’s waste. Each letter in DOWNTIME stands for a different category of waste:
In this article and the following one, we’re going to take a deeper look at each of the DOWNTIME wastes. Today, we’re focusing on Defects, Over-production, Waiting, and Non-utilized talent.
Defects include any work that requires correction or rework because it wasn’t done properly the first time, whether by error or omission. It could be anything from a simple typo to missing a filing deadline to making a serious error in the law.
When you’re looking for defects, ask yourself: is the work you deliver or receive always right the first time? If not, if the work is incomplete or incorrect, if it’s in the wrong form, or it’s being sent to the wrong person, or if it’s just plain wrong, it’s a waste!
In a typical day, in a typical law office, there will be lots of defects. Don’t let the number of mistakes get you down. Every defect you find is an opportunity to improve your practice. Once you’ve spotted a defect, ask yourself why it happened. It’s important to look for the root cause of the problem. You want a permanent solution, not a bandaid.
Here’s an example from one of our clients:
During a project to improve a firm’s conflict clearance process, the conflict clerks complained that they were receiving incomplete intake forms. They constantly had to go back to the attorneys for more information. After some exploration, we discovered a few key problems with the intake form, including:
The attorneys usually asked their assistants to complete the forms, but the assistants didn’t always understand the questions or have enough information to complete all the fields; and
The forms contained a lot of questions that attorneys and assistants considered irrelevant, so they didn’t bother answering them.
The root cause of the incomplete intake forms was the form itself. It wasn’t clear, it lacked explanations, and it was too long. So the firm redesigned the form. Their new version provided clear instructions about what information was required and why. They also eliminated the irrelevant fields. The result was a significant reduction in the number of incorrect forms.
Over-production refers to doing more of something or doing it earlier or faster than required. It results in a mismatch between work product and need, and that’s a waste.
Over-production can be hard to spot, but think about it this way:
Do you keep paper files and electronic files for your matters?
When you and your team receive an email, how many people save it?
When you buy something, do you get a paper receipt and a copy via email?
What do all these things have in common? They’re all examples of the waste of overproduction.
Think about your own work. How often do you or your colleagues:
Cc everyone on a file, or worse, hit the reply-all button?
Print something (like an email!), file the paper copy, and also save an electronic copy?
Sit through a presentation where the presenter reads directly from the PowerPoint slides?
Get your work done way in advance (even though your teammates are busy on urgent things)?
In a law practice, people often work in silos, unaware of what others in their team are working on. This can cause a hard-to-spot type of over-production. When you get work done on Task A sooner than it’s required, it can seem efficient. But if other members of your team are under pressure to complete Task B immediately, and they need your help, then getting Task A done early is actually over-production. You should be helping the team complete Task B.
Identifying this kind of overproduction requires that you take an “enterprise view” of your group or your department. You need to know what your colleagues are doing and what problems they’re facing.
Still not convinced? Imagine you’re all rowing a boat. One of you is rowing harder or faster than everyone else. That person is working hard, getting it all done…but is your boat going to move efficiently through the water?
Pro Tip: Weekly meetings are an easy way to give everyone that enterprise view. In these short, regular, mandatory meetings, everyone has to answer three questions:
What have you done since the last meeting?
What do you have to do before the next meeting?
What support do you need to get that done?
It’s 9 a.m. You’re sitting in front of Zoom, staring at your own face, but the two people you’re meeting with aren’t there. When they do arrive, one can’t get the sound to work. Finally, at 9:06, everyone’s ready, and you start your meeting.
Almost every meeting starts a couple of minutes late, whether you’re in person or online. It’s normal, right? Wrong. It’s a waste.
Delays like this are easy examples of waiting waste, and they are everywhere, every day, in the practice of law. But there’s another sneaky form of waiting waste that is even more pernicious: interruptions.
Think about the number of times you’re in the middle of something and the phone rings, or someone pops into your office with a question.
Research suggests that office workers lose up to 2.5 hours of productive time every day to interruptions, and most people need between 8 and 20 minutes to get back on track after an interruption. All that time is a waste.
Reducing interruptions and waiting waste can have a huge impact on productivity across your firm. If you can eliminate even one minute of waiting time related to a task you do 5 times a day (like those interruptions or the meetings that don’t start on time!), you’ll save yourself 20 hours a year.
If it’s something others are also waiting on, the savings really add up. If five of you are waiting on the same thing, shaving off just one minute will save 2.5 weeks of time across the year!
We recommend you track how many times you’re interrupted and how much time you lose to delays every day for a week. Be prepared to be surprised by how much of your time is wasted. Once you’ve got your total, look at what or who is causing those waiting periods. Pick one that you can actually do something about and commit to changing it. Every waste you eliminate gets you one step closer to a streamlined, efficient practice!
Non-utilized talent is the misallocation of human capital. It’s having the wrong person doing a task—whether they’re over-qualified or under-qualified—and failing to take advantage of the full potential of everyone on your team.
Efficiency is having the right people doing the right work in your practice. To be efficient and profitable, you need to use the skills and talents of all the members of your team to the best of their abilities. Letting the wrong people do the wrong work wastes time and money. And it’s everywhere.
If we asked you to identify the biggest source of wasted time and revenue in a law practice, you probably wouldn’t pick non-utilized talent. But in every process improvement project we’ve worked on, the biggest benefit comes from shifting work to the most appropriate resources.
How often do you get pulled into doing work you can’t bill for, or lower-value work someone else could do, when you could (and should) be doing higher-level work? Each time this happens, it’s a waste.
Here are just a few examples of how our clients have eliminated the waste of non-utilized talent:
automating expense reporting to free up 3 FTEs, who could be allocated to other administrative work, rather than adding headcount
allowing legal assistants to create starting point documents from approved templates, saving hours of attorney time, and reducing write-offs in litigation matters.
shifting work from partners and associates to staff attorneys and paralegals, taking a fixed-fee practice from loss-making to profitable.
Look around your practice for opportunities to get the right people doing the right work.
Start with intake. It’s a key business process that can be done almost entirely without lawyer involvement, but in many of our client firms, lawyers do administrative tasks that should be allocated to others.
Look at other processes in your organization.
Are there junior people who have the aptitude to take on more challenging tasks if they had additional training, a checklist, or a good set of templates?
Can you see opportunities to outsource some or all tasks related to business services and copying, HR, accounting, and even legal work that falls outside your core offering?
Can you invest in new practice technologies that free up people to do more value-adding work?
If you’re in-house, is there work you can push back onto the business units?
Every time you move a task to a lower-cost resource, you’re freeing yourself up to do more of the “right work” for you: the work that adds more value to your bottom line.
DOWNTIME is an easy way to identify opportunities to improve your legal and business processes. Once you start, you’ll never look at your practice the same way.
In our next article, we’ll be looking at the last four DOWNTIME wastes: Transportation, Inventory, Motion, and Extra Processing. In the meantime, we challenge you to look for defects, over-production, waiting waste, and non-utilized talent in your practice. Every example you find is an opportunity to improve how you work, so you can deliver your excellent legal services better, faster, and cheaper.
About the Authors
Karen Dunn Skinner and David Skinner help lawyers earn more from their practices without working as hard. They believe every lawyer deserves a successful practice and the freedom to enjoy that success.
Together, they founded Gimbal Lean Practice Management Advisors after practicing law for more than 20 years in Canada and Europe. They’re the exclusive Global Advisors on Legal Process Improvement to the International Institute of Legal Project Management, and Karen sits on the IILPM’s Global Advisory Council.
Karen and David are global leaders in the application of Lean to the legal profession. They write and speak regularly, facilitate legal process improvement projects, and have taught Gimbal’s proven LeanLegal® approach to thousands of legal professionals around the world.
They combine their deep understanding of the legal industry with their training in Lean Six Sigma to provide practical solutions to the competitive and budgetary pressures on practitioners and clients alike.
Karen and David live in Montreal.