What can a law firm learn from a tech start-up or manufacturing company when it comes to running a business? More than you might think. Even if you’ve never heard of them, methodologies like Agile, Six Sigma, Lean, and Kanban can provide some important lessons for incrementally improving the delivery of legal services.
The Customization Problem
Whether or not we call our firm a “boutique firm,” a term which in reality means very little, we tend to approach most every case with a one-off custom solution. Sure, there is some standardization in terms of mandatory court forms and those go-to pleadings you keep stored on your hard drive, but, in general, each client gets a specially tailored solution made exactly for her.
The problem is that custom solutions cost time and money, which in turn prices out potential clients from using a lawyer at all. When it comes to my domain in family law, it is estimated that at least one party is self-represented in 80 to 90 percent of cases in California and 67 percent of parties self-represent overall, according to a report by the National Center for State Courts.
Think about that for a second: 67 percent of the market is untapped. And common sense says that these people aren’t simply choosing the DIY route for their all-important issues of marital assets and child custody—they simply cannot afford the traditionally high costs of representation exacerbated by the lengthy time it takes to build a custom-tailored solution for each client.
We do have some tools to speed this process up, thereby reducing the cost to the client under the billable hour model. We acquire tech, such as document generation tools or practice management platforms to speed up a single point of the delivery cycle, but rarely do we step back and look at the process as a whole.
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This is where Agile, Six Sigma, Lean, Kanban, and other software and manufacturing methodologies can come into play. The abbreviated history of the methodologies is this: After World War II, Toyota revolutionized auto manufacturing by dedicating themselves to constant retrospective evaluation and incremental improvement of each stage of a standardized process. Their lean manufacturing theories evolved into software development methods that drove the start-up booms.
This is not about “reinventing” law as a whole—just a series of small improvements, made by your team after some serious self-evaluation of past cases: identifying and improving upon the repeatable steps that are commonly taken in cases, as well as the common bottlenecks. Making these tweaks will add up to saved time and added value to clients in the long run. And with enough standardization in cases comes shorter and more predictable time to delivery, and dare I say it: fewer billable hours or perhaps flat rate fees (even in litigation).
Still not convinced? This video presentation from Clio’s lawyer in residence Joshua Lenon does a great job of bringing the point home:
How does your law firm become lean and agile? These five resources can help:
1. The Vocabulary
I must admit: nothing turns me off quicker than corporate-sounding vocabulary. And after a few years in a corporate setting, terms like “thought leadership,” “KPIs,” and my all-time favorite line from an email: “leverage modular inclusion of work already completed,” the thought of Black’s Law Dictionary and res ipsa loquitor make me downright nostalgic. My initial reaction to Agile and its related concepts was similar—I don’t know what a Kanban or a Six Sigma is, but it doesn’t sound like it’ll translate to a billable hour. (Spoiler alert: it might not, but it does translate to added value overall.)
The Wikipedia articles for Agile, Lean, Kanban, and Six Sigma are an okay place to start, though skim them if you aren’t a tech guy—they can be a bit dry, as they focus on the application of these theories to software development, rather than the law.
“The Dawn of the Agile Attorney,” by John E. Grant for the ABA’s Law Practice Today, contains a more law-centric introduction to Agile and its related concepts, as well as a breakdown of the key vocabulary terms.
If you suffer from an aversion to arguably hokey-sounding vocabulary, the only thing I can tell you is to press forward: you’ll do justice to the old corporatism of “work smarter, not harder” if you do.
2. The Blogs and the Book
You’re starting to get a vague notion of what Agile, Lean, and the related concepts and methodologies are all about in the software context, but how can you translate them to your estate planning or immigration law practice?
One great resource that I’ve found is John Grant’s Agile Attorney blog. A few particularly interesting posts include:
- Insiders’ Views: How Lawyers Can Benefit from Lean Six Sigma
- For Process Improvement, Stop Starting at the Beginning
3. The Online Communities
Change is never easy. And you’ll run into stumbling blocks along the way: reticent employees, the ever-tempting “I’ll worry about that after I finish this big case,” etc. Plus, it can be downright confusing trying to figure out how these theories can apply to law generally—let alone your state-specific practice.
For those interested in driving change and optimizing their workflows, there are online groups of like-minded attorneys discussing their implementation of Agile methodologies, including Kanban boards, in this Google+ community.
4. The Apps
You know what app you need to set up a Kanban board? None. Post-It notes and a pen are all you really need. However, if you’re like me, you’ve become a bit addicted to the cloud and you want access to your workflows and work product everywhere.
Two apps fit the bill well: the Post-It Notes app (alas, iOS only), which allows you to take a picture of your notes posted on the wall (and it converts them to digital notes that you can rearrange), and Trello: an app for collaborative workflow board (Kanban board) drafting.
5. The Consultants
Finally, if you want help turning theory into practice, one place to look is Agile Attorney Consulting (founded by John Grant). It seeks to help firms and attorneys implement Agile and Lean theories to increase the value they produce and pass on to clients.