Lean Law Pt II: A Quick Guide To Improve Your Legal Staff and Operations

In Part I of our series on Lean Law, we discussed how applying Lean thinking to your practice can help optimize costs, quality, and customer service by focusing on creating and delivering value in the eyes of the customer and eliminating whatever doesn't contribute to this goal.

But how and where to begin?

When operating a law practice, your product is your people, and when labor is up to 60% of law firm total cost—your workforce is a high impact area and good starting point for Lean adoption.

Here’s a guide you can use to apply Lean principles to your talent operations today:

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Step 1—Process map.

Seyfarth Lean, a Lean Law pioneer recommends starting the Lean journey by developing a process map.

The basics steps are:

  1. Gather all of the stakeholders in a particular process.

  2. Define the workflow.

  3. Identify each step and the people, materials, and time to complete involved at each step.

Here’s a sample Seyfarth gives of an ideal process map for the first two days in a commercial litigation case. Note how steps, materials, timelines, and responsible parties are defined.

“Legal matter and business processes can be something of a mystery,” says Karen Dunn Skinner, CEO of Gimbal, a lean law practice advisory firm. “We only know the parts that we’re involved in. But you can’t improve what you don’t know… and you need to know who’s doing what, when, and how along the entire life of a matter or a business process. Mapping is, hands down, the most effective way to do this.”

You’d be surprised at the different perceptions the support staff, attorneys, and even clients have about how your internal operations are working.  It’s not until you get everyone in a room together that you are able to formulate some common ground and understanding of the process.


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Step 2—Eliminate waste.

The key principle of Lean is the elimination of waste, which is any activity that does not add value to an organization's end product. Once you’ve nailed down how you’re delivering services currently, analyze your process to make sure the right people are performing the right tasks:

  • Review the roles and tasks of everyone in the firm, from senior partner to administrative assistant for inefficiencies—these will vary by practice setting but a few common causes of waste are:

    • Too many staff involved in a particular step

    • Too much time on inessential communications

    • Redundant or unnecessary steps

  • Analyze whose skill set is best suited to varying practice areas and complexity, and allot their time and focus accordingly.

  • Standardize processes — create forms, checklists and other project management tools to support staff tasks and ensure compliance and reduce errors.

  • Analyze where embracing technology can help with the project management and compliance, such as automating redundant tasks and ensuring lawyers are only working on the more complex tasks for which they were hired.


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Step 3—Have a just-in-time strategy to scale up and down with projects that require specialists.

An important concept in Toyota’s Production System (TPS, the basis of lean methodology) is Just-In-Time production— the idea that parts should only be supplied as needed. Too much inventory leads to depreciation and waste, while insufficient inventory means delays and bottlenecks.

To apply this concept to law, experts recommend:

  • Choosing team members for a project based on their specialization and the results that they can deliver rather than generalists for larger more nebulous roles.

  • Assessing projects and their budget, finding specialists with the right experience and price point for each stage of the project.

  • Keeping a leaner core staff.

  • Working with flexible legal talent with the specialized expertise you anticipate needing less than at full capacity who can jump in as needed and when your team is at full capacity. Since legal talent are not widgets, it’s important to vet and build a pipeline of talent ahead of time.

Teams structured this way are able to scale up and down quickly and can achieve better results with efficiencies that positively impact the bottom line.


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Step 4—Develop and value your employees.  

Going Lean doesn’t necessarily mean cutting employees to save on costs; it means engaging your partners and staff in developing the processes you use and allowing them to improve upon those points in the process with which they directly interact. Lean looks not only at how many people are involved in a process—but how it is done, and how it can be done better.

By developing your employees, valuing and acting upon their input, and removing unnecessary blockers so that they can make greater progress— you increase the motivation and productivity of your staff.  This can lead to more revenue for your law firm (or savings for your legal department), and greater employee satisfaction and lower turnover (a huge cost for all employers).


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Step 5—Continually improve your processes, and focus on root causes.

The biggest difference between traditionally managed and lean legal departments is a laser focus on process improvement. Lean law firms focus on identifying the root causes of a problem and where a process breakdown occurred—and adjust accordingly.

To identify root causes, lean advocates recommend asking “why” five times. Lisa Damon, a partner at Seyfarth Shaw, offers this example:

  • Why did the client have only one day to review the draft responses? Because the lawyer did not finish drafting them until two days before responses were due.

  • Why did it take so long for the lawyer to draft the responses? Because he did not get all the information from the client earlier.

  • Why did it take so long to get the information? Because the client did not understand the scope of the requests.

  • Why did the client not understand the scope of the requests? Because the lawyer and client did not go over the requests together.

  • Why did the lawyer not review the requests with the client? Because he assumed the client understood how to read discovery requests.

Asking “why” five times got to the heart of the problem: the lawyer should review the requests with a client before the client assembles responses.


Law firms and legal departments can be incredibly change-averse and many lawyers are ambivalent to Lean principles believing their focus is the art of lawyering and not operations.

But the practice of law as we knew it is evolving, and clients increasingly place value on efficiency and ease in an increasingly complex regulatory and business environment.

With Lean, you can smooth out your operations—and dramatically cut expenditures—while increasing employee and client satisfaction, making the practice of law less chaotic and stressful for everyone.