What Lean Law Really Means

 
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Lean Law principles are about improving operations and the overall experience for your Client—

—not just reducing overhead. And it requires a change in thinking.

This is the first part of a three-part series from Hire An Esquire on adopting Lean to your legal practice.

Last week, Pierce Bainbridge announced it added 13 lawyers to its roster, making it one of the fastest-growing litigation firms in the U.S. Founding and managing partner John Pierce, a former Latham & Watkins and Quinn Emanuel partner told The American Lawyer: “For us, when we ‘launch’ in a major market, that just means that we’re investing in talent; we don’t get floors of skyscrapers and mahogany wood or glass. We’re more like special operations forces that travel light and strike hard.”

If you’ve noticed an increase in the founding of sophisticated, modern boutique firms, and entrepreneurial partners departing BigLaw to build the more perfect law firm, you’ve probably heard the term “Lean Law” thrown around.

 
Clearly defined expectations and processes result in better employee onboarding, higher employee satisfaction, and lower turnover.
 

A Lean Law Primer

Lean Thinking emerged in the late 90s as a methodology based on Toyota’s Production System to produce cars. It’s a philosophy that advocates customer focus, waste elimination, and continuous process improvement.

Once applied to manufacturing, the legal industry has more recently been adopting Lean. In this excellent overview, Lean Law evangelist Kenneth Grady emphasizes that the focus for law firms isn’t to reduce costs, though that’s certainly a benefit. Lean requires looking at your operational processes for getting work done, and identifying 1) those things that add value to the client, and 2) those that don’t, which are eliminated as waste.

Indeed, the starting point in any process improvement is the ‘voice of the client’.  For law, this means establishing what your client wants, what they value—and ensuring this is what is delivered every time. Today this often means delivering better work product—in less time, at a lower cost.

While it may sound like a tall order amidst the already intense workload at most law firms, learning what clients want and running operations through Lean methodology to deliver this increases firm profitability by eliminating waste while strengthening and growing client relationships and referrals.  

 

Lean requires a change in thinking

Lean is not limited to small law firms that look straight out of an Apple commercial or to behemoths like Seyfarth Shaw who have built out their own Lean systems. While there’s no shortage of processes to which you can apply Lean thinking in your firm, you can’t just throw process at your firm and expect a magical transformation.

Applying Lean first requires a focus on process thinking. This is a culture shift for many existing firms and not instinctual for many lawyers trained in a traditional environment—even if they are highly enthusiastic about Lean concepts. Giving careful thought to change management, building a culture around process thinking, and motivating and incentivizing your team is more than half the battle in implementing Lean Law.

While this shift is not easy and there may be initial resistance, over time it will create a better work environment for your team. Clearly defined expectations and processes result in better employee onboarding, higher employee satisfaction, and lower turnover. The top reasons for losing new hires were poor onboarding and lack of clarity surrounding job duties and expectations. Reducing unnecessary employee turnover eliminates waste and also ensures a smoother client experience.

Still, as many law firms adopt lean—one of the greatest motivators for leadership and attorneys seems to be survival. With LPOs and an increasing number of law firms providing the benefits of Lean to their clients, these efficiencies are no longer a competitive edge; they’re expected. “Mastering the client value function is a key to survival now, as unlimited rate hikes are no longer an option in maintaining profitability,” said Melissa Prince, Chief Client Value Officer at Ballard Spahr, to The American Lawyer this year. “I think we’re going to see very rapidly in the next few years very large firms disappear if they can’t figure out this model.”