A template for law firm process improvement: professional sport

Lawyers and law firms could learn a lot from professional sports.  The aim of professional sportsmen and women is to focus on what they are especially good at and perform at (or very close to) their maximum levels consistently.  Spending too long considering anything else is viewed as an unnecessary distraction.  Individual professional athletes and sports teams will engage a wide range of non-playing professionals to take care of ‘all the other stuff’.  In modern sport few become successful without a first class support team of non-playing professionals.

Coaching individuals and teams

Immediately after winning Wimbledon, Andy Murray made his way straight to ‘team Murray’: his Coach, Ivan Lendl and the other non-playing professionals who provide him with everything he needs regards fitness, nutrition, practice sessions, physiotherapy, psychology and much else besides.  His girlfriend Kim Sears also got a quick hug but, famously, his mother Judy was almost forgotten at the time of his greatest triumph.  Andy made perfectly clear the enormous debt he feels he owes ‘team Murray’.

Arguably the role of head coach and other coaching staff becomes even more important in team sports. In addition to improving skills of individuals, the coaching staff must ensure that everyone fully understands team tactics and their role during any team ‘play’.  To help achieve these aims considerable use is made of technology, which provides real-time feedback about performance and allows for detailed analysis of opponent’s strengths and weaknesses etc.

Generally, the speed, strength, stamina and technique exhibited by top class sports people goes way beyond that seen in their sports 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.  All this results directly from improvements made in sports nutrition, conditioning and coaching.  Clearly professional sport is fiercely competitive, which is why coaches and athletes alike usually share a commitment to ‘continuous improvement’.

The ‘aggregation of marginal gains’

The British Olympic Cycling team and Team Sky cycling team, both headed up by Dave Brailsford, are probably the most well-known examples of applying process improvement and project management techniques to achieve sporting success.

Dave Brailsford’s references to ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’, sums up his approach: every possible aspect of individual and team performance is examined to see if improvements, no matter how small, can be made.  If small improvements can be found – 1% here, 1% there – then these aggregated together translate into a significant impact on overall performance.  Team Sky now have Tour de France winners of 2012 and 2013 and the British Olympic Cycling team have dominated the last two Olympic Games, at Beijing in 2008 and London 2012.  This stuff works.

In a recent Guardian interview Brailsford explained that there was a review shortly after the London 2012 Olympics.  He and his coaching colleagues asked themselves ‘what next?’.  There was some speculation that the coaching team would disperse.  Brailsford’s summary of the review is revealing:

We sat down and thought about what we enjoy doing, what do we have fun with?  We all drew the same conclusion: we all like the process of development and the challenge of continuous improvement.  Winning is the by-product of that.

It is easy to imagine Dave Brailsford and his coaching team sitting down with the stars of the show – the riders –  to explain their training data, upcoming event route and tactics to follow.  The riders will clearly have some input, but most of the time the coaching team will set the tactics for the riders to execute.  The riders need to be able to react to changing events during a race but they will be doing so within the framework of the team strategy: a strategy that is designed to maximise performance of each individual athlete and the team as whole.

Law firm ‘coaching staff’ and ‘game plans’ for the firm

Arguably people with equivalent roles as Dave Brailsford in law firms have titles such as Practice Director, Head of Operations or perhaps Head of Knowledge Management.  Their staff should be considered as the law firm coaching team, with skills in data analysis, IT, process improvement and project management.

Frankly, given the way most law firms appear to be run,  it is difficult to envisage something like the following conversation between non-lawyer professionals and the stars of a law firm (the partners):

Head of Operations: “based on the research we have done and the data we have analysed, this is how the firm should be run to maximise its performance; we have plans for teams and individuals to follow which will be supplemented by coaching to improve perceived weaknesses of each individual as part of their continuing professional development”

Partners: “fine by us – tell us what to do in more detail so we can improve further”.

Time to give non-lawyer professionals greater authority?

Some law firms have clearly demonstrated commitment to process improvement and, with it, the elevation in status of various ‘support staff’.  More often however non-lawyer professionals with expertise in areas other than law are allowed to perhaps tinker around the edges.  Change of any substance need approval and authorisation of the senior partners, who are still mostly likely to be practising lawyers.

Many would say this is fair enough, after all, the partners own the firm.  However it is reasonable to ask: what knowledge and expertise do typical law firm partners have which confer on them the right (other than ownership of the business) to second guess, override or simply ignore professionals skilled in other areas?

Imagine a law firm of the (near) future

Imagine how a law firm might work if non-lawyer professionals, with valuable process improvement and project management skills, were given a greater say in the way the firm operates.

In fact, to extend this argument to its logical conclusion, imagine law firms being managed entirely by professionals who do not practice law.  Note that this should include former practitioners who have supplemented their legal skills with others (in sports many successful coaches are former professional players who have gone on to develop coaching skills).

For those of you who have not seen this before, this is how I imagine a law firm of the near future working:

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Easy money?

A finance director who entered the legal profession mid-way through his career once lamented to me (well before 2008) that lawyers ‘make their money too easily’ and this contributed towards relatively lax billing and collection processes for example.  Most lawyers no longer have it so easy.  A quick online search produces many articles reporting and tracking law firm failures and lawyer redundancies. Times have changed.

There is little doubt the nature of legal practice is changing too but, generally, the pace of change seems slack when set against the urgency of increasing client demand and acute downward pressure on costs.  The way legal services are delivered needs to change, and change at a quicker pace than we have seen during the last few years.

Stardust

Many practising lawyers often complain that they become involved in too much administration and ‘office processes’.  Well, leaving aside minimum regulatory requirements, they need not become involved in most of these things at all – and certainly not in the detail.  I contend that lawyers would be able to serve their clients better if they left the running of their firm to those with greater expertise and experience of managing change successfully.

If lawyers were left to focus solely on practising law and delivering the much sought after ‘added value’ to their clients, they would still be the ‘stars’ and remunerated appropriately. Most clients will continue to demand that lawyers remain the fulcrum at the point of delivery, but I’d suggest that how (and perhaps what) they deliver will in future be more reflective of the work done by their ‘coaching team’.

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