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Legal process improvement initiatives: 7 tips to help you make a successful start

You have been made responsible for the delivery of a legal process improvement initiative in your law firm.

What are the first things you need to think about to ensure the initiative succeeds?


1. Always keep client need in mind

It feels natural to become inward looking when running legal process improvement initiatives.  After all, the processes under review are within your firm.

Unfortunately one result of being inward looking is that after processes are improved life is made easier for legal service delivery teams, but not so much for the firms clients.

Improving legal team effectiveness and efficiency are worthwhile objectives, but they should be secondary considerations.

Primary consideration should be improving value received by clients as a result of their interaction with your firm.

When people ask me where to start making process improvements in their law firm, my starting point is to ask them questions such as: What process improvements would result in an enhanced client experience?  What would help clients feel they are receiving increased value from your firm?

The best way of developing processes which deliver increased client value is to ask clients directly how the legal service can be improved.  Even better is to involve clients in the process improvement initiative.

Another way of applying this concept of client value is to constantly ask during the process improvement initiative: would the client pay for this activity if they knew it was being done and being done in the way it is being done?  If the answer is ‘no’ to either question then the process activity is a very strong candidate to be eliminated or changed substantially.


2. Break things down

From an operational delivery perspective, the first thing all good project managers think of is how to break projects down into more manageable chunks of work.

Do this and you will soon realise you are being asked to manage several projects here, not just one.

Ideally, firms should focus on improving processes and apply them, and only later look to automate the improved processes.

In my experience law firms embark on process improvement initiatives because they want to embrace software automation and all the potential benefits this brings.  What this means in practice is that they move to automate sooner rather than later.

Consequently, process improvement initiatives quickly grow in size and complexity.  They often include an I.T delivery project, which is usually quite a significant undertaking itself.

It is not unusual for process improvement initiatives to consist of the following, each of which can be legitimately called a project in its own right:

Project 1: Understanding the current process(es) under review and identifying improvements.

Project 2: Reviewing your firm’s systems to see if you can implement improved processes with the systems you already have available.

Project 3: If the outcome of project 2 is a ‘no’ then you will need to review the market, select a system and install it.

Project 4: Automating and implementing process improvements in the system you have available (including workflow development and staff training about how to use the new systems and processes).

Project 5: Monitoring post-implementation to make sure the new processes are being adopted and used properly.  Evidence for this will be your firm becoming more efficient which leads to a clear Return On Investment from the process improvement initiative.

To adopt the project management terminology for a moment, you will be running a Programme.


3. Adopt a programme management mindset

A Programme comprises several projects, each of which are related. The related projects are intended to achieve a significant change in an organisation.

For most process improvement initiatives I have run, I have adopted the mindset that I am running a programme rather than one large project.  I suggest you should too.

Breaking things down into individual projects will help you run the legal process improvement initiative much more effectively.  It will help put you in control.  Most important, it will help you deliver results.

The absolute essential point of a programme management approach is that you need to look for inter-dependencies between projects and manage these properly.

To take the most obvious example by way of illustration: ‘future state’ process maps (i.e the maps which show the new and improved processes) must be very detailed if they are to be implemented in a workflow automation system.

In theory a workflow developer should be able to take the future state maps and create an initial working system from the maps alone.  The detailed process maps are the inter-dependencies between the process mapping and I.T implementation projects.

To manage these inter-dependencies, and so much else, you need to be prepared to work alongside people with a wide range of skills and experience (see below).

I also think you need to understand the work that needs to be done in each project for each to succeed.  You may not need to know all the detail all the time, but you must be prepared to quickly dive into detail as and when required.

Another useful aspect of a programme management approach is that it encourages more clearly defined stage gates, where go / no-go decisions can be taken.  The most obvious stage gates are at the end of each project, although you can have stage gates within projects too.

To make stage gate decisions senior management needs to have information about project progress (cost, schedule and resourcing).  Stage gates force this information to the surface and demand decisions are taken.


4. Scope and plan each project

There is no getting away from project planning.  I don’t understand why some people don’t like this – I think it’s fun!

Project planning answers questions such as:

Why are we doing this project?

How are we going to be doing it?

What are the key project deliverables?

Who will we need on the project team?

What resources will we need to complete the project?

How long will it take to complete?

How much is the project going to cost?

Research shows the best project managers spend almost twice as much time planning than less effective project managers.  The better project managers know that time spent planning is not wasted and they act accordingly.  You should too.


5. Develop a great relationship with the programme sponsor

I am assuming that any significant legal process improvement initiative will have a project / programme sponsor in your firm.  If not, you must make sure one is appointed.

In my experience having a good programme sponsor contributes significantly to the likelihood of success.

The sponsor will usually be a senior role holder, perhaps a partner, practice director or in larger firms Chief Operations Officer or similar.

You can’t assume your sponsor knows how to be an effective sponsor.  Most don’t.

Compared to the role of project manager, there is little training or guidance available for sponsors.  Hence you will probably need to educate your sponsor about the role as the programme develops.

From a practical viewpoint, you will want your sponsor to:

  • Make sure the legal process improvement initiative remains aligned to organisational objectives, which could mean changing aspects of the programme as it develops
  • Be prepared to make key decisions (including stage gate decisions) and / or be prepared to talk through and support the key decisions you make
  • Ensure that you have the right type and quantity of resources to complete the programme on time.

You and your sponsor must share the same vision of programme success, i.e the benefits it will bring to the organisation and how the programme will realise those benefits.

As with any good relationship, honesty and integrity are required from both you and your sponsor so trust can be developed.

I think it’s impossible to run a programme like this successfully if you don’t trust your sponsor and your sponsor does not trust you.


6. Develop a great relationship with your delivery team

Running a complex legal process improvement programme requires input from people with differing skills, experience, and perspectives.

For example, you will probably need to engage someone with good process mapping skills.  Both you and the process mapper will need to work with representatives of every role found in the process(es) under review and engage with I.T staff from both inside and outside your organisation.  This is your legal process improvement delivery team.

As with your programme sponsor, you need to develop trust with your delivery team.

Building trust here can be harder.  For example, some of the team may be concerned about whether their roles will change or perhaps even be made redundant as a result of process improvements.  Also, any delivery team members from outside your organisation will presumably have their primary loyalty to their employer organisation rather than your firm.  There is nothing inherently wrong with any of this.  You just need to be prepared for it and be able to manage it well.

To repeat: displaying honesty and integrity as the platform for building trust is key to effective delivery team management.


7. Manage expectations

Managing expectations properly is vital on any project / programme.  The more complex, time consuming and resource intensive the initiative, the more important expectation management becomes.

As is well-known, the way to manage expectations properly is to communicate effectively.  This means communicating with all key stakeholders regularly and consistently.

All the communications should be clear and understandable.  Avoiding project management terminology usually helps with this.

Be prepared to deliver bad news (but include suggestions for mitigating the effects of delays and cost overruns etc) as well as good.

Never try to bury bad news or ignore it.  If things are not going well reflect and discuss with your sponsor and delivery team and come up with some workable solutions.


7 Starting points: would you like to find out more?

The points listed above are some things to think about at the start of any new legal process improvement initiative. There is much more to consider if you are to deliver legal process improvement initiatives successfully.

You can discover more by attending my Legal Project Management training and certification course which covers some principles for managing legal process improvement projects.

For much more information about the management and delivery of legal process improvement initiatives, attend my legal process improvement course, which leads to the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM) certification of Legal Process Improvement Professional (LPIP).

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