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Legal Process Mapping: will law firms fully embrace change?

Reflecting the way many of their commercial clients operate, an increasing number of law firms are investigating project based techniques to help deliver higher quality legal services at prices their clients can afford.  A combined approach of Legal Project Management and legal service process mapping seems to be attracting most interest at the moment.  Whichever methodologies and techniques are adopted new processes have to be implemented fully, with revised working practices applied daily, if the hoped for gains in productivity and profitability are to be realised.  This sounds obvious, but the U.K. legal services industry has been at a similar juncture before.  There was a lot of enthusiasm, sign-up and serious expenditure.  There was also a widespread failure of nerve to follow through and implement properly.  This time around, will law firms fully embrace change?

About 10 – 15 years ago there was a rush to implement legal workflow software.  During the years since, I have from time to time spoken to quite a few people from different law firms and different software organisations.  I think the picture painted below is representative of that part of the legal services industry which sought to ride the first waves of workflow enthusiasm.

At that time the notion of using workflow software applications to drive through ‘high volume-low margin’ case work (such as that associated with the defendant personal injury or conveyancing practice areas) became widely accepted.  Everyone could appreciate how shared electronic diaries, automatic routing of work to the most appropriate personnel, escalation of issues (usually jeopardised deadlines) and improved reporting could help make operations more efficient and cost effective.  Workflow designers used (and still use) diagrammatic process mapping tools as part of their design phase.  This approach was not too far removed from ‘Lean’ process mapping and its derivatives.  Workflow designers did not necessarily adopt the Lean terminology and spend time working out how long certain tasks were queued and what the optimum throughput could be, but given the working practices found in many law firms at that time there was no need: once the existing processes were examined and represented diagrammatically, the bottlenecks causing inefficiencies soon become obvious, as were the means for improvement.

Generally however, there were two significant problems with the initial waves of legal workflow implementation:

1. Resistance by practicing lawyers to change their processes.

Workflow developers (many of whom had a legal background) worked alongside practising lawyers to analyse existing processes, create new ones and represent them in workflow software applications.  Convincing practising lawyers to redesign ‘their’ processes was (and remains) an extremely difficult task.  The practitioners often insisted on very detailed workflows.  In fairness it should be pointed out that they were constrained by legal procedural requirements (most obviously in the field of litigation) and any client service level agreements their firms already had in place and were committed to.  Added to this, individual lawyers often believed they were representing their department, and so were not inclined to leave any stone unturned as a matter of professional and personal pride.  Hence the workflows often ended up simply replicating, not re-designing, existing processes – and with more detail added-in for good measure.

 2. Reluctance (often a flat refusal) of law firms to change the profile of staff running cases.

It was widely accepted that most productivity gains would accrue when less expensive personnel, ie staff who were not qualified lawyers, used the workflow software to perform much of the operational case management work.  The prevailing view seemed to be that qualified lawyers could be best deployed managing small teams of non-lawyer case handlers and being available to deal with exceptional issues escalated to them.  All was not as it seemed however.  Many law firms were unwilling, or felt unable, to re-configure their staff profile in this way.  This may have been due to cultural issues or fear of increased risk exposure associated with a model of case handling teams as outlined above.  Regardless of the reasoning, the result was that fullest productivity gains were rarely achieved.  Teams of expensive, well-educated, and well qualified lawyers were asked to run very detailed workflows.  Unsurprisingly, most of the lawyers disliked this way of working.  Many lawyers complained the workflow systems limited their creativity (they certainly decreased lawyer job satisfaction).

Inevitably, many lawyers then blamed the software for this state of affairs.  Some also blamed the workflow designers and / or the methodologies they employed.  The software and methodologies improved and the concept of ‘matter management’ was also conceived.  Matter management was still process driven workflow, but workflow design (still done using diagrammatic process mapping tools) now produced lighter and less obtrusive workflows for lawyers to use with fewer compulsory tasks and greater opportunity for manual overrides.  It was also realised by software vendors that the ‘matter management’ model was in theory very well suited to legal work which fell outside the traditional ‘high volume-low margin’ practice areas.  So matter management systems were also targeted at practices which conducted more high value legal work, such as commercial litigation and commercial property.  Matter management sales to these sectors were much harder to come by however.  Commercial litigators for example were quick to point out that the work they did was actually very different from high volume litigation and so matter management software could not possibly be applied to them.  This mind-set was quite common in law firms doing higher value work, so for a long time ‘matter management’ workflow software made relatively little progress up the law firm profit margin (and prestige) chain.

Much of this has now changed.  Fewer lawyers now advance the argument that absolutely none of their work can be viewed as a process, mapped as such, and even represented in a software workflow application.  It is becoming much more widely accepted in the legal industry that a lot of the work lawyers do is process driven, and there is room for making these processes more efficient and effective.

In light of all this, the recent rise of interest in legal service ‘process mapping’ is intriguing.  What may be termed the new process mapping, most closely associated with Lean methodology, is designed to help eliminate duplication, remove waste and reduce time taken for tasks and processes to be completed (I am assuming here that a ‘process’ is made up of a number of ‘tasks’).  Using a combination of different diagrammatic tools to gather insight and identify improvements, analysts can devise new and revised processes which, on paper at least, are much more effective than the old ones.  If this is done consistently, applied to all processes in a law firm, it is easy to see how this exercise could be transformative.  This is especially so where the focus is on those processes which clients experience directly, as it is via these processes that clients are actually able to experience the ‘value’ delivered.  The question remains however, will law firms follow through?

Gradually, most law firms running high volume-low margin practices got their workflows, staffing and supporting practices right – although there is always room for improvement. However at least firms in this sector are by now used to some form of project management, process mapping and the skills needed to implement new processes.  It will be particularly interesting to see how firms higher up the margin chain adapt to a more overt process-based model given their lesser experience of process design, delivery and implementation.

An existing process can be mapped accurately and an improved one designed in its place. As many early attempts at using legal workflow software illustrate, if steps are not taken to implement new processes fully and change working practices it is all for little gain.  Lasting change is difficult to achieve.  It requires buy-in from all concerned, persistence to follow through and an acceptance that there might be some failures along the way.

The legal market is now much more competitive than it was 10 – 15 years ago.  Arguably, this time around, firms will not have the luxury of a couple of years to right their failures.  The heightened competitiveness of the legal service market is unlikely to allow this.  Therefore, as the saying goes, if firms must fail, they should fail small and fail fast.  In other words they should begin by running controlled pilot projects, learn lessons quickly and try again to implement correctly.  Above all, firms should keep their eyes on the prize for, as some firms (particularly in the USA) have shown, there are prizes to be had by reviewing and re-designing legal service delivery processes.

I daresay the risk of failure is reduced, and chances of outright success improved, by calling upon legal professionals with experience of managing complex projects and implementing change.  With this in mind, if you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this post further, please contact me.

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