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Structured approaches to operational change in legal services

Identifying, implementing and sustaining operational change in legal services is hard to do.

The fact is implementing and sustaining operational change is difficult in any industry.

Because of this structural models have been developed to assist people, groups and organisations with their efforts to change what they do and how they do it.

The key to success is how these models are applied.  Each model should be adapted and applied with sensitivity according to local circumstances.  Successful adaptation requires knowledge of the baseline models first.

Knowledge of these models, and how they are inter-related, is still not widespread in the legal services industry.  This might come as a surprise to specialists in the legal operations sector, but outside the specialism most people have not received any training about these models and so simply don’t appreciate their relevance to their work.

In this article I will:

  1. Outline some of the most well-known structured approaches used to help identify, implement and sustain operational change.
  2. Make some observations about what I have seen work well, and not so well, when they have been applied to effect change in legal services.
  3. Point you to some case studies about operational change so you can find out more and
  4. Share some tips from my colleagues at the International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM).

By the end of the article it will become evident that in order to scale-up change initiatives beyond efforts of well-intentioned individuals, good project management is required.

Legal (or Service) Design

The principal driver behind legal service design is to help develop empathy with service users.  The most important, but not only, user for our purposes being the clients of legal services.

Empathy is a gateway to deeper understanding.  Once client difficulties with using the service have been fully understood, then action can be taken to improve the client experience.

An interesting aspect of legal service design is the emphasis placed on qualitative research.  The aim is to acquire insights into how clients are feeling and behaving as they interact with the service offering.  This can be done with a small sample of users.  Quantitative data can then be used to compliment insights gleaned from qualitative enquiry.

Legal service design harnesses the power of visual story telling – although visual tools are also used by other structured approaches to operational change.

A high-level structured approach to legal service design looks something like this:

  1. Empathise: conduct research to understand client experiences.
  2. Define: identify problems experienced by clients.
  3. Ideate: generate a range of ideas which can help solve the problems identified in the previous step. For best results, make it clear to participants in the service. design process that no idea is out of bounds; then refine and rank ideas in according to their impact and ease of implementation.
  4. Prototype: build representations of the ideas for improvement. For legal services this may be things such as clearer documentation sent clients or simpler supporting processes (administrative or technological).
  5. Test: test a solution to a problem identified and get user feedback. If the feedback is not that great you may need to re-do step 4.
  6. Implement: go live, roll-out the solution to the problem(s) identified.

The tools used in this process include things such as Personas (semi fictional representations of typical clients and other service users), Service Blueprints (grids which show the client journey on the horizontal axis cross-referenced with supporting processes and procedures on the horizontal axis) and Structured Workshops.


These tools and others are used to help design improved services with people and not for them.  Ideally, for service design to work best there should be collaboration between the users of a service and its providers; at the very least there needs to be a free flow of information about the user experience to the legal designers.

As the relatively new kid on the legal change / improvement block, legal service design appears fresh and intriguing.  But to be successful it still requires discipline, adherence to something like the process outlined above.

As a case study you may want to look at how the Finland Arbitration Institute used legal service design principles to help clarify the arbitration process.

Lean / Six Sigma

Very broadly, Lean is about doing the right tasks which make up a service process, and Six-Sigma is about doing those tasks right.

Each approach has some areas of similarly, overlap and tools in common.  The most obvious tool they have in common process mapping.



Lean is all about process flow. Process flows can be understood easiest if they are represented visually.  Process maps are used to do this.

The purpose of process mapping is to understand how current processes operate (current state maps) and how they could be improved (future state maps).

There are several different kinds of maps which can be used to analyse and improve processes.  Probably the most well-known is that of value stream mapping.

A few years ago I wrote a series of posts about how to go about how to create value stream maps so I will not go into further detail about how to map a value stream in this post.

As with legal service design, process mapping is a collaborative activity.  Ideally everyone who works in a process stream should take part in the process mapping exercise.  Realistically it is impractical to actually include everyone, so it is common to have representatives of lawyers, paralegals, secretaries and other professionals involved in helping with the legal service delivery effort take part in the mapping exercises.

Arguably value stream mapping is something of a misnomer in that it is designed to highlight where no value is being added.  By value, I mean value to the client.

Hence a quick rule of thumb to use is this: if a client knew of an activity and the way it is currently being done, would they be willing to pay for it?

If not, the activity is not adding value and is a candidate for removal or significant adaptation.  (In legal services there are plenty of activities which must be done because of legal or regulatory requirements; these can’t be removed, but it is still worth-while to see if they are being done effectively).

Once seen as being relevant only to the so-called ‘high volume / low-value’ sectors such as personal injury and conveyancing, process mapping broke out of its ghetto and seemed to be all the rage across legal services about several years ago.

Many people in legal services have been involved in process mapping exercises and as a result they are familiar with the value stream mapping process.

However implementing future state maps, and delivering change, has not been as universally successful as was once hoped.  There are lots of reasons for this but one I tend to pick up on is that often no one person has been given the responsibility and authority to drive through the process changes identified.

Someone should always be given responsibility for setting-up, running and completing process mapping exercises from end to end.  Project managers should be well placed to fulfill this role.

By completing the exercise I mean responsibility should continue until, say 6 months after any changes are implemented.  This way the likelihood of changes being sustained increase and by keeping track of some KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators) it should be possible to determine the extent to which the changes have positively improved legal service delivery and hence value to clients.

Six Sigma

Whereas Lean emphasizes process flow, Six Sigma is focused more on defect elimination.  The stress here is on getting each task and sub-task right.  The Six Sigma process helps with this by squeezing out variability in process execution.

The high-level process supporting and driving a Six Sigma approach to process improvement is known as DMAIC which consists of the following 5 phases:


  1. Define: identify and define the problem(s) – what needs to improve.
  2. Measure: how effective are the tasks and processes (or, put another way, how many ‘defects’ are typically found in them)?
  3. Analyse: what are the root causes of the problem(s) identified?
  4. Improve: identify, select and implement the most appropriate solution.
  5. Control: implement the most appropriate solution in the live environment; a control plan helps ensure new processes are carried out consistently, with minimal variation.

Another differentiator between Lean and Six Sigma is that the latter is more heavily reliant on, and reflective of, quantitative data.  Broadly, Six Sigma is a statistical approach to problem identification and solution creation.

Unsurprisingly given the difficulties of collecting data from legal service operations, legal service providers which start out looking at Lean / Six-Sigma to drive improvements tend to take more of a Lean approach and concentrate on improving process flow as opposed to defect elimination.

Back in 2014 (how time flies!) Clifford Chance published a white paper about its process improvement activity, with some short case studies.  This document is still available online and still worth reading.

Legal I.T.

Inevitably when considering how best to improve client service and supporting processes, thought often turns to how technology can be used to help with this.

At every stage of the software life-cycle – whether it be software development, product management, procurement or implementation – there are recommended process guides and methodologies to follow.

Essentially all these methodologies are designed to ensure that software developed and implemented is ‘fit for purpose’.

It follows therefore the most important thing to be clear about is the intended purpose of any new or updated software solution: how is it going to make the client experience better and the processes supporting that experience better?

There is a lot of excellent legal technology available to choose from, and technology is usually put to best use when organisations already have:

  1. The right people with the right skills to perform tasks.
  2. Good processes to support task execution.
  3. The capability to ensure effective delivery (which in the context of this post means applying legal project management principles consistently).

The obvious suggestion is to make sure you have the above in place before reaching for a technology solution.


However, as the saying goes, don’t let perfect become the enemy of the good.  People, process and delivery capability are (or should be) subject to continuous improvement. Organisations will never have all these perfectly aligned and 100% correct at any one time.

This idea of going with ‘good enough’ applies to software selection too.  The perfect piece of software does not exist.  Even if you have found one which you think is perfect right now, this is likely to change after you have been using it for a while.

When selecting and implementing software we used to follow a variant of the 80 / 20 rule.  If the software application appeared to do 80% of what we needed out of the box and we were confident we could customise it easily to achieve another 5% – 10% of our required functionality, the software in question became a serious contender for implementation.

Programme Management

Ideally, Programme Management should be applied to hold all the various improvement projects and initiatives together.

A programme is made up of several projects and initiatives which, taken together, have as their collective object the aim of delivering significant benefits to the law firm or in-house legal team.  Achieving these benefits will usually require some notable change within the organisation.

A key feature of programme management concerns reporting.  Progress of change projects and initiatives should be reported to programme decision makers at the right level of granularity: not too much detail, but with enough meaningful information conveyed.  Decision makers should then be able to determine with confidence which projects need to be accelerated, supported, put on hold or perhaps dropped completely.

Legal service organisations should be developing their programme management capability so that they become ‘change machines’.  By this I mean that ideas for improvement are generated, welcomed, captured, sorted and implemented consistently.  If an organisation is able to create its own internal change machine then change becomes part of the organisational fabric and much more likely to be implemented.

Change in legal services – steps on a journey?

I read somewhere recently that people don’t dislike change as such, but they have become fatigued and rather cynical by heavy handed top-down change initiatives.  I’m sure many readers will sympathise with this view.

And yet we all know that change is inevitable.

Personally, I think the most effective change is rarely of the revolutionary kind.  During my career I have found evolutionary or incremental change to be more acceptable to people and therefore more effective.

This approach to change requires taking a series of relatively small steps where each step itself requires a degree of change.  Cumulatively all the steps make up a journey towards a new destination – which can result in a wholly new way of doing things.

Taking a structured approach helps enormously with the journey.  We can plan routes and make sure we have the right equipment and provisions to get us to the destination.  It is not certain we will arrive at the destination aimed for, but the chances of success are increased by taking a structured approach to its planning and execution.

People who have made similar journeys have created and left behind methods and processes for us to follow.  These methods and processes work but clearly they do not just happen of their own accord.

People with good project management skills and attributes can help collate ideas for operational change, create operational change plans and see them through.

This is why legal project managers (using the term in its widest sense) already play an important part in driving through change in legal services.


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