Leveraging Process Improvement: Taking the Steps Needed to Improve Operations Within your Law Firm

How has the idea of process improvement taken hold in the legal industry in the wake of the pandemic? Fred Esposito of Rivkin Radler discusses how more law firms are leveraging this idea today.

We discuss process improvement with Fred Esposito, COO of the regional law firm Rivkin Radler. Esposito has more than 25 years of law and accounting firm experience, is an author and speaker specializing in financial and organizational management, process improvement, and project management, and has managed and worked in a consulting capacity with several domestic and international law firms.

He is also a senior consultant with the Legal Lean Sigma Institute and a Certified Green Belt in Legal Lean Sigma with a Project Leader designation. He currently is working towards his Black Belt Certification.

In this post, we speak to Esposito about how law firms are approaching process improvement in the post-pandemic environment.

Of all the massive changes that the pandemic crisis brought to the legal industry, you have said that one of the most important and yet relatively unheralded is the renewed focus on process improvement. And while process improvement has been around since the days of Taylorism, what has the pandemic done to bring a new emphasis to this area?

The pandemic offered many industries, legal among them, both an imperative and a pause in which to consider and change (out of sheer necessity) how they were doing business and what could be done better. This had its benefits in terms of pushing firms to look at how they perform and deliver legal services, and I think that in turn has brought process improvement to the forefront.

The pandemic crisis also allowed for a slow-down in thought that made people realize there was a “middle step” that wasn’t officially recognized during the last great upheaval, the Great Recession in 2008. That middle step involves process improvement.

The need for project management and alternative fee arrangements came to the head of the line for many legal innovators in past cycles, but those things are not enough. In addition to managing and pricing of legal services, we must also identify and carefully define the problems and opportunities — and it’s not just about identifying waste and what is occurring in a process. It’s important to not solve too early but to identify why the waste is happening and get to the root cause.

When law firms start looking around and comparing themselves to their peers, most do not conduct an adequate apples-to-apples comparison in terms of how the firm is performing — this is one of the flaws to benchmarking performance data. Comparing a 50-attorney firm’s revenues and performance to another 50-attorney firm is not necessarily a good comparison, unless the firm’s infrastructure, compensation, and support models are the same as well, which is unlikely. And that’s because revenues and other performance metrics are generated differently based on practice areas and support for producing legal services.

At this juncture then, what makes process improvement so critical?

Process improvement helps us work as a cross-functional, diverse team. We lift the hood and see how and why the engine runs the way it does. In this way, the use of process improvement provides law firms an opportunity to examine how they currently perform their legal services.

The first step is to select which of the process improvement methodologies to use. Typically, we use the Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control (DMAIC) framework. It takes discipline to follow these steps, but this data-driven improvement cycle has change management built-in and practically ensures successful delivery of Lean Sigma projects.

Firms needs to define and understand their current process, measure how it works, analyze the performance data, and identify the root causes for any inefficiencies. Only then can they develop solutions to improve the process and implement steps to minimize the inefficiencies.

Fred Esposito

What are the initial steps in the process?

After we get the project approved, we prepare and assemble our cross-functional team, and assign roles and responsibilities, including establishing what is called a Steering Committee. This is a small group of decision-makers who ensure we produce required deliverables in each phase in what are called “toll gates” or “gate reviews” at proscribed points in the project. It’s also important to identify all the stakeholders involved in the current process, so you know who will be impacted by this process improvement initiative. And it’s not just the clients, it’s everyone that has a hand working within this process.

We start with project planning in the Define phase, set our scope and goals, gather Voice of the Client and client requirement information, and begin to get a picture of the current process with mapping it and gathering data in the Measure phase. It is always interesting to see what data exists and what does not — and also how good that data is.

After we see what is happening in a process, we figure out why those things are occurring in the Analyze phase. It is crucial that we do that before implementing any fixes or solutions so that the firm has a baseline to measure any improvements.

Obviously, we want to pilot solutions before any full-scale implementation takes place. And once those improvements are put into play, firms must then monitor and set up controls to ensure a consistent result every time. Clearly, these steps involve reviewing the right data, but it all assists the firm in developing ways to make its work processes operate more efficiently.

Certainly, this approach will raise some questions for firm leaders. What would be foremost on their minds at this point?

One main question is likely to be, “Where do we start, and how do we select which projects to approve?” And in terms of a specific legal or business process, they might ask: “What is standing in the way of making this a more efficient process? Is it our policies? Technology? Is it a training or communication issue?” Our role as process-improvers is to ensure no one jumps to solutions too quickly but to also pick the right methodology, approach, and tools for the situation at hand.

For example, there are many immediate improvements that can be identified in one process mapping workshop. We also have the Legal WorkOut®, which is a way the Legal Lean Sigma Institute developed for teams to rapidly improve processes. An experienced practitioner is worth their weight in millions of dollars — and other benefits.

It’s also important as the process improvement moves forward to be prepared to address any potential conflict this initiative might cause. Certainly, some people — often including partners within a law firm — will push back against any change in the way things have traditionally been done, even if those older ways are not working as well anymore.

One way to address this conflict, is to court buy-in early on from top-level and respected individuals within the firm, something I did when Rivkin Radler sought to change the way it conducted its client in-take process. As part of this, the data gathered at the beginning of the Measure step of the DMAIC process allowed my team to show what inefficiencies were occurring in the process before and how those problems could be addressed.

So, this is a change in mindset as well as a change in the way the business operates?

Yes, I want people to think of improvement as the relationship between urgency and innovation. We can help people to see the reason for necessary improvement and the path to how it will get done.

Working with clients on their process improvements, I’ve seen that many times it is people — the staff, the associates, and of course, the partners — who are coping with a broken process and often, while well-intentioned, contributing to the problematic efficiency issues. Helping people work as a higher functioning team is at the heart of transformation work for us.

This article featured first on Thomson Reuters Institute and was republished with full permission.

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