How did process improvement such as Lean and Six Sigma come to exist in law firms and legal departments? What was developed and used in manufacturing and industry has gradually made its way into professional services related organizations, including law departments, law firms, and even law schools. Law firms see it as a way to respond to client demands for better pricing predictability. And while it may not enable firms to “do more with less,” it does help eliminate waste, improve efficiency, and make the cost of providing legal services more predictable. In this way firms can better see and describe the value they are giving to clients, and provide a more sustainable price for services when asked to come up with alternative fee arrangements.
Process improvement involves making processes more streamlined, reducing waste, defects or errors, and hopefully thereby increasing effectiveness of the work. This could lead to savings for the organization as well as happier clients or customers. In the case of professional services such as law, the theory may be applied to not only back office administrative functions, but also the professional side of the practice.
Two areas of process improvement thought in particular have recently gained traction in North American legal service over the last few years: Six Sigma and Lean. Other flavors of process improvement such as Total Quality Management (TQM) and ISO 9001 have not made as much of an impact, although ISO 9001 is being adopted by law firms worldwide.
Six Sigma was a method developed in Motorola, likely starting in the 1970s. The focus of Six Sigma is measurement and reduction of defects or errors. According to iSixSigma, Motorola engineer Bill Smith is credited with coining the term, naming it after the six sigmas in a bell curve, a statistical tool used in measuring number of defects or errors. Levels of training in Six Sigma has been expressed as “belts,” similar to the belts in the martial arts, with white, yellow, green, black, and master black belts.
Lean has been around even longer. It was developed in the 1930s, when Japanese car manufacturer Toyota revisited Ford’s processes used for making the Model T. They called it the Toyota Production System (TPS). In the 1990s, the method was named “Lean” in two books describing the process:
- The Machine That Changed the World (1990) by James P. Womack, Daniel Roos, and Daniel T. Jones
- Lean Thinking (1996), James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones
The focus of Lean is on creating value for the customer while being efficient. In 1998, researchers David E. Bowen and William E. Youngdahl described how Lean thinking from manufacturing was being applied to service operations in their article “’Lean’ Service: in Defense of a Production-Line Approach,” published in the International Journal of Service Industry Management.
How did Six Sigma and Lean move into law? It is not surprising that in many cases it was general counsel exposed to some form of process improvement inside industrial and manufacturing organizations that got the thinking started. The law-specific application of this methodology was developed simultaneously by at least a few people, and their organizations have their own way of applying it.
Ken Grady is a Lean Law Evangelist at Seyfarth Shaw LLP and Adjunct Professor at Michigan State University College of Law. He first became familiar with Lean in 1994. He moved from McDermott Will & Emery law firm to furniture manufacturer HON, where they were adopting this method across the organization when it was still new for companies. He started “playing around with the ideas of Lean” for his law department.
In 1996, Grady moved from law to take over one of HON’s manufacturing plants. He was sent to Japan to be trained at Shingijutsu Co. Ltd., a consulting company created by former engineers from Toyota, to learn the TPS Lean method. He worked with his sensei, or mentors, on the shop floor, doing Kaizen activities and events. Back at HON he became immersed in Lean on the shop floor until 2000. In 2005, he went back into law as General Counsel with Wolverine.
Meanwhile, the large law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP also heard about Lean and Six Sigma from clients and decided to adapt it to their own internal processes. After some time development, they introduced the consulting subsidiary Seyfarth Lean in 2007, refining what they found to work well in professional services and becoming more client facing. Grady started working on these methods with Seyfarth while he was still GC at Wolverine. In 2013, he retired from practice and joined Seyfarth to head Seyfarth Lean.
In 1999, Tom Sager in DuPont’s Legal Department was given the role of Six Sigma Champion when DuPont adopted Six Sigma company-wide. In his introduction for Catherine Alman MacDonagh’s report Lean Six Sigma for Law Firms, Sager explains the legal department already had an appreciation for process improvement after successfully implementing what is now known as the DuPont Legal Model to strategically organize collaborative efforts with outside counsel. Sager became Senior Vice President and General Counsel at DuPont in 2008. In 2014, he joined the law firm Ballard Spahr LLP.
Catherine Alman MacDonagh started her law career in-house in 1990, later moving to a marketing and business development role in law firms. After sparking an interest in both efficiency and the business side of law, she went on to take a Six Sigma green belt certification with Quality and Productivity Solutions Inc. The engineering and manufacturing types taking the course with her could not see how this could be applied to the legal field. She then learned about Lean and realized it is “a far better methodology” for what she was trying to do with legal and business processes.
At the time she started asking, “Why is no one offering this? The legal profession desperately needs this.” With the urging of a friend, she worked with someone who had many years of process improvement in engineering to develop what she called “Legal Lean Sigma.” She registered the trademark and started officially offering certification in 2008 from the umbrella of the company Legal Sales and Service. Legal Lean Sigma® started to take off. Her partners at Legal Sales and Service urged her to “make it its own thing.” MacDonagh also cites Sager as a mentor.
As of 2016, her company Legal Lean Sigma Institute has certified thousands of white and yellow belts in Legal Lean Sigma® and Project Management and been involved in dozens of projects through green and black belt certifications. MacDonagh says, “I am proud that it has facilitated the way people work together. It has transformed many, many people, relationships and processes in the legal profession.” She now also teaches it as an adjunct at Suffolk Law School as part of their concentration in technology and innovation, and at George Washington University in their Masters in Law Firm Management program.
Karen Dunn Skinner and David Skinner of Gimbal Canada have a similar story. The married lawyer/consulting team had practiced law in varying capacities: she in solo private practice, and he both as general counsel in a large pharmaceutical company as well as practicing in big law firms. David says, “I was motivated with Karen to find a different way to look at the business of law (not the practice of law) and contribute experience—anecdotal and real—to make changes the way law was delivered, as better value to the CEOs’ and CFOs’ perspective.” Borden Ladner Gervais’ John Godber mentored the Skinners. The first to be doing Lean in a Canadian law firm, Godber himself learned from Seyfarth Shaw.
The Skinners’ company Gimbal Canada is billed as Lean Practice Management Advisors using their own trademarked LeanLegal™ approach, and they also provide professional development. This summer Gimbal Canada announced they are joining forces with Knowledge Management consulting firm Fireman & Co. to create what they are calling the legal industry’s first Performance, Profitability & Innovation Group.
Where is this all leading? Will process improvement become widely adopted in the legal industry?
“I think it is going to continue to increase for several reasons,” Grady says. He says that legal services across legal aid, law firms, LPOs, and other organizations will start to focus on a more standardized, systematic way of delivering service. There is pressure throughout the industry to manage costs by understanding processes and getting better cost control. Use of technology in legal service delivery, Grady says, “requires you to understand your processes to integrate and integrate it well.” The needs of clients at all levels—individuals up into corporate—require more transparency, and an understanding of the value proposition of the services.
MacDonagh highlights the need for process improvement in law firms. She says, “A lot of law firms have invested something in branding. We’re at the point where clients are expecting more than just words about how we work together as a team, etc. Look at your own branding statements. How well are you delivering on these? It is an opportunity-rich environment.”
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