Do some navel gazing

Do some navel gazing
Illustration: Jeremy Bruneel
When Craig Burley left Bay Street to open his own tax law practice in Hamilton, Ont., he reveled in his new-found freedom. But he soon discovered the down side of being on his own. Suddenly he was without the support network he once enjoyed at the large firm. Those administrative tasks he now found on his plate seemed something of a distraction and time spent doing them was time away from practising law.

Ultimately, some of those tasks fell by the wayside and Burley realized he had even dropped some of the things he had once taken pride in, like the solid billing management system he perfected. Recognizing that in the post-recession era he needed to be efficient to compete, he re-grouped and re-applied some of the processes he learned at big law. He began by hiring the support he needed to take care of the necessary non-revenue generating tasks to allow him to focus on practising law. “That was key,” he says.

An uncertain economy, regulatory changes, changing client demands, increased competition, and the introduction of new players as well as the ongoing evolution of technology has put enormous pressure on the practice of law on all levels. And being efficient may well make the difference between the firm that survives and the one that doesn’t.

But what is efficient and how does one, in a practice large or small, sort through everything that’s out there? For some, it’s a matter of choosing some key tools after trying them out. For others it may be just keeping it simple. But often it’s a matter of taking a step back and taking everything in.

For Burley another step he found important in his solo effort to be more efficient was not just having the technology required to ensure everything was running smoothly but knowing how to use it effectively. “You save an inordinate amount of time” when using it properly, says Burley. He was also able to carry over his knowledge of a variety of research tools he used at the large firm for his own research-heavy practice, so he knew which tools he needed.

One area he didn’t want to lose control of was his web site, which he found to be a great tool to bring in clients. So he took the time to learn the related software properly, eliminating possible frustrations and limiting the time he spent doing it.

In your practice an audit or some kind of a system can help to determine ways to become more efficient. “All in-house legal departments, small, medium, and large, are experiencing challenges requiring them to be more efficient,” says Emily Jelich, senior vice president and senior associate general counsel for the Royal Bank of Canada law group. “What I’m interested in is the number of innovations I’m seeing across the board.”

RBC’s legal group, with 315 people including lawyers, paralegals, and finance and administrative staff at more than 20 locations around the world, decided that the way they had always been doing things no longer met all those demands. So Jelich and her crew set out to find more efficient ways to operate.

Taking a page out of the Lean approach developed by the manufacturing sector, the RBC team applied the principles of Lean Six Sigma under the guidance of the U.S. firm, Seyfarth Shaw LLP. By applying its principles of employing a collaborative team effort to improve performance by removing waste, RBC’s legal group’s first cohort exercise yielded $7 million in savings, with estimated future savings of $25 million through ongoing projects. Delighted with the process, Jelich says she found in-house counsel need to take better control over the tasks they do by examining how they provide strategic advice and support. The team also found there were advantages to be found in routine tasks when partnering with external firms. The process and the involvement of all staff members allowed them to find patterns that they could take advantage of.

The exercise involved breaking down the work into stages. When using external counsel for a particular type of litigation, for example, the group was able to break down the work to develop value-based pricing for each stage. A statement of claim for a particular type of scenario might typically cost x amount, building in some predictability useful for budgeting. Encouraging all those involved to discuss assumptions for each stage allowed for a better understanding of the process and the costs.

The group now plans for what is likely to happen, which allows it to be ready for the outliers. “It makes each of us work more efficiently,” concludes Jelich.

Jordan Furlong advises starting with a flowchart or checklist that lets lawyers carry out routine and repetitive matters more rapidly — finding the patterns, like the RBC team did. When it comes to routine tasks, building and contributing to even a modest knowledge management database means the information and process is in place so it doesn’t have to be developed from scratch every time. The information, however, is only useful if it is readily available to all those in the practice who need it.

The examination of the practice also includes who does what. Perhaps a more junior lawyer can take on some of the tasks being carried out by a senior lawyer.

Lawyers can also start looking for opportunities to streamline their work, increase their efficiency, and reduce their own cost of doing business, in order to make themselves and their practice groups more competitive and effective. And, says Furlong, a legal industry analyst and consultant with Edge International, everyone involved in a firm of any size — be it partner, associate, support staff — can play a role in making it more efficient.

Thinking like a client can be invaluable. Looking from the outside in can help identify efficiencies and process improvements that can reduce costs, and improve quality — or both. But, he adds, efficiency within law firms is not an end in itself. It’s a means to an end — the greater effectiveness of operations, the higher productivity of lawyers and staff, and ultimately, greater value to clients. “Firms shouldn’t be seeking out efficiency for efficiency’s sake. They should be asking themselves: How can we do this more productively or effectively? How can we reduce waste or duplication or unnecessary workarounds? How can we do this better, more quickly, and with less cost to resources?” says Furlong.

As practice management consultants at Montreal firm Gimbal Canada, David and Karen Skinner advise that any lawyer can begin by drafting one idea on how to make the practice run more efficiently, no matter how simple. In advising on Lean practices, they talk about mapping the firm’s current state of affairs by including a group of people within the firm and taking into account how the business currently operates, designing the future state of the target process, and then implementing a plan for the proposed improvements.

The resulting best practices are then brought together and made accessible to anyone in the firm. “People tend to accept the way they’re doing things as the way to do it and they adapt to the ineffective way of doing it,” says David. So examining the process becomes necessary to identifying what needs to be re-adapted to become efficient. The idea is to streamline the process by reducing the time, energy, and resources spent on the business and administration and focus more on the practice of law.

“If in-house counsel is finding and eliminating their waste,” he says pointing to the RBC example, “and being able to internalize this work, then outside counsel should really be doing these things.”

Furlong and the Skinners point to the billable hour as a breeding ground for inefficiency. The client pays for the time no matter how it is spent, not the outcome or service received. With an increased demand from clients for predictability, estimating the cost of those services requires an examination of the process involved.

Karen says a good starting point is looking at those processes — what’s involved in the regular work handled by the practice and the larger transactions, such as discovery and due diligence reports — anything that is repetitive and routine. A civil litigator who works regularly with expert witnesses can create a standard way to prepare, manage, and maintain expert witnesses. It’s taking the routine work and finding a way to capture the best practices.

Pain points are also a good area to focus on, even those simple frustrations like eliminating that annoying pop-up box that appears every time you start up your computer. “If you reduce frustrations and focus on solving or resolving in getting at the root of those frustrations . . . you will be well on your way,” says David.

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