August 2016 • Volume 104 • Number 8 • Page 22
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Mapping the Relentlessly Efficient Law Firm
In today's competitive legal market, relentlessly efficient firms will succeed where others fail. And the proponents of "process mapping" and associated efficiency-building techniques insist that's just as true for solos as for megafirms.
During the past few decades, tens of thousands of companies have turned to the business process discipline of Six Sigma to streamline how they provide products and services, gaining efficiencies and saving money and time.
Led by BigLaw pioneers like Chicago-based SeyfarthShaw LLP, lawyers began exploring this territory about a decade ago and have ramped up their efforts since the Great Recession prompted their cost-cutting corporate clients to demand that they do so.
Lacking the same breadth and depth of staff infrastructure, smaller and midsized firms have not moved toward Six Sigma and business process improvement with the same alacrity. But if they can get past their initial hesitation and take on the guts of such initiatives, the step-by-step breakdowns of their business processes known as "process mapping," they stand to benefit at least as much, advocates say.
"The idea of mapping their processes makes them flip out," says Tom Lysaught, of Naperville and California-based Hickey Smith, a three-year-old, 17-attorney firm that has mapped out more than 100 business processes step by step to look for redundancies, bottlenecks, antiquated technology, and other causes of inefficiencies. "But it doesn't have to be that scary."
Process mapping and the larger Six Sigma exercise can work across types of firms and practice groups, says Kim Craig, global director of legal process improvement for SeyfarthLean Consulting LLC, which works with larger law firms but also pro bono for legal aid clinics that are often similar in size to small and midsized law firms.
"We've been able to show it can work anytime, anywhere, and for anyone," she says. "Legal aid organizations with limited resources and technology use process mapping to help them think through efficiencies, or even take a step back and think about best practices in processes.… It will save you enormously in time, effort, and money."
A firm of 10 or fewer attorneys won't have much in terms of infrastructure and support staff, but that doesn't seem like a major impediment to process mapping in the eyes of Allegra Nethery, pro bono and philanthropy partner at Seyfarth.
"Process mapping can work in all contexts, including a small firm, because what you're really trying to do is reduce inefficiency from a repetitive process," she says. "A small firm has plenty of processes that they do all the time - intake, conflicts checking, billing - all of those are things they do day in and day out that could definitely benefit from process mapping."
One firm's experience
Hickey Smith has had an easier time than most small to midsized firms because it began infusing process mapping from the firm's inception and because the firm plans to grow to hundreds of lawyers. With that clean slate and no "sins of the past," the firm hasn't needed to combat the inertia and jump start the necessary cultural change to systematically analyze and streamline processes that developed over decades by accretion, Lysaught says.
The processes that Hickey Smith has mapped - which range from preparing to depose a witness, to "onboarding" a client, to generating time and billing - are all contained within a database. That lays out the steps in the process, who should carry each one out, approximately how long they can be expected to take, and any specific instructions that might accompany each one.
"Every process we've developed is embedded in that platform," Lysaught says. "The thinking behind it is, 'What systems do we need and what inputs do we need to bring about the best outputs? What's the current process and what are we trying to achieve? Who performs each step?" When a task is completed, the platform asks whether the attorney wants to enter the time spent, and billing codes are already embedded into the system.
Unlike most 17-attorney firms, Hickey Smith has two people whose full-time job revolves around process mapping, which the firm's leadership sees as helpful toward expanding to the hundreds of attorneys the firm eventually plans to have, Lysaught says. Hickey Smith does not use consultants but instead turns to those attorneys and its highly skilled IT leader, and the firm spent its first two years building out the necessary technological apparatus, he says.
The time saved tends to be project-management-related rather than legal work, Lysaught says. "I'm not sending e-mails and chasing people to get the job done," he says, given how the system spits out notices of what needs to be done and by whom. "It's about how to capture data one time and then use it over, and over, and over."
Working with legal aid groups
In working with legal aid organizations, Nethery's group at Seyfarth has needed to be mindful of the modest resources available to them. For example, when trying to improve the intake process at one legal aid organization, she found out that the person taking a call has to minimize the screen with the case management database into which they are entering information, in order to call up particulars about the person's pending court case on another screen.
"The natural recommendation for us might have been that you should have two [computer] monitors," she says. "It will be more efficient and easier not to have to write the information down [when switching screens]. But if you are a small organization with smaller resources, that might not be realistic."
Her group has done several client intake projects because they greatly benefit from process mapping, Nethery says. "It's the same every time. It's a repetitive process," she says. "It's something that happens every day, dozens of times per day. If you can increase the efficiency of your intake, you're increasing the potential to serve more clients and have a greater impact. The way that data gets entered into the case management system, or how much review is necessary of intakes - having multiple people review an intake might be a source of inefficiency."
Small firms could apply process mapping if they have what seems like an excessively complicated phone tree that confuses callers and adds to call times, Nethery says. "Making it more streamlined also could be a process improvement," she says. "That's one that lends itself very well to process mapping."
Although it doesn't apply to legal aid groups, Nethery can imagine how billing would lend itself well to process mapping. "That's a repetitive process, too," she says. "Process mapping can help improve efficiency across all [types of processes]. I really don't think it's only for big firms or big business. It applies anywhere you see inefficiency."
Advice for other smaller firms
Most small to midsized firms don't necessarily need to go as far as Hickey Smith - for example, embedded instructions are probably unnecessary in firms that only have one office - but the firm's experience points to a number of truisms about process mapping that apply to all attorneys. "The more you do it, the better you get at it, and the less daunting it becomes," Lysaught says. "It's critical that senior leadership is driving this. If you're spending the time, effort, and money on it, everyone has to use it."
Smaller and midsized firms need to deconstruct their processes step by step, outlining each in order to examine what does and does not need to be done, and how best to streamline. Typically the first time one examines a given process, Lysaught says, "You can always find ways to improve it." In questioning people about why a process is done a certain way, one often hears the familiar refrain: "This is the way we've always done it."
To break that philosophical stalemate, Craig suggests pulling out a pad of sticky notes, a whiteboard, even a napkin and start laying out your processes. "Get what's in your head onto paper," she says. "Instead of doing everything ad hoc, so much of what you do is repetitive in some way. If you're handling a family law issue, or a dispute with a local school district in helping get assistance for a child, you're doing that same thing all the time. There are steps in the process where, in fact, we can call it a process."
Firms need to define their processes in as detailed a manner as possible, breaking down the steps and identifying templates and checklists that can help move them forward, Craig says. Appointing a certain person to document those steps - to essentially interview the attorneys as a group and report back on what they say - can be critical to making process mapping happen.
"The most effective way is to have a person who's not doing that work but instead their job is to document it - nudge, pull, push, ask the question," she says. "I've done over 200 process mapping questions. I am not an attorney. I don't know all the areas [of practice]. Sometimes it's an area I didn't even know our firm practices. Export control - what? But I get it out of their heads and ask questions. Ideally there's somebody looking at it from the standpoint of extraction and documentation."
Once attorneys get talking, they typically end up sharing pretty openly, Craig says. "It's better for the partner to be riffing and brainstorming," she says. "If there's a paralegal, if there's an office administrator, somebody who can listen…that's the best way to get traction: 'What are those items you go through in your head? What's the checklist?'"
Even smaller firms who might not have trained facilitators need to realize that process mapping is essentially brainstorming about what's worked, saying it out loud, and documenting it - while taking note of what doesn't make sense, Craig says.
"Many times I've heard people say, 'Wow, why do we do that?'" she says. "There's something about the experience of verbalizing it that makes us all improve. The minute you put a little sunlight on it, it's a disinfectant.… The piece that sometimes becomes the hardest for people is to identify, 'This task should be in a template so we don't have to reinvent the wheel every time and find the contract I used before.' That takes some discipline."
Nethery would recommend going offsite to do your process mapping so you're not distracted by the phone or a knock on the door. Smaller projects like a process map of your billing procedures can probably be done in a single daylong retreat, she says, while more complicated maps like case management could require more time to be able to reflect and do research.
"That's how we identify the inefficiencies: 'Gosh, why is this going to two levels of review? Why is this going back to this person for a signature? How come we don't have template document for that?'" Nethery says. "Whether you want to do the analysis or revise the map to the more efficient state in one day depends on the scope."
Solos and smaller firms should find somebody who can capture such documents in the course of a deal or in litigation, Craig says. "Those checklists and guidelines are some of the most valuable intellectual property we've ever gotten," she says. "What would you want people to know? Imagine you bring somebody on, or you are doing the next case and spending your time searching - getting that stuff documented and at your fingertips will save you countless time."
But solos and small firms can't just send an attorney off by themselves (or go off by themselves) and expect process mapping to gain traction, Craig says. "Before you start, you need to know what you are trying to design for - what's the reason we're sitting here?" she says. "Solos need to self-motivate and set some benchmarks or goals, and have discipline so you can measure the value of doing this. If you're not conscientious, it's easy to let it fall by the wayside."
Support from senior leadership is absolutely essential to the success of process mapping, Nethery agrees, and having a variety of people at the firm involved - not just lawyers - lends invaluable perspective. "Sometimes we'll ask lawyers how something is done, and they'll give us a process, and then we'll bring in a staff person who says, 'No, no, no, there are eight more steps involved that you never see,'" she says.
Technology can be helpful in reengineering processes, such as using tools that generate template documents for a type of matter rather than starting from scratch with a blank Microsoft Word document, Lysaught says. "Most of those tools are scary at first but once you get in, they're fairly intuitive," he says. "Most small firms aren't going to have the [in-house] expertise to build it out," he says. "But there are great tools out there for matter management, or time and billing. They need to get an IT resource or consultant to select the right applications for them."
Many if not most smaller firms already have streamlined their processes for time-and-billing using techie tools, Lysaught says, although those still using paper timesheets - where data needs to be then entered into the computer - should find the tools to make them more efficient. Document creation and management is another way to gain efficiencies, starting with templates that have common elements across cases or matters.
"Most smaller firms won't have the budget or expertise to get it all done," Lysaught says. "But if you have the right mindset you can find improvement opportunities."
Inertia, fear, and practical issues
Process mapping often sounds daunting at the outset. "Most organizations struggle or fall down when you say, 'I'm going to create a template bank of documents,'" Craig says. To get over that hump, it helps to realize that you're already reusing documents and otherwise redoing processes, she says. "When's the last time you opened up a blank Word document and started from scratch? Let's take advantage of that, and build some structure around that."
But inertia sometimes gets in the way of managing partners seeing the benefits of process mapping and Six Sigma, Lysaught says. "A lot of lawyers lament that their firm won't embrace the technology," he says. "But especially large clients are expecting it more and more. They're all doing the same thing internally. General counsel's offices are being challenged to be more efficient."
Smaller firms are hesitant about the technology side of process mapping because they don't have the background and don't necessarily have IT people at their disposal. Plus, Lysaught figures, they've probably heard horror stories - or experienced them personally - about occasions where technology doesn't live up to its promise, so they're reticent about the potential for buyer's remorse.
Some attorneys fear that automated workflows and templated instructions will mean that their professional judgment is being usurped by a process, Lysaught says. "People become concerned and say, 'I'm a lawyer, and you're taking away my legal judgment,'" he says. "It's actually the opposite. You're better managing your tasks so you can do all the things you went to law school to do."
Craig has had attorneys tell her they find it insulting that she proposes to reduce their "special snowflake" work to a step by step process. "I say, 'OK, just humor me,'" she says. "You actually do have a process. It's very complex and unique, with a lot of variability, but there's a process there. A lot of our process sessions start by saying, 'You can map what litigation does, but what we do is unique.' But once they start talking, I've never, ever, ever had a session where somebody says, 'What a waste of time. I can't believe we sat here and did this.'"
Another hesitation: the focus on billing, billing, billing and the inability to bill anyone for time spent process mapping. "Those two people who spend all their time developing workflows [at Hickey Smith] bill very little time," Lysaught says. "Assuming you have the right tone at the top, if management says, 'I'm going to assign it to Joe,' if Joe still has a billing target of 2,000 hours, he's going to be hard pressed." Even if your firm cannot afford to completely free someone of billing responsibilities, dialing them back to 1,000 or 1,500 hours helps in the long run, he says.
That issue is especially acute for solos, who are already feeling like "I'm out on an island" but could probably benefit the most from process mapping, Lysaught says. "That time [on process mapping] is an investment," he says. "You've got to step back and deconstruct your current process so you can see how screwed up it is. Most folks don't know how bad it is until they step back, take a deep breath, and look at what else is out there. The costs [of technology] might be harder to swallow for a small firm, especially a solo, but you don't need to get all the bells and whistles."
Although it's not about billable hours, even legal aid attorneys resist taking a half-day to do process mapping because they're passionate about serving their clients and don't want to take away from their core mission, Nethery says. She can imagine how that principle would translate over to small firms.
"I could see where in a small firm, someone could say, 'Gosh, taking a half-day or a whole day away from my practice is very challenging. I have things I need to get done.'" she says. "But if you do a cost-benefit analysis, if this makes your business more efficient in the long run, it might be worth it. You have to take the long view."
To get past that sense of losing time, Craig has found it easier to work with attorneys in real time and map processes as they're happening rather than trying to document them in retrospect. "I know you're not going to make the time to find a template right now, but I can track through the next project, look at your deliverables, and capture whether those could be sample documents and turned into templates," she tells attorneys.
Nethery understands the hesitation about losing billable hours but says process mapping won't take many of them away - and it won't happen otherwise. "You really have to take the time out to do the mapping," she says. "It's a very focused exercise. It's not something you can do while you're multi-tasking, which is rare these days. We're on our phones all the time. This is something that requires 100 percent of your attention for a couple of hours. That's asking a lot of people these days."
The most important reason firms and attorneys need to push past the resistance is that clients are beginning to ask lots of questions about this subject, Craig says. "What we heard from clients, and what I believe all attorneys are going to be hearing, no matter what their structure or position, is, 'Why [hire] you?'" she says. "If you hold up a process map, and say this represents hundreds of hours, or it could be 10 hours, but we've sat down to think about the scope, which helps us think about pricing, staffing, and how to bring about the best-in-class approach - clients at all levels are looking for that."
Although process mapping is only part of the Six Sigma business process reengineering, "It's the most important part," Lysaught concludes. "You ask, 'Why are we doing this? No one wants this report anymore.' Then you put the pieces back together to create a new process."
"A lot of the improvements come from brainstorming," Nethery says. "Inevitably the question is asked, 'Why do we do it that way?' And of course you know the answer: 'Because we've always done it that way.'"
Ed Finkel is an Evanston-based freelance writer.
MORE ON PROCESS MAPPING >>
Resources from Affinity Consulting Group. For more about process mapping and the Lean Six Sigma ("LSS") approach to improving efficiency, visit a page created especially for the ISBA by law-office consulting group Affinity. Along with numerous free resources, you'll find a to link a four-webinar series available to ISBA members at half off the regular price of $99. Visit http://www.affinityconsulting.com/isbalss.
IllinoisBarDocs. If you are interested in learning more about document assembly and how it can increase your firm's efficiency, visit https://www.isba.org/illinoisbardocs for information on the ISBA's IllinoisBarDocs. It is a fully-automated, cloud-based document assembly system that is built around a library of Illinois-specific legal forms. IllinoisBarDocs is only available to ISBA members and is offered as a low-cost subscription service, with both monthly and yearly subscriptions available.
ISBA RESOURCES >>
ISBA FreeCLE, IllinoisBarDocs: The Ultimate Efficiency Tool - Introduction to ISBA's New Document Assembly System (Jan. 19, 2016), http://onlinecle.isba.org/store/seminar/seminar.php?seminar=59272.
Ed Finkel, Creating a Client-Centered Practice, 103 Ill. B.J. 26 (Nov. 2015), https://www.isba.org/ibj/2015/11/creatingaclientcenteredpractice.
Ed Finkel, The Powerful Practice Technology You Already Have, 102 Ill. B.J. 428 (Sept. 2014), https://www.isba.org/ibj/2014/09/thepowerfulpracticetechnologyyoualr.
Trent L. Bush, Document Assembly Software 101, Standing Committee on Legal Technology (June 2012), https://www.isba.org/sections/legaltechnology/newsletter/2012/06/documentassemblysoftware101.