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Evolution: Welcome to The Lean Law Firm

For more than 20 years as a lawyer, I’ve listened to my colleagues–corporate counsel and private practitioners alike–discussing the lawyer-client relationship and the direction the legal profession is heading. The talk has never been as dire as it is today.

From both in-house counsel and attorneys in private practice, the overarching message seems to be that the legal landscape is In the April/May 2012 edition of National, the Canadian Bar Association called it a sea change. Lawyers must adapt, or they won’t survive "the onslaught of competition, commoditization, downward pressure on fees, and the arrival of venture capitalists that are radically changing the delivery of legal services."

The hunt is on for a better way to drive value and meet–or even exceed–clients’ expectations. I believe that to thrive in this new landscape, lawyers need to transform the way they do business and improve the way they provide services. Attorneys in the UK and the US have been grappling with the changing legal landscape for some time. Lawyers in Canada are starting to examine the ways they manage the business of law and contemplating the transformation required.

So what do clients really want?

Well, here is some of what I’ve heard from lawyers and clients during my more than two decades in private practice and as General Counsel.

  1. It is not enough to understand an industry, lawyers must know the fundamentals and operations of a client’s actual business. And they need to learn them on their own dime.
  2. Lawyers need to demonstrate their relevance and value-add, because in-house clients need to justify their legal spend in the budget.
  3. Clients want their lawyers to be better listeners, to be more responsive to their actual needs and requirements, to understand when a Trabant will do and a Ferrari is overkill.
  4. Lawyers really sell their skill, knowledge and expertise, but the practice is stuck in a traditional model that sells time. The billable hour isn’t always appropriate and, in many cases, it’s unsupportable, unsustainable and demotivating.
  5. Budgets are tight. Clients need their lawyers (both in-house and external counsel) to deliver more with less. They want greater efficiency but won’t sacrifice quality. They want to pay only for value-adding services and they prefer alternative fee arrangements that allow much better cost predictability.

The bottom line: clients want trust, understanding, experience, relevance and added value, without breaking the bank. Lawyers want the same thing, but for a number of reasons, it is hard for them to deliver consistently. And if they don't deliver, clients won’t hesitate to look for alternatives. They’ll keep more work in-house; they’ll use DIY online legal resources and standardize processes; they’ll outsource to lower-cost contract lawyers; or they’ll offshore the work. 

These challenges aren’t limited to private practitioners. No way. The same issues arise between in-house counsel and their internal clients. In addition to improving relationships with their external legal advisors, in-house counsel need to reconsider the way they provide their services internally, so they can justify budgets and better meet the demands of their internal clients.

Wondering how our profession could respond, I began to look for alternatives–creative ways for lawyers to remain profitable and still meet client demands for lower fees and predictable budgets. I found Lean Six Sigma.

Lean Six Sigma is a set of business management tools designed to reduce waste and increase the flow of quality, value-adding work in a process. It’s all about improvement and efficiency, about delivering more with less, and being more responsive to the clients’ need for high quality goods and services in less time and at less cost. American law firms implementing Lean Six Sigma already see improvements. Canadian firms won’t be far behind, and the early adopters will benefit most. Read more about Lean Six Sigma in law here.

In Lean, the client’s perspective is what counts. Whether in private practice or in-house, Lean Six Sigma lets you focus on delivering what your clients want most: your knowledge and experience, your added value, at the lowest possible cost.

If you want to learn more about Lean Six Sigma and what you can gain by implementing Lean tools and methodologies in your practice, visit our website regularly, subscribe to this blog, follow us on Twitter (@GimbalCanada and @DavidFSkinner) and Facebook, and join our dialogue about Lean Six Sigma in law.

There are no silver bullets in the drive to constantly improve. However, our posts on The Lean Law Firm will offer common-sense, practical tips and tools that will help you better manage the changes impacting the business of law and your practice.

Your comments are always welcome here on the blog, or you can contact me directly to continue the conversation.




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