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Legal Practice Management

Leveraging process improvement: What does the future hold for process improvement within the legal industry?

Gregg Wirth  Content Manager / Thomson Reuters Institute / Thomson Reuters

Gregg Wirth  Content Manager / Thomson Reuters Institute / Thomson Reuters

In the conclusion of our ongoing blog series, Fred Esposito, of Rivkin Radler, discusses how process improvement is going to transform the legal industry going forward

In a new series of blog posts, we discuss process improvement with Fred Esposito, COO of the regional law firm Rivkin Radler. Previously, we spoke to Esposito about the rise of process improvement throughout the legal industry and how process improvement can transform the ways in which law firms conduct client in-take and price their legal services. In this final post, we speak to him about the future of process improvement within the legal industry.

Thomson Reuters Institute: Throughout this series, you discussed how process improvement is transformative within the legal industry, and how those firms that embrace it can create an upwards spiral of efficiency, cost-savings, and client satisfaction. Yet, law firms are notoriously risk averse and seem unwilling to depart from traditional ways of working, even when those ways may not be working well. How can process improvement change this thought process?

Fred Esposito: Process improvement methodologies and tools are invaluable for understanding ways to improve how legal work is currently produced. Once data shows the magnitude of the problems and opportunities, those risk-averse lawyers realize very quickly that it is less risky to change than it is to continue to operate in the way they always have.

They are also getting more attuned to the importance of creating a continuous improvement (dare we say innovative!) culture that focuses on the employee experience and develops new competitive advantages in a marketplace where the war for talent is real. There are also many case studies, so we have plenty of precedent and good responses to the age-old question, “Who else is doing that?”

Despite traditional resistance to innovation, many law firms are recognizing the benefits of training their people and their clients about process improvement and project management methodologies. This kind of “speaking the same language” facilitates all sorts of productive and positive discussions, including how law firms can increasingly assist clients with their own strategic initiatives, which contributes greatly providing added value and being a good business partner.

Thomson Reuters Institute: You previous talked about the DMAIC framework — Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control for doing process improvement work. How can that play a part here?

Fred Esposito: Indeed, the key to success is to follow the frameworks for doing process improvement work. Whether it is DMAIC or a variation like DMADV (Define, Measure, Analyze, Design, Verify) or the Legal Lean Sigma® Institute’s collaborative approach to process improvement, called the Legal WorkOut®, the key is to not skip steps and do that work in that exact order. The temptation to skip steps will occur, of course, but you should resist it. Take the process improvement phases in order and stay the course, because change management and stakeholder engagement are built into the way we do this work; and it is not just effective, but practically fail safe. This very logical, sequential way of delivering a process improvement project is also a good assurance for those risk-averse lawyers I mentioned earlier.

When performing legal services, law firms need to focus on the development and documenting of process: a describable, repeatable sequence of activities and tasks that generate outcomes, while creating and delivering value to the client. A good process will also deliver value to the firm, with no tradeoffs.

As the Legal Lean Sigma Institute teaches, everyone is too busy to do things over again and spend time correcting things. We want to figure out how to “Do the right things, the right way, the first time, every time.”

Thomson Reuters Institute: It sounds like process improvement success depends on following the framework.

Fred Esposito: That’s right. The DMAIC, DMADV, the Legal WorkOut, and even Design Thinking frameworks ensures that a cross-functional, diverse team travels safely through a project journey with built-in checkpoints and the right stakeholder engagement. It requires answering some key questions: What is value in the eyes of the client? What do law firms do that its clients may not consider valuable? In performing legal services, where do we have Lean’s 8 kinds of waste and Six Sigma’s undesirable variation? Through each of the phases in DMAIC, those questions start to get answered and are supported by data.

Data can tell a great story of how existing processes are working (Define & Measure); help us discover problems in existing processes and determine their root causes (Analyze); then identify process changes that can help (Improve) existing processes, either by addition or elimination of steps; and then find the ways to keep the new and efficient processes on track (including room for corrective action) for delivering predictable outcomes (Control).

process improvement
Fred Esposito

DMAIC can be applied to every process in any firm of any size — it is completely scalable and can be scoped — and that’s why I think following this path through process improvement projects are going to be a big part of the future in legal. Simply put, it works. As we say at the Legal Lean Sigma Institute, “process improvement lives at the intersection of client, employee, and brand experience.”

Currently, DMAIC is being used for all key business and legal processes, to improve every kind of work the firm does and delivers. Lean Sigma produces more than just financial improvements; process improvement helps firms determine the best way to conduct a certain kind of work to achieve efficiency, excellent quality of work and service, high probability of successful outcomes, and predictability.

Thomson Reuters Institute: Do you think this could be the game-changer that everyone in legal says they’re always looking for?

Fred Esposito: It may well be — but some firms are going to be up for that challenge and others will still have a way to go. But you know the old way of doing things, the instinct and muscle memory, still play into it, of course; but today’s clients are more sophisticated. Their legal ops and procurement professionals require something qualitative as well as quantitative, and all clients demand budget predictability. They want to know how the services they buy are priced and valued.

So, yes, I’d say it’s a definite game-changer now and has gone mainstream. I think it’s going to evolve even further in another year or so, because there’s going to be so many iterations of process improvement work. We’re already seeing hybrid work models, and everybody is doing something different.

With every undertaking within a firm, it’s going to be driven by individual firm culture, resources, organizational maturity, leadership, and so on — and that’s also the beauty of process improvement. No one does it the same as anyone else, yet it works for everyone.


Fred Esposito, COO of the regional law firm Rivkin Radler, has more than 25 years of law and accounting firm experience, is an author and sought-after 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, LLC, and a Certified Green Belt in Legal Lean Sigma with a Project Leader designation. Fred is working towards his Black Belt Certification.

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