Clifford Chance Change Ninjas

Applying Continuous Improvement to high-end legal services is Clifford Chance’s ‘white paper’ on the application of lean and Six Sigma techniques to their business. Black belt naffery aside [Yikes, the Six Sigma ninja’s will be out to improve me], it’s an interesting introduction to continuous improvement ideas and there are one or two interesting examples.

In particular, document review was reportedly improved by improving access to, and communication from, “the experienced lawyers working on the matter” and, “a statistical ‘sample size calculator’ also enabled the team to decide, on a mathematical basis, the optimum number of documents to be checked for quality assurance purposes.” The implication is this reduced errors and “senior lawyer time spent reviewing irrelevant documents.” They have also introduced, “a standard template briefing document and review protocol. This has ensured that teams are better prepared before the review and the lawyers are engaged from the outset with the review team and the issues.” Rocket science it ain’t but then who said improvement had to be obscure?

There’s some sensible stuff about making their advice/delivery more standard, predictable and quick for clients and also this interesting passage on cutting their advice to the client’s cloth:

The scope of the legal advice required is adjusted to match the risk of the matter, meaning that it is no longer a fixed or absolute concept; the legal dimension has become another consideration in the matrix that will decide whether a transaction, or particular course of action, is attractive or feasible. As a result, lawyers have become part of the process and legal fees part of the financial model – creating greater expectations of flexibility on behalf of external advisors to ensure their input and effort are commensurate with the client’s need.

Now my curiosity is peaked because I am wondering what this really means. We won’t gold-plate advice is one obvious interpretation, but beyond that is it simply stating the (by now ubiquitous) claim to be commercially aware and focused as legal advisers? I really can’t tell.

The importance of understanding law as a process is also welcome. Their “process mapping sessions often become teaching sessions, as more senior lawyers share their deal experience and wisdom with their junior colleagues.” This is to be expected (it’s what legal process outsourcers have known for some time– tacit knowledge can be articulated, documented and tested by further experience once processes are formalised and then road-tested). LPOs can also nick that tacit knowledge.

One hears genuine frustration in the refrain that, “legal processes are rarely repetitive or consistent” and “although law firms collect a lot of information – including extensive time recording for each matter – the data points are often insufficiently granular to support detailed analysis of transactions,” the “frustration” of junior lawyer’s grappling with problems that “the matrixed law firm partnership structure” may struggle to identify (or perhaps accept) and take the lesson that there is some way to go with the continuous improvement. As someone interested in teaching my students about how these things unfurl in practice, I also found it a little bland and high level in places.

It’s clear though that CCs endeavours have required a significant investment (four full time Continuous Improvement experts, supported by part-time specialists run workshops with teams of fee-earners (and I assume ‘others’) that last a couple of days and then manage a process of implementation and support for improvements. Interestingly, “our greatest successes in this area have involved allocating responsibility for owning best practice methodologies to one or more senior associates.” When Gewande implemented checklists in his operating theatre experiments, he made the nurses do it. They didn’t feel it was beneath them and made the consultants toe the line.

There’s also an interesting attempt to catch the clients’ eyes by claiming to be ahead of some of their in-house counterparts

“because in-house lawyers, as much as their private practice counterparts, may not always recognise the possibilities for process improvement, the opportunities and benefits need to be set out in a way that is meaningful to their particular operating context.”

This has sometimes led to continuous improvement workshops with clients. With some, “transactions …completing up to 40% faster than before. Moreover, our two teams now understand each other better and are working together in a more joined up way.”

The claims for efficiency improvements should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. Saying something, “often lead[s] to an improvement of 15% or more, sometimes significantly more.” is a little too adjectival and not definite enough for me. As is, “Improving the speed of a process – sometimes by up to 50%”. But I cavil. It is to their credit that they have embarked on this process. The plan is to turn most of their fee earners into ‘yellow belt’ Ninjas (I mean Continuous Improvement experts) and for improvement to occur organically within teams with all lawyers to be so, “trained over the coming years.” Perhaps the recalcitrants will be like those partners who said they’d never have a computer on their desks.

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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3 Responses to Clifford Chance Change Ninjas

  1. Nick Jones says:

    I am surprised that this has taken as long as it has. I had always assumed that the big city firms would have already have done this. At the other end of the profession, do you think that this (albeit in a lower cost way) would help legal aid practices? Or do you think the cost of measuring all the dpms simply makes it an unhelpful tool?

    • Richard Moorhead says:

      I don’t see why not; but I would not claim any particular insight here. Sure, sometimes costs would outweigh benefits but that would be part of the initial calculation in heading down this route on a particular problem. The legal aid sector has had its fair share of consultants trying to help with compliance an audit type things and I can imagine them trying similar things with some success in legal aid funds, which might sometimes be the most effective way into mentoring improvement (which is kind of what I sense goes on here). Depends on how good the consultant is of course.

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