For Process Improvement, Stop Starting at the Beginning

For Process Improvement Stop Starting at the Beginning


I’ve talked with several attorneys lately who have all told me a version of the same story. It goes like this:

“I don’t have time to do a bunch of process improvement work, but a few times a year something about my workflow drives me crazy and I resolve to fix the whole darn thing. So I go to my white board to sketch out the different parts of my process and get to work making them better. Starting at the beginning, I take a hard look at my client intake system and make a few changes to improve it. But it is always harder than I think it’s going to be, and by then the client work is usually piling up. So I go back to being a lawyer and never really get around to improving the other stages. Until a few months later when it starts to drive me crazy again…”

There are, of course, several problems with this approach. Continue reading

The Role of Technology in Legal Innovation

I’ve just finished my second watching of a great video posted this week by the Stanford Center for the Legal Profession titled “Implementing Innovation: The Challenges to Changing Big Law” (embedded below, h/t to Steph Kimbro). It features Stephen Poor, Chair of Seyfarth Shaw, Ron Dolin, Research Fellow with the Center on the Legal Profession, and Thomas Buley, JD/MBA candidate at Stanford.

The whole thing is fascinating, but I’m going to skip over the bit where Dolin and Buley present their paper discussing whether the “Innovator’s Dilemma” will lead to large-scale incumbent failure in Big Law. (Margaret Hagan has a good set of tweets about it.) I’m also going to skip Poor’s discussion of the incredible perception/behavior gap exposed by the recent Altman Weil “Law Firms in Transition” report (the one where 93% of law firm leaders say that a focus on practice efficiency is a permanent trend yet only 37% say they are changing their strategic approach to efficiency).

More interesting to me, probably because this is a drum I’ve been beating a lot lately, is Mr. Poor’s take on the role of technology in legal innovation (or, more accurately, the oft-neglected role of process). Continue reading

Dispute Resolution through Visual Thinking

As you can tell from my last post, I’m a big fan of visual thinking and visual management tools. I personally use the Lean Canvas and the Business Model Canvas for both myself and my clients, but I’ve often thought that the idea of a canvas would work well in other areas of legal practice as well.

A while back I spent some time with Jim Levy, a professional mediator in Seattle, and out of our conversation came the idea spark for a tool that I’m calling the Dispute Resolution Canvas. Since that spark, I’ve prototyped it with several others folks, both attorneys and non-attorneys, for testing and tweaking. Specifically, I got tremendous feedback from Jason Gershenson who has used it in his own practice to help him understand disputes among business partners; Gabriel Key, an Agile consultant (and excellent chef) with a background in international negotiation at the UN, and Prof. Daniel Linna who is the Dean of Career Development and Professor of Dispute Resolution at Michigan State Law School.

Without further ado, I present the Dispute Resolution Canvas:

Continue reading

Understanding your Legal Services Business Model


I just left the Washington State Bar’s “Future of the Practice” meeting and there was some great discussion about ways to increase access to legal services. If you aren’t familiar with some of the steps that the Washington bar is taking, including their creation of the Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLT) role, they (we—I’m a WA bar member!) are on the cusp of some solidly innovative work to evolve the practice of law.

One of the things that came up repeatedly in the meeting was the notion that most lawyers simply don’t have business models that can profitably support clients at the lower end of the resources spectrum. That simultaneously strikes me as true and insane. How is it that lawyers can’t seem to meet the demand of the majority of people who need legal services?Continue reading

Improve your legal ops first, then improve your software.

post-it cube

If you’ve been following this site, you know that I’ve already blogged Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 from my forthcoming book, Kanban for Lawyers. The next chapter (below) is more of an interlude, but it hits on an important point. Too many lawyers (and people in general) look at technology as some sort of magic wand that will fix all ills. Sure there is some intuitive and transformative technology out there. But even with the best tech tools, most technologists will admit that the real improvements come from the process changes that the technology inspires.

And if the technology isn’t one of those truly magical things like the iPhone or Gmail where process improvements are almost intuitive (even if you don’t use them, these things were transformative when they launched), then focusing on adapting your workflows is even more important. Even though legal tech has made huge strides, as Seyfarth Shaw’s Ken Grady said recently, law has yet to see our “killer app.”

Rather than making a big investment in technology then, most legal teams would do better to model some improvements in the physical world before mapping those changes to the virtual one. In Jason Freid’s and David Hansson’s excellent book REWORK, they point out that removing layers of abstraction is often the key to major breakthroughs (see p. 97). This is especially true with process change.

So break out a pack of sticky notes and clear space on your wall or white board. Then spend some time bodily interacting with your work and your process. You’ll be amazed at what you discover when you do.

Kanban for Lawyers Chapter 2.5: A Word About Software

By this point you’ve probably started thinking “I bet there is some great software tool I could use to automate this!” Your Google or App Store search history may already contain some version of the term “kanban app.”

This is natural, I get it. It is a good thought actually. And yes, there are some great programs out there for building and maintaining Kanban systems.

But you’re not ready.

Soon we will be able to consider software, but first you need to know why making an investment in researching, buying, implementing, and maintaining a software tool is the best possible use of your resources right now. And right now, it is not.

You just built your first Kanban board with an incredibly low investment. Now this board hasn’t helped you deliver greater value to your customers (yet), and it hasn’t enabled you to capture some of that value in the form of revenue (yet), but it has given you something that is even more important to your long-term success: knowledge.

This Minimum Viable Product you’ve created, along with the retrospective you just conducted, has taught you something. And it promises to teach you much, much more without a whole lot of additional investment. But if you go off and install an app, your relative investment in this thing will skyrocket. You’ll have to pay some money, spend some time learning the tool, and you’ll risk being sucked down the rabbit hole of endless configuration and modification.

I’m glad you’re excited and I understand your desire to get this Kanban thing up and running as quickly as possible. But moving quickly isn’t the point: The point is learning. Learning how to see your workflow. Learning about your tasks and your products (yes, you have products) and how to describe your work. Learning how to recognize value and how to avoid waste. These things will come, and they will come more quickly than you expect. But software will force you into some programmer’s view of how you should work, and that will inhibit your learning. At best it will delay your progress, and at worst it will stall your efforts completely. And then all your investment will have been for naught.

There is something irreplaceable about learning in a physical environment. A big part of what we’re trying to do is get you to truly see your workflow in the broadest sense, and I doubt you have a screen that can rival your wall for size and scope and taking it all in. Even if you do (and someday we probably will), there is something tactile and kinesthetic about bodily interacting with the stickies and columns on your board. Once you learn to see, and feel, and experience your workflow in a physical way, then you will be in a position to translate that experience to a virtual tool.

You may even decide to start using software at that point, but you may not. I know of people and teams who have been using Kanban for years without making that choice. If and when you do come to that decision, however, I want it to be from a position of strength. Strength comes from confidence, and confidence comes from knowledge and experience.

Building strength, however, requires training, and effective training must follow a plan. Right now your training plan involves channeling your inner Rocky Balboa to move physical objects through the world, not some mechanistic Ivan Drago interacting with newfangled machines. It may seem rustic, maybe a little quaint, but I guarantee you there is no better way to train.

So please, set aside your software aspirations for now, and let’s get stronger.


Photo Credit: Angela, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

© 2015, John E. Grant

Three Steps to Improved Legal Operations

A few weeks ago I woke up on a Saturday to a small explosion on my Twitter feed (when you write on an arcane topic like legal operations, small explosions seem significant). Turns out Joshua Lenon from Clio was presenting at the LegalLean conference in Toronto, where he was liberally and admittedly teaching from this very blog*. His presentation is great, and you can watch it below.

#LegalLean at MaRS: Joshua Lenon – Unlocking Value in the Traditional Legal Industry from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

Stealing back from Joshua, I really like one of the things he talks about at the end pertaining to legal process/project management and I want to try to expand on it a little.Continue reading

The Insidious Harms of Multitasking

Are you unconsciously cheating yourself and your clients by multitasking? Many people assume that multitasking creates efficiency, but as Oregon Law School professor Elizabeth Ruiz Frost writes in the February/March edition of the Oregon State Bar Bulletin, this logic is deeply flawed. Prof. Frost outlines the growing body of research showing how multitasking, far from improving our ability to get things done, actually hurts both the efficiency and quality of the work being performed. Not only that, it often has a harmful effect on seemingly unrelated tasks.Continue reading

Kanban for Lawyers, Part 2: A Retrospective


If you haven’t already, you should probably go check out my last post, which is essentially Chapter 1 of my in-progress book Kanban For Lawyers. As I write this, I’m currently wrapping up the 8th chapter and I plan to publish it to the LeanPub version of the book next week. Right now you can buy the book on LeanPub for as little as a dollar, and if you do so you’ll be entitled to Continue reading

Kanban For Lawyers: Getting Started

Recently the ABA’s Law Practice Today Magazine published my article The Dawn of the Agile Attorney. In it, I profile several lawyers, some practicing attorneys and others who have gone on to legal tech careers, who have adopted Agile methods in their work and lives.

Reception to the article has been great, and several people have asked me for resources on learning more about Agile. One the one hand, there’s no shortage of information online about Agile and its subsets like Scrum, Kanban, and Lean Startup. On the other, much of the available info is specific to the needs of software teams and developers.

I’m working on a backlog of article ideas for Agile techniques that I (and others) have specifically adapted for use by lawyers, but I want to get started by discussing the Agile methodology that I think is often the best and easiest-to-implement entry point for attorneys (and other professionals) who are new to Agile: Kanban. Continue reading