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Clifford Chance

Clifford Chance

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How does Continuous Improvement work in a law firm?

Maximising client value using continuous improvement expertise, legal project management, technology and specialist support centres

Fiona Prowting, Continuous Improvement Project Manager, spoke to Mark Jan Arends, a Partner in the Corporate practice in our Amsterdam office, Stuart Deane, the Regional Programme Director for Best Delivery in Continental Europe, and Yoshita Malhotra, Director at our Delivery Centre, to understand from their perspective how the application of Continuous Improvement principles works in practice.

What does process improvement look like in a law firm like Clifford Chance?

Yoshita: Clifford Chance is very focused on process improvement and has a well-established Continuous Improvement (CI) programme which is fully integrated within the firm. Our CI colleagues, delivery centres, technology team and lawyers are all very focused on finding opportunities to improve processes. They can achieve this by disaggregating existing workstreams into smaller tasks, streamlining repetitive elements as well as proposing more efficient ways to deliver the work by deploying technology and lower cost resources, as appropriate. This enables us to deliver consistent, cost efficient services in improved timescales.

Stuart: Within the CI programme, we use elements of the Lean Six Sigma toolkit to map out the way in which we deliver some of our most common legal worktypes. Whenever we identify inefficiencies in these processes, we use our teams of process professionals based in all our largest global offices who are experts in delivering change. These teams typically work with the lawyers to design the new ways of working and are then responsible for implementing the new processes and tracking the benefits delivered to our clients and to the firm.

Mark Jan: What underpins this process is the discipline to push ourselves, as lawyers, to view every client mandate as an opportunity for improvement. That is, to leverage our specialist resources and legal technology so that we positively impact our clients' experience, increase transparency and ensure that the right work is being done by the right resource in an efficient and cost-effective way.

How do Continuous Improvement principles need to be adapted to the professional services environment?

Mark Jan: The frenetic pace of legal work often means that lawyers simply don't have time available for lengthy process improvement initiatives. Instead, you need to move quickly because the work is starting immediately, and we cannot spare days or even hours to identify solutions. What's been successful is having a team of dedicated specialists who are very knowledgeable about the range of solutions and resources we have available and can implement these rapidly. Whether it's a technological solution or identifying work that can be sent to one of our low-cost delivery centres or utilising a legal project manager on our most complex mandates.

Stuart: I agree. The key difference in my opinion is that in a law firm you get very limited time to spend with your subject matter experts (the lawyers) on diagnosing problems and designing and implementing solutions. In manufacturing, where Continuous Improvement first became widely used, it is common to run full day workshops with operators who run the core processes. This means that you have the opportunity to use a wide variety of tools with them in order to discover the root cause of issues and to select solutions. In a law firm like Clifford Chance, we will probably get one hour, at most, with a group of lawyers to achieve the required result. Our process professionals therefore have to be expert facilitators and must know quickly which tools to use in each situation to get the results we are looking for.

Yoshita: CI is relatively new in professional services firms. As the legal industry is adapting to changing demands – quicker turnaround, less cost, same high quality result, - there is an increasingly compelling business need to improve the processes around relatively routine legal work.  However, to achieve this in a law firm environment, which typically involves lawyers working to challenging timelines in demanding circumstances, requires concerted effort from a specialist team focused on process improvement. Key ingredients for success are: 1) active support from senior leadership and 2) change management so that the improved processes are fully embraced.

How have the adoption of continuous improvement principles been influenced by clients?

Mark Jan: In recent years we've noticed that clients are much more focused on how we will deliver our services than before. Efficient service delivery has become an integral part of winning mandates and being appointed to panels. We've also noticed that these decisions often come down to the specific resources and solutions we will utilise to ensure that our work is efficient, robust and delivered within the agreed budget. 

Yoshita: I too have noticed an increasing demand from clients for their legal advisers to demonstrate value, not just through efficient cost management but also using alternative, 'smarter' service delivery models. Clients' decision-making process when selecting a suitable legal service provider hinges on the latter's ability to provide high quality legal advice while using cost and time efficient means to deliver desired outcomes, sometimes within alternate fee arrangements. This shift away from a more traditional approach has certainly had a strong influence in driving up the significance of continuous improvement in legal service delivery.

Stuart: I agree; when selecting their legal service providers, our clients are increasingly concerned about maximizing the value that they will receive. They want assurances that we are constantly looking to improve efficiency in our internal processes and effectively control costs. In recent years, we have also seen a trend of clients asking to benefit from our process expertise themselves. Clients have their own issues and challenges in their legal departments, and it is not uncommon for our process professionals to work with clients to help them solve these problems.