Guest Blog: Martina Winters, Relationship Manager at Keyhouse, reflects on how Irish law firms must become more efficient

Guest Feature | Mon 3 Feb | Author – Business & Finance
Pictured: Martina Winters, Relationship Manager, Keyhouse

Martina Winters is the Relationship Manager at Keyhouse, and has worked in the Legal Services Market for 15 years.

She has a deep understanding of the challenges that confront law firms and has delivered many projects in the development of business processes.

With her certification in Lean Sigma Six, Martina is able to bring the latest incarnation of the “Lean” methodology to the legal services market.

The pace of change in the legal services market is accelerating. Demand for a better quality of service is also high, with a growing expectation for law firms to deliver more for less. As with other sectors, technology has had a profound impact on the way legal firms and lawyers conduct their work, however law firms can be slow to embrace technology. There are several reasons for this, the main one being the fear of disruption and how that will impact on the delivery of their services in the short term. Culture also plays a big part and how willing the partners are to invest their time to work on the business as opposed to in the business.  Working on the business may be a short-term cost but the longer-term financial benefits are quite significant.

However, this doesn’t always sit well with a sector that has at times been reluctant to updates its business practices. Firms often suffer from an outdated administrative system or workflow process – one that struggles to keep pace with the needs of clients and can fail to deliver real value.

The best way of overcoming this and ensuring firms maximise their resources – in terms of both talent and time – is by increasing efficiencies and listening to the voice of the client. These two principles lie at the heart of the Lean methodology for continuous business process improvement. This methodology is used by many of the world’s top law firms, such as Clifford Chance, but has its roots in the manufacturing industry, where it was adopted by Toyota to improve the efficiency and flexibility of its manufacturing back in 1945. To put it simply, a Lean approach increases efficiency by reducing waste in any process.

But if the methodology has the potential to make such a profound impact on a legal firm’s operations, why aren’t more firms employing it? In a nutshell, the answer is because it can often be difficult to get lawyers to change their way of working because they are too busy practicing law and caught up in the task at hand. Nonetheless, for a profession suffering from more demanding clients, shrinking revenues, dated business practices and system waste, it’s necessary to take the time to change.

To put it simply, a Lean approach increases efficiency by reducing waste in any process.

So, what is Lean and how do you apply it?

Lean is based on the application of a number of tools and strategies aimed at streamlining all aspects of work and eliminating wasteful activities. This encompasses everyday problems or frustrations encountered in lawyers’ daily work, like missing or incorrect information, and waiting for information from clients or internally before work can be progressed. Delays, misfiled documents, excessive meetings, or high levels of work in progress that has not been billed are all typical wastes in a law firm.

But to fully appreciate Lean and how valuable a tool it can be for any business improvement drive. it is essential to understand what a process is: Almost any task that has a beginning, a middle and end can be described as a process, including the practice of law. And almost every service a law firm offers contains a series of repeatable, describable steps – even if there is variation in each one.

The challenge for law firms is, firstly, to acknowledge this and then have the ability to analyse their work to understand how it is currently carried out. A collaborative approach helps whereby experts in the tools and techniques of business improvement works with a team familiar with the relevant process to assess what they are doing and find ways of doing it better.

Lean however is much more than a set of tools. It’s a new way of thinking with a focus on delivering client value and eliminating waste in that process. Learning to identify and eliminate that waste is the key to improving efficiencies and the service delivered to clients. For truly client-centric firms, Lean frees up lawyers to focus on more client-facing and value-add work, while allowing the more routine tasks take their rightful place as part of a process. Not only does this help control excessive costs through the elimination of wasteful activities, it also promotes employee engagement.

On a deeper level it is about challenging the mindset of “we’ve always done it that way,” which can be difficult. The culture and leadership style of a law firm is critical to the success of any Lean project. You can’t delegate and forget – leadership must be responsible, and champion business process improvement in a firm. Further, for it to thrive in any law firm, there must be a blame-free culture where problems are welcomed and made visible. Lean is about doing what is right and doing it as well as can be done.  Success is rooted in teamwork and the ability to talk openly about waste. Without this, problems and opportunities for improvements in any given process will not come to light.

But there are also a number of challenges that firms need to be conscious of if they are to make more efficient work practices a reality – particularly around culture and instilling process thinking. Ultimately, however, embracing and adopting more efficient work processes offers law firms one of the greatest opportunities for growth and the potential to significantly alter the way firms do business – to the benefit of clients and lawyers alike.