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Six Ways to Improve Legal Department Productivity

Rather than asking, "How do we do things right?", corporate lawyers should first focus on "Are we doing the right things?" then focus on doing those things correctly

Stopwatch ProductivityThe work of in-house lawyers is never finished: after they have dealt with big problems, emerging issues still await their attention.

After those come questions of “sleeping policy” that should have been dealt with years ago.  And nothing needs attention as much as the one big risk that nobody has yet noticed.

Still, people are tempted to think that if they work a little harder or more efficiently, they can “catch up”.  But they can’t, and they won’t. True productivity is about which things people do, not how many.  Management guru Peter Drucker said that

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”  In that sense, productivity is a quintessential leadership question: Are we doing the right things?  By contrast, efficiency is a management question – it’s about “doing things right.”

Below are six thoughts on how to maximize productivity by doing the right things.  For reflections on the (still important) matter of efficiency, see the separate post, How to Make Your Legal Department More Efficient.

The List of Six

  1. Set client expectations: The closer in-house lawyers get to clients, the more they ask them to do.  Sometimes this is good, but often it means that you’re working hardest for the client groups you know best – not the ones who need the most help. CEB calls this the client-service paradox: you want clients to ask for help, but the more they do, the less you can ensure that you’re doing the right things.  It’s critical to control your time, because many future risks in the company will come from the issues you aren’t spending time on now.

    The key to controlling your time is to regularly set expectations directly with senior clients.  What are their priorities, and how are you going to support those?  What’s the service level their group should expect on lower-priority issues?  What should they expect for turnaround times on common requests?  The goal is to build not only a habit of collaboration, but a settled expectation of where Legal’s work starts – and where it stops.  This should free up time to focus your work in the highest-risk areas of the company.

  1. Enable clients: The idea of self-sufficient clients is more than a little scary to many lawyers.  But as every area of business becomes more regulated, clients face legal and regulatory issues every day.  The question is whether they will “figure them out” on their own, or with some guidance from Legal?  Increasingly, we see the most effective legal departments “pre-delivering” legal advice by writing down standing guidance in certain areas and making it hard for clients not to see that guidance as they do their work.  Are there certain contract terms that we never accept?  Why do we never accept them?

    Perhaps you can create a booklet outlining that for the sales team.  Are there things you can never do in product testing, and guidelines you should repeat for how to run a pilot without getting into legal trouble?  Maybe you can boil it all down to a single sheet of paper, and provide it to your R&D group.  With any of these examples, the key is to keep it simple, and then make sure your clients know when to come to you for more consultation.

  1. Triage: Battlefield triage was invented because there were never enough army doctors to go around.  Triage un-clogged the system by only putting a patient in front of a doctor if he would really benefit from treatment.  The key feature of triage is that every patient is assessed immediately so a decision can be made about treatment strategy.  This isn’t just better for the doctors – it’s far better for the patients, too.

    As legal issues become more ubiquitous within companies, some legal departments are starting to resemble a hospital with no ER – clients don’t know what sort of help they need, some of them are in the wrong department, and many of them don’t actually need to talk to a lawyer – they just need to be guided to existing resources.  We need better triage.  Several companies have created  triage systems that direct clients to the right place, and keep lawyers focused on the most critical tasks.

  1. Office hours: The best interactions between clients and lawyers are usually in person or over the phone – but as lawyers get busier, it’s harder for clients to find them.  Some law departments have instituted office hours on a weekly basis within certain practice areas, giving clients a chance to spend time with lawyers in person to discuss projects or issues they are working on.

    These efforts depend on certain factors – having an established client group that regularly benefits from Legal advice, and a lawyer or two who can make real headway by building relationships in that client group.  Whatever you do, make sure to follow two key rules.  First, go to the client – don’t make them come to Legal.  Second, and most importantly, make sure there’s free food.  Doughnuts and coffee appear to work best.

  1. Don’t increase output, increase “throughput”: It’s tempting to think we will “catch up” by working harder and doing more.  Increasing output.  But more output doesn’t necessarily help, because not all of the work we do is really useful to the company.  If we spend several hours lawyering contract clauses that have never been disputed, and will never be disputed – that’s the tree that fell in the forest.  Granted, we can never perfectly eliminate that kind of wasted effort, but it’s important for lawyers to stay focused on increasing what we call throughput.

    Throughput is a concept from manufacturing accounting, and it denotes products that are not only made, but used in the next step of production or sold to the end-customer.  Throughput is truly productive output.  How have Legal departments increased throughput?  There are many ways – but here’s one example.  One company assessed its history of contract disputes, and determined that certain contract types and contract clauses were rarely ever disputed.  They may have suspected this, but once the analysis was complete, it allowed them to reduce the time and energy they put into reviewing those contract types.  This decreased their total output, and increased their throughput by eliminating an unproductive set of activities.

  1. Stick to your knitting:You can’t be all things to all people; your department needs to decide what it’s best at and focus on that.  It’s simply not possible to be consistently productive in dozens of different areas at once.  But deciding where to focus is not necessarily a matter of which legal specialties to develop in-house and which to outsource.  In-house lawyers add value mainly by knowing this client better than anyone.  In other words, they add unique value through their deep knowledge of certain facts or processes more than through their knowledge of a particular area of law.

    Legal departments should assess, from the client’s perspective, where they create the most value – a critical perspective to adopt in advance of any strategic planning initiative.  Only then can you assess what’s strategically important to the company.  Where does the company out-fox its competitors in regulated areas?  What are the company’s biggest risks? Where does our firm operate in ways that outside counsel never seem to understand?  Those are potential areas of unique value creation for your legal department; staying focused on a short list of those will likely ensure that you’re doing the right things.

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