Running Legal Like A Business - Ch. 9 - Process Efficiency

Our legal ops team is laser-focused on 3 objectives for 2022:

1.  Tightening up our project management practices with a focus on communication.

2.  Focusing on the data; making sure we maintain a clean data set and take action on the insights.

3.  Process efficiency to reduce or eliminate ministerial tasks so the legal team can focus on delivering value.

As such, I've been looking forward to reaching Kiran Mallavarapu's chapter 10. "Process First: Creating Efficiencies" in Running Legal Like A Business by Connie Brenton and Susan Lambreth, PLI Press, 2021.  Mallavarapu is the EVP of Legal Strategic Services for Liberty Mutual's corporate legal department.  You can purchase the book here: 

In his opening Mallavarapu describes what it means to do "more with less" for both law departments and firms.  Another way to frame this is to "do more with what you've got" or optimization.

Starting with the premise "it takes an entire team to change a process" Mallavarapu walks us through a useful approach to categorizing wastes, core efficiency metrics, and implementing process optimization projects.

An MS engineer and MBA by training, Mallavarapu boldly elects to hone in on operational efficiency of legal matters, noting, "Most legal process workflows endure unnecessary variation and introduce many wastes, driving inefficiencies that lead to higher costs and non-value added tasks.   To add business value , law firms and corp. legal leaders should strive to make their service delivery processes more efficient and consistent." (p. 146).  While in my experience, engineers are accustomed to this type of conversation as a matter of course, attorneys are not.  Uninvited feedback of this nature can receive a "stay in your lane" response.  Building a record of successful precedents is key to being invited in.

Mallavarapu summarizes unwanted process variations or in Sigma speak "wastes" into 7 buckets (working below capability, waiting delays, over-production, over-processing*, rework, backlogs/inventory and inefficient motion) and clearly sets out the efficiency formula: 

Efficiency = work product output / resource input where -

  • Efficiency is use of least possible resources, time, or effort to achieve highest amount of output.

  • Work Product Output is all services that are both delivered to and valued by the client as a contributor to business value.

  • Resource Input is comprised of the time effort, and any other resources used to create the output.

Mallavarapu suggests a few key formula-related metrics then walks the reader through a process optimization exercise. He starts by identifying roles within the team and skills and behavioral traits that need to be represented within that team.  The 7-step process is nearly identical to the upfront process our ops team conducts at the outset of most projects (see graphic).

Mallavarapu concludes by listing common obstacles and a few potential solutions in a legal matter specific context. The same obstacles apply to running optimization processes.  Here are a few thoughts in that context:

  1. Lack of capacity from trained internal resources.  Mallavarapu recommends training additional resources.  My favorite when under-resourced with trained operations professionals is to build the project and process management skills of a practice area paralegal in real-time on the project.  A strong paralegal is a subject matter expert with a process orientation and a great ally.
  2. Waiting on external resources. He notes that with vendors one needs to set clear expectations and SLAs.  A good rule of thumb is "no SOW signature without a Gantt chart commitment."
  3. Tasks that add minimal value such as filling out forms or copying data from one data source to another.  Tasks should be automated, outsourced (if can be done more cheaply) or eliminated. And with that we've come full circle to our Ops Squad top 3 goals for the year.  We have a number of projects focused on auto-creating a first draft without manually populating received information and eliminating the manual population of data points into a database,
  4. Unbalanced workloads. Operations professionals tend to be planners while their attorney clientele tend to excel at reacting to emergencies.  Holding attorneys to the plan in my experience is rarely possible. To compensate the ops team has to excel in recalibration and clearly communicating the delay's impact on a portfolio of schedule; e.g. "If you need 3 more weeks to redline the document, the team assigned to implement the tool, will still need to move to their next project on schedule.  Their next availability will be next quarter starting DATE."  Like horses out of the gate in a crush, the field tends to spread out as some projects gain steam and others encounter delays.  
  5. Repetition tends to occur when there are multiple starts and stops. With pauses, it is easy to lose track of where you left off and have to re-familiarize yourself before you can make forward progress. To minimize this, checklists of tasks and good notes from project meetings can help.

For Mallavarapu's full recommendations you'll need to read the chapter. The read is well worth your time. 

And next week we reach Susan's chapter 10 on project management.  Fittingly, she is chairing the PLI Legal Project Management program today (2/9)!


* The least understood of these are over production and over processing. Common legal examples in these 2 categories are written legal memo when you've requested a brief call and excessive research.