“There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.”
So said Peter Drucker, as conveyed by Debbie Foster of Affinity Consulting in a webinar titled, 8 Things Killing Your law Firm and How to Stop Them. The complete webinar is embedded nearby; it runs about 45 minutes long.
Arguably, Mr. Drucker believed that anything that diverges from the end goal is a wasted effort. It sounds reasonable but in reality, it’s not always that black and white. Ms. Foster, noted she sometimes hears exchanges like this:
Partner: Hello! Have you updated the new clients into the billing system?
Assistant: No, not yet. Actually, before I implement the new client information into the shared billing system, I typically update them on my desktop first, this way I have the most updated information at my fingertips.
Partner: Okay, but isn’t that more work for you? Can’t you just implement the details into the shared billing system as opposed to importing it twice?
Assistant: Hmm, I hadn’t thought of doing it that way. This is how I was trained to do it so I assumed it was the best way.
It is precisely this type of inefficiency that is killing law firms today.
So how can we stop the cycle? According to Ms. Foster, law firms can learn a great deal about efficiency by applying some of the fundamental principles of Lean Six Sigma to their businesses. In Lean Six Sigma, value is defined by clients. Ms. Foster believes the biggest mistake firms make is not taking the time to define their values. This means defining what is most important to their clients and working collaboratively to support these values.
3 Values That Matter
She points out in her experience, law firms don’t always take the time to think about what is most important to the organization. That is to say, to truly understand who you are as a law firm. Ms. Foster believes while value has many different meanings, it should focus on three key principles:
- Change the Client’s Situation. Simply put, make sure the work you are providing clients is adding value and changing their situation for the better.
- Move the Ball down the Field. Every piece of work you produce should work toward the goal of changing the client’s situation for the better. If it is not, then it is waste.
- Do it Right the First Time. Time is money for clients and they don’t like to pay for your mistakes, so don’t make them.
Once a firm analyzes its practice, it can start to identify its areas of weakness. She believes there are eight “silent killers” that are keeping law firms from living up to their full potential. The following 8 mistakes are a paraphrase of her ideas:
1. Mistakes. As the pool of clients slowly dwindles, law firms can’t afford to make mistakes because clients are simply not willing to pay for them. Anything from losing documents to entering information incorrectly can hurt your bottom line.
2. Over production. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Too often attorneys are doing more research than is required when good enough is, well, just that.
3. Waiting. There’s no time like the present. Too often firms are slowed down by insufficient technology (i.e. computers that take too long to load or shut down unexpectedly). Also, waiting too long to get back to colleagues and clients on important issues is a no-no.
4. Non-utilized talent. When you withhold work from capable employees for fear of losing quality control, you are doing yourself and the firm a disservice. Take the time to delegate work to capable employees and, conversely, don’t assign clerical work to high value employees.
5. Transportation. This one has a few meanings. I’ll start with the most obvious one: don’t make employees to walk to the opposite side of the building to scan a document or make a copy. Put these copiers, or scanners, or printers on their desks. The other form of transportation is electronic: don’t move data from one location to another and don’t update client information on multiple systems. Use only one system and update it, as needed.
6. Inventory. In the legal profession, a clean plate is better than a full one. This includes not billing for the work you have done or not billing your hours in a timely fashion.
7. Motion. Simply looking busy doesn’t mean you’re adding value. In most cases, it is the opposite especially when it means, stepping away from client work to look for something or taking too much time on to complete a task on the computer that could otherwise have been done more quickly.
8. Extra Processing. Any time you give a client more than he or she wants or needs, this is extra processing. Think twice about making extra copies or buying fancy folders for clients, because more often than not, they’ll end up in a waste basket. Over processing means extra cost, not extra value.
While total efficiency isn’t something that can be achieved over night, it is something that we can continuously work toward in an effort to reach those end goals. Mr. Drucker might be proud.
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