Chris Bull – Edge International partner and author of The Legal Process Improvement Toolkit – is worried. He believes that law firms everywhere are failing to take sufficient notice of recent massive changes to consumer attitudes and technologies – changes that are already having a major impact on the practice of law. Bull is convinced that if firms do not begin to overcome long-standing prejudices and start to face these challenges, they are going to be left behind economically and in every other way.
Bull reminds his readers that technology has given law clients access to a wide range of professional services at little or no cost – and forever altered consumers’ views of the relationship between price and value. Today, advice on a range of legal issues, not to mention access to templates for wills and other legal documents, is available to anyone with a computer. As professional processes are increasingly digitized, the trend toward self-service and the offering of “highly repeatable commodities” at reduced rates by online companies will continue to change consumer attitudes towards what they seek in professional expertise. Client expectations will, in turn, transform what services law firms offer – and how they offer those services in order to remain viable and profitable.
Although lawyers have traditionally preferred to view their work as “intellectual and perhaps individual,” Chris Bull makes a strong case for the need for an immediate shift to towards a business approach that puts process management at the centre. He shows that legal matters have always had a process component to them, incorporating such characteristics as chronology, applicable regulations, the use of forms, etc. Now, he says, as computers take increasing advantage of those exact attributes of legal work, the need has become critical for lawyers to recognize the process aspect of the services they offer, so that they may “define, document and optimize” them.
Bull’s book is organized into three sections. In the first, he explains the factors that have led to a traditional disregard for the process components of legal work, and the bottom-line importance of law firms turning their attention to this crucial aspect of their work at this time. He demonstrates how firms should be working to attain the level of maturity in this field that are being attained by other professions and in other industries.
In the second part of the book, Bull offers solutions that are based on his years of experience in viewing legal work through a business filter. What he offers in this section is, he says, “a starter toolkit” in legal process improvement (LPI). He shows how each tool can be applied to improve process management in law-firm contexts, using strategies such as “unbundling” legal work so that less demanding components can be handled by less senior lawyers, implementing the Six Sigma methodology, and using such tools as process documentation and mapping. He concludes the section with a discussion of comprehensive plans for effective legal project management (LPM), of which LPI is a component.
In the final section, Bull offers readers case studies of firms that have implemented LPI and LPM programs to their advantage.
Chris Bull pulls no punches. He declares up front his fundamental conviction that all lawyers are involved in a business process, and his belief that what varies is merely their awareness of this truth and therefore how well they optimize the “systems” aspects of what they do.
Bull offers a diagnostic tool that every firm can put to use immediately: “Where your paper build up is,” he says, “that's an indicator of process inefficiencies.” He talks about the value of “disruptive technologies” and cautions against outsourcing problems. He shows how the move away from billable hours to fixed or capped pricing makes the need to do work in a process-efficient manner even more important.
Chris Bull acknowledges that the majority of his experience with law-practice management has been focused on the UK, which he refers to as the “the world’s legal laboratory.” However, he has also worked with law firms all over the United States, in Australia and other countries. It is my contention that no matter where your practice is based, you cannot afford to ignore the “tipping points” and warning signs that Bull has set out in his book – or to fail to take advantage of the toolkit he has developed to address them.
The Legal Process Improvement Toolkit is published by the Ark Group in association with Managing Partner and Edge International.