CellThe word “cell” has picked up an unfortunate connotation in recent years as terrorist cells have taken over the news. Lawyers probably want to avoid any suggestion that they work as part of a cell. But the truth is, cells can be a good thing.

Today, when many of us hear the word “cell” we think of a terrorist group operating distributed cells throughout our city or country. That use has given a good word a bad name. In the original lean thinking parlance, a cell was a small area devoted to a certain group of tasks or activities. For example, on a production line you could have a cell that assembles the right-hand mirror for a car.

The cell concept is popular in lean thinking for many reasons. But, outside of manufacturing, the cell idea has not caught on. To avoid the negative connotation now associated with the word, and to move into a way of looking at things more familiar to legal services providers, I’m going to switch to the term “team station.” Cell and team station are not substitutes, but team station will help us get to where we need to go. More importantly, thinking about teams will help us work through how to generate predictable, productive, quality, and low cost legal services.

The Team Station Concept

It is tempting to bring in a sports metaphor here, but while I am replacing cell with team station, I don’t think the metaphor would work. Instead, I’m going to use … the eye doctor’s office.

A few years ago, I suffered the fate of age and nearsightedness—I had a retinal tear. To show you how devoted I am to helping lawyers, the tear happened sometime during the night so I first realized I had a problem when I woke up in the morning. I had a full day ahead of me doing presentations and facilitating as part of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Legal Services Management training. I did not know why I had trouble seeing out of one eye, but I knew I was flying home later that day. I called my wife who got me an appointment at 8:00 am the next morning with the eye doctor, and spent the rest of the day doing my thing while seeing out of one eye. In retrospect, I should have gotten on the first flight home because I risked going from a tear to a detached retina, but as I said, I am devoted to helping lawyers.

The eye doctor quickly diagnosed the problem and sent me a few blocks away (my wife driving both times) to a retinal specialist. This is where the team metaphor comes into play. To make the story more interesting, my new retinal specialist doctor was working with a lean thinking consultant on how to make his office run more efficiently.

I started by checking in at the front desk. This was the first team station (or cell, using the old terminology). At the check-in team station, the “operators” had a set of simple machines designed to help with the processes performed at that station. The team members had to perform insurance tasks, phone tasks, medical records updating and retrieval tasks, and other administrative tasks. Immediately behind the front desk was the storage area for patient records. The team members had phones, staplers, scanners, computers, and other tools arranged neatly around them.

After check in, I was sent to the first examination room, or the preliminary examination team station. This room was devoted to processing the patient through a variety of tests and information gathering processes necessary to give the doctor general information about my physical condition and information specifically related to my eye problem. The room had a variety of devices devoted to specific aspects of the relevant processes.

I then moved to the examination room. Again, the room had tools devoted to the specific processes handled in that room. By the way, the hallway had a large kanban board that the medical assistants used to keep track of each patient’s progress through examination and treatment. Each room also had an andon outside the door to signal everyone about the status of the room. All very cool.

The final two rooms were the laser treatment room, where the doctor and his assistant repaired the retinal tear, and the recovery room, where I waited for a short period after the laser surgery. As with the prior rooms, each of these rooms had equipment designed for the specific tasks performed in the room.

You can see how the office operated. The workflow involved moving patients from room to room (team station to team station or cell to cell) for processes to be performed in the proper sequence. The kanban board was used to control flow, the andons were used to avoid bringing a patient to a room in use, and the team members moved among the rooms as needed to perform processes.

The workflow was not perfect (of course, no workflow ever is perfect). There were unnecessary wait times, lots of traveling (from team station to team station), challenges sequencing processes, and other inefficiencies. All of these were part of the improvement efforts the doctor and his colleagues were working on with the consultant. But the backbone was there and the doctor explained to me the significant improvements they already had achieved in workflow.

Now let’s move to law.

Legal Services Team Stations

You may have trouble seeing (pun intended) how the doctor’s suite of team stations relate to delivering legal services. Let’s start by freeing ourselves from the physical constraint of the office. Legal services provider teams work virtually, with the “thing” they are working on floating through the electronic universe. That is okay—a team station does not have to be a tangible location like a check in desk or a room, it can be a virtual grouping of individuals.

Think about how we break down legal services matters. Litigation has depositions, documents discovery and review, brief writing, witness book presentation, and many other processes that come together under the umbrella heading “litigation.” Transactions have due diligence, agreement drafting, ancillary document preparation, and many other processes we pull together under the umbrella heading “transaction.” In fact, any legal project is made up of many groups of processes pulled together under some heading.

Each of those groups of processes can have a team assigned to it. That team may have legal services providers from one organization (the client, the law firm, the ediscovery vendor), or it may have providers from several or all of those organizations. The team will perform the processes related to achieving their goal. The team station is their virtual universe for the inputs needed to perform the processes or the outputs from the processes.

When you break legal processes down this way, you can think about who needs to be on a team and what tools that team needs. Typically, the team does not need fancy, complicated, do everything tools. Instead, the team needs simple tools designed to help it efficiently perform the tasks needed to complete the processes.

Teams and Team Stations Facilitate Simplicity

I just pointed you to a very powerful concept—one that is hard for most people to grasp. Simple tools often beat complex tools when it comes to many things: cost, efficiency, quality, maintainability, training, and re-configuration, to name a few. We get hung up on the idea of big tools, because of two things: interoperability and compatibility.

Interoperability means that the tools work together. You can connect tool A to tool B. In the case of legal services providers, we want our software packages to work together so that we don’t have conflicts. Our document management system should work with our word processing software, and our contact management system should work with our email system.

Compatibility means that the output of one system can be used by another system. For those with good memories, this was the problem that Windows users and Mac users fought for a long time (and still do, a little bit). If we prepared a document in Word at work we wanted to take it home and revise it on our MacBook and then take it back to work and finish it on Word.

Obviously, if you license one big package, everything will be compatible and interoperable with everything in the package. But, if you decide to use many simpler, smaller, packages you may run into interoperability or compatibility problems.

Those problems are on the decline. No entrepreneur in his or her right mind would design a contract editing program that worked with Google Docs but not Microsoft Word. Going the other way, yes to Word and no to Docs, would not constrain the market as much, but ultimately vendors want everyone to use their products. So, the interoperability and compatibility problems can be minimized or avoided when selecting software.

Another way to reduce the problem mimics what companies outside the legal industry have done. Take the base program (e.g., Word) and customize it to the smallest amount necessary. Build macros or use other software to build small tools that manipulate the Word document (yes, that isn’t the easiest thing to do). Large law firms have attempted to do this, although in a ham-handed way. Done with some understanding of workflow and processes, it works very well.

Our due diligence team needs certain tools for its processes. Those tools could be dedicated tools, or customizations of basic tools set up specifically for the due diligence teams’ needs.The brief writing teams needs different tools or different customizations. When a person works on both teams, they will need to learn both sets of tools or customizations, but otherwise they only need to know the tools for their team. Look across all the teams and you will find that seldom does anyone need the big tool that does everything.

Multidisciplinary Teams

If one lawyer does everything, as a solo practitioner might, then you could argue for one tool. I think law is moving towards multidisciplinary teams, even at the solo practitioner level. Multidisciplinary teams can reduce costs, increase efficiency, and help bring law to the masses. To get there, we need to break down what we do into processes, assemble the right tools for those processes, and not overload the team with big tools.

I see many students come through law school who do not like to write legal briefs. I do not mean they dislike the style, I mean they dislike writing. But, they may have great negotiation skills or oral argument skills. This isn’t something new. Those who like to write gravitate towards practices where they can write. Those who like to negotiate go a different path. The solo tries to do it all. But, we can use processes and technology to create virtual practices (and many already exist), where a team comes together each member contributing his or her skills. Done correctly (that is, done in the way many other businesses have), the overall cost comes down, quality goes up, work satisfaction increases, and the products or services become available to more at lower cost.

Most lawyers resist the teams and teams stations ideas, in law firms (large and small) and law departments, because it goes against how they were trained. The “one lawyer does it all” concept still prevails in law schools and law practices. But, we have all the tools to change that concept and deliver some great benefits to our clients. It will take the brave few to step out and implement these ideas, not just in large corporate law, but in solo practices, legal aid, and government legal services, if we want to get past our current logjam where only the elite can afford lawyers. The nice thing is, there is a way.