Remember those crime shows on television? You know the ones I mean. The bad guys committed the crime, the police investigated the crime, the forensics lab solved tricky scientific problems, and the DAs prosecuted the crime, and the jury delivered a verdict. Everything was tied a neat bow. In one hour, injustice and justice combined.
Scientists got smarter and tests more sophisticated. DNA testing became commonplace. At first it took months to get the results, then day, hours, and now I am sure there is a show where they swipe the suspect’s hair on their iPhone and get the results before the police can raise the yellow crime scene tape.
DNA testing is the rage. Genealogy companies offer it as a service, you can get tested for health problems, and at least one company offers DNA testing as an employee benefit. I love the genealogy company commercials where the actor says he is part this, part that, and part the other thing. Confirmation that we all have a lot of everybody else in us.
We have the same DNA mixing going on in the legal industry right now. Four hot methodologies share common ancestors: lean thinking, agile (scrum) project management, design thinking, and lean startup. If we look closely, we can see the family resemblance.
Lean thinking sits closest to the roots of this family tree. Bits and pieces of what we call lean thinking started coming together in the 1850s, though of course nothing is new. We can find antecedents to many lean ideas if we look at how people solved nagging problems. But, most people point to the 1970s as the period when many ideas that became known as the Toyota Production System jelled. In 1996, Womack, Jones, and Roos published Lean Thinking. For most, this book was the tipping point. Lean thinking started growing in the United States. It now sits in all industries and as the most popular form of process improvement.
Manage the Project
Project management comes in two basic flavors: heavyweight and lightweight. Heavyweight is the traditional, waterfall approach to project management. Most people touch waterfall project management at some point in their careers. It requires significant planning, proceeds methodically from stage to stage, and works best if the situation calls for tight and sequential process control. Want to build a 100-story skyscraper? Waterfall project management will do the job. Lawyers have found waterfall project management a bit restrictive and not well-suited to a rapidly changing environment.
Lightweight is “agile” project management and includes several of flexible approaches. Scrum is the legal industry’s favorite. Scrum requires small amounts of planning, adapts quickly to changing circumstances, and focuses on doing only what is needed when it is needed. Lightweight project management was born in the software industry and has replaced heavyweight for many projects.
Design thinking is gaining traction in the legal industry. It also has an interesting lineage. The version we see most often dates back to the 1960s (though it also has roots dating farther back). Brothers Tom and David Kelley developed it as part of their IDEO design business. As the wheel diagram shows, it has grown as the theories behind design have moved from user participation to users being an integral part of the design process. Design thinkers take a fresh approach to creating solutions, focus on the customer, and use rapid ideation and prototyping to avoid the slow and wasteful linear process to design.
Eric Ries brought us The Lean Startup and the idea that new ventures should adopt principles that helped old manufacturers. Most lawyers forget that their practices are startups. Client demands evolve, law changes, competition introduces new ideas. A lawyer, regardless of where she practices, should think as an entrepreneur thinks. Avoid waste, prototype and pivot quickly, focus on what your client needs not what you want to deliver, build only what is needed, and stay nimble.
Sharing the DNA
All four methodologies focus on delivering what the customer needs when the customer needs it. This focus ties into a broader theme in business right now, typified by the one-to-one marketing philosophy. Rather than trying to sell a product or service that compromises in many ways to meet the needs of the average consumer, businesses try to sell products and services tailored to the desires of each consumer. The closer the product fits the customer’s needs, the less waste involved.
The following chart, which comes from a paper Roland M. Mueller and Katja Thoring prepared for the 2010 Leading Innovation Through Design Conference, briefly touches on some of the similarities and differences of design thinking and lean startups. Their paper, titled “Design Thinking vs. Lean Startup: A Comparison of Two User Driven Innovation Strategies,” gives you a flavor of how two of the four methodologies bear a family resemblance.
I can buy shoes and apparel that I’ve customized with colors and features. I can use websites to build my car or my furniture, selecting the specific accessories I want. Retailers are famous for marketing one-to-one, sometimes using a bit too much information to guess what the customer needs (the retailer offering discounts on baby items to the teen who hadn’t told her parents she was pregnant).
The four methodologies share a focus on speedy development and revision. In the past, businesses focused on planning. They built business models, planned for contingencies, and worked through as many angles as possible before they made a move. In the present, they try, change, try, change, and repeat. They get something out there, test it, and change direction as fast as they learn from customers. The lean-based methodologies I have named make that rapid approach possible.
We Know What We Don’t Know
The practice of law—the methods and techniques of delivering legal services—has received almost no attention from scholars. Why bother spending time on something everyone does the same way and no one will change? For decades, this omission distorted our understanding of law. How law is delivered impacts the substance of law as much as what law is delivered. Take a simple example. Contracts of adhesion. We sign them every day—every time we click through something that says “by clicking here you acknowledge our terms and conditions.” That method of legal services delivery impacts your rights (embedded somewhere in those terms and conditions) more than the theories of bespoke negotiated contracts.
The odd legal industry culture has received some attention, especially in recent years, as its idiosyncrasies have impeded progress in solving society’s problems (e.g., poor access to civil justice, quality issues, affordability issues). At this time, that culture—resistance to change, failure to adopt technology, lack of affordable legal services—has stirred resentment and anger among citizens. If someone cannot protect their legal rights and loses their job or their house, someone else is to blame. Lawyers play a part in those dramas. Ineffective legal services delivery has more importance than the substance of the law involved.
Four “Leans” and the Law
For the past five years, as interest in project management, process improvement, design thinking, and lean startups, has accelerated, we have seen a kaleidoscope of implementations. Few have a good grasp of how to combine these methodologies into a coherent program for delivering legal services, or choose which ones to emphasize and which to de-emphasize. Think of four musicians each learning a different instrument. One challenge is to learn the instrument, but the second challenge is to learn how to play as a band. We have inexperienced musicians who skip band practice.
This confusion has negative affects on law firms, law departments, and clients. Rather than providing coherent ways to deliver affordable legal services, based on concepts such as efficiency and increasing quality, they are seen as an extra burden to practicing law. Law firms and law departments have not learned how to make these methodologies work together. They have lacked the assistance of scholars to light the path. Some consultants have helped, but most focus on only one or two of the disciplines. A few of us work on researching, synthesizing, and explaining these disciplines combine in law, but it is—admittedly—a slow process.
This leaves the industry with a gap. Many lawyers acknowledge the need for change, but find it difficult to do so without significant help. Other lawyers need convincing. They want proof that if they change, they will succeed. Most stay on the fence. Clients, however, are not on the fence. They want change.
Getting the Band Together
How can we proceed? In the context of the four methodologies I have discussed, I will make some suggestions:
1. Collaborate and Share. Break down the historical barriers between the practicing bar and academia. Scholars need access to practicing lawyers, data, and clients. With this access, they can apply many tools and techniques to identify challenges and point to solutions. Scholars have strong interest in this work, and law firms, law departments, and clients benefit.
2. Focus and Share. A big challenge in evolving legal services is deciding where to focus your energy. Every month someone has a new thing to draw your attention. Metrics. Technology. Process. Project. Doing the basics of a law practice seems to take a full day. Add these new things to the old add-ons (e.g., marketing) and focus drifts. Nevertheless, you must focus. Go T-shaped. Understand your domain in depth, but become familiar with the other areas. If you spread what you need to know among many, the burden on each of you drops.
3. Bend and Share. Inflexibility. Lawyers do what they do because that is what their mentors did, and their mentors, and so on. Decades of doing the same thing worked well for most lawyers, until the late 1980s. The two-humped camel of the legal industry emerged. Large law firm lawyers to the right, everyone else to the left, and a valley between them. As real competition emerges in the legal industry, lawyers must learn to flex, to bend, to adapt. Sharing knowledge and techniques among themselves and with others will be key to coming through this transition and succeeding on the other side.
The Stakes Are Higher Than Large Corporation Legal Fees
Although the legal industry has existed for centuries, it is an immature industry. The business model that brought many lawyers fortunes was fixed a century past. Now, it has a stranglehold on us inhibiting change. The four lean methodologies I described are opening new business models, but we have a long journey ahead. We need to progress faster if we want to keep the profession from slipping deep into irrelevance. That is a worthy reason for change. The compelling reason lies outside the industry. A healthy, functioning, and responsive “legal infrastructure” (as Gillian Hadfield has named it) is essential to our society. Letting that legal infrastructure decay, the way our general infrastructure has decayed, brings a massive threat to all of us.