Mise-en-place and the practice of lawYou and a friend go into a restaurant for a fancy meal. The maître’ d’ takes you to your table and the waiter takes your drink orders. After a few minutes sipping your drinks and reviewing the menu, the waiter takes your orders and delivers them to the kitchen. The magic begins. In an amazingly short period, your first course arrives. As you eat your way through the courses, you realize that it successive course arrives shortly after you finish the preceding course. After a bit more than two hours you leave, having had a delightful meal. You know that had you tried to cook the same meal at home, it would have taken you much longer than two hours to prepare the ingredients, and a long time to cook everything. You never could have achieved the feat of delivering each course right on time after your guests finished a course.

If you really want to cook as a lawyer, then you should become more like a gourmet chef. Mise-en-place means “put in place.” It is a kitchen way of life for those who have been trained at the top cooking schools. Mise-en-place means much more than simply organizing your cooking area. It is a discipline, a way of approaching what you need to do. As Dan Charnas from NPR described it in a recent story, “[P]racticed at its highest level, mise-en-place says that time is precious. Resources are precious. Space is precious. Your self-respect and the respect of others are precious. Use them wisely. Isn’t that a philosophy for our time?” This is Anthony Bourdain’s description from his Les Halles Cookbook of mise-en-place, which he calls “meez” (pp. 22-23):

For the professional, one’s meez is an obsession, one’s sword and shield, the only thing standing between you and chaos. If you have your meez right, it means you have your head together, you are “set up,” stocked, organized, ready with everything you need and are likely to need for the tasks at hand. You know where everything is. You know how much you have. (The right amount, of course.) As a result, your mind is similarly arranged, rested, and ready to cook–a perfect mirror of your work area.

In less metaphysical terms, having your meez together means that you have cleaned and cleared your work area in advance and have assembled every item of food and every utensil and tool you will require, and put them in accessible, comfortable locations, ready for use. You have already thought out what you are going to do, meaning you have read the recipe, broken it down into its constituent parts, and formed a coherent plan of attack. You have everything. Everything you will need is at the ready, including side towel, oven mitt, hot water for quick cleaning, trash receptacle, favorite music. EVERYTHING. Once you’ve got food on the stove you do not want to have to break away chasing after a garbage bin or a towel or even a sprig of parsley. You need parsley? You will know where it is. Because you pre-positioned it there just a little while ago.

Mise-en-place and Lean

If you are familiar with lean thinking, mise-en-place won’t sound very remarkable. It will sound very similar to what you have learned through lean. Having a clean, organized workspace is a basic lean starting point. In fact, lean even provides some help to get there. In lean, we start with something called the 5Ss, to clean and organize our workspace (I posted here about how the 5Ss apply to the practice of law).

When your workspace is organized and everything is in its place, you waste far less time and effort doing your task. As chef Dwayne Lipuma, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America, explains it, “Every component of one single dish is in one single corner so their hand literally moves inches. Once [students] set up their station I should be able to blindfold them and tell them … and they should know that their tongs are always here, their oil is always right here, their salt and pepper is always right here.”

Adding Law to the Mix

Many lawyers still resist the concept of lean thinking in their practices. They complain it robs them of autonomy, it is inconsistent with their creativity as lawyers, or that it simply can’t be applied to anything other than manufacturing. We know that none of these are valid excuses, but they are ways of saying “I don’t want to change.” We also know that clients today are far less patient with our excuses.

Think of what a lawyer does as falling into two buckets. One bucket is the creative piece of lawyering. It holds the new theories, creative application of old theories to new fact situations, and strategic approaches to resolving problems. This bucket holds what lawyers are trained to do in law school and what most lawyers like to do. For clients, this bucket holds the value added piece of lawyering.

The second bucket holds the execution piece of lawyering. Creative ideas without execution are nothing, from the client’s perspective. For the idea to have value, it must be something we can execute, something we can turn into reality. This is the bucket that holds things lawyers were not taught to do in law school. We learn these things on the job.

We think of chefs as creative. They develop new dishes, mixing flavors, smells, and textures. The value added part of being a chef falls into this bucket. But, if a chef can’t get the food cooked, on the plate, and in front of the diner in a timely and high quality way, it really doesn’t matter how creative she is. Michelin does not award stars for ideas. Even if a chef can execute, if the meal is too expensive the diners won’t come and the restaurant will not stay in business. Chefs must be creative, but they also must be able to execute their ideas efficiently and deliver value at a price diners are willing to pay.

We can think of practicing law as having many similarities with being the chef. Our clients want creative solutions from us. We add value through being creative. But, creativity alone is not sufficient. We also must execute on that creativity, and we must deliver value at a price our clients are willing to pay.

As legal chefs, we should pay attention to our mise-en-place. The more disorganized and unprepared we are, the more costly the matter is to our client (or, if we are on a fixed fee, the less profit we make). If you are in-house, being disorganized and unprepared translate into wasted time, trouble keeping up with matters, and sometimes being an anchor on the business. At a minimum, it means we squander time we could have spent on value added things.

Legal Mise-en-Place

Even if you have agreed with me up until this point, many of you will argue that this is where the metaphor breaks down. “Cooking is more like manufacturing than law,” you will argue. “The chef runs a cooking production line, yet lawyers don’t operate any production lines.” Not really.

I’m sure you already use forms and templates in your work. You don’t create many documents from scratch. Often, we pull materials from prior files to use at least as a starting point. Depending on what we do, we may have a standard set of precedents we refer to. In corporate work, we have basic documents for transactions. We use forms for employment agreements and separation agreements. Equity plans aren’t drafted starting from a blank page. This list goes on and on. As the saying goes, lawyers are skilled plagiarists.

Legal mise-en-place says that we have all the materials we need at hand when we are ready to begin drafting. We don’t start and stop as we go along, we pull everything together so our drafting process goes smoothly.

“But,” you argue, “my drafting is constantly interrupted.” Then you need to set boundaries. Chefs constantly have new orders coming in and non-stop commotion in the kitchen. But a chef can’t start and stop cooking your dinner. Once she starts, she must see it through or you will end up with a mess on your plate. Your chef will have trouble because she won’t be able to fill diners orders efficiently, and the whole kitchen process will break down.

When you set boundaries, you take away the interruptions. After you have assembled the materials to write, you must set the boundaries (no calls, no interruptions) so you can complete the draft. There is no such thing as multi-tasking efficiently. Multi-tasking slows you down. With each interruption, you must spend time getting back into the flow of drafting. You lose your train of thought and you forget things on your mental checklist of drafting “to dos.” Setting boundaries, not multi-tasking, will make you more efficient.

When I was a junior lawyer working in litigation, a partner gave me the task of drafting the memorandum in support of a motion. Unfortunately, I had one day to draft the memorandum on a complicated procedural issue. While I didn’t know anything about lean thinking or mise-en-place at the time, I had some sense of being efficient. I took a couple of hours to gather everything I needed. I photocopied cases (yes, these were the old days when we worked from books), I pulled templates out of files, I gathered information I needed about our case, I copied the relevant procedural rules, and I organized everything on my desk. When I was ready, I closed the door to my office and started writing on a clean yellow pad (yes, these were the really old days). When I was done drafting, I read through what I had written a couple of times, correcting the draft and filling in citations.

After a few hours of work, I gave the draft to my secretary who typed up the draft on an early version of a word processor. I gave the draft one more quick review and turned it over to the partner. We jointly marked up the draft, had it “revised” on the word processor, and we were done – all within the one day time limit. Had I not followed the mise-en-place approach, I never would have finished in time. (Of course, the next task was to draft a motion in less than an hour, a task at which I failed miserably even with a mise-en-place mindset. The partner, on the other hand, had all the necessary information including cites in his mind – the ultimate mise-en-place – and so he dictated the motion.)

An Efficiency Mindset

Mise-en-place is a useful way to approach legal tasks, but more because it represents a mindset rather than a particular methodology. By asking ourselves what adds value and what doesn’t in everything we do, we can trim waste from each day. The freed up time then can go to more important work. With the start of the new year, we all have the opportunity to use this calendar break point as the impetus to change habits. The pressure to become more efficient lawyers and to justify the value of the services we provide will increase. Once that door opened, there was no going back.