Written by Stuart Whittle
Historically, law firms have had an enviable business model which has been sheltered from economic pressures experienced by other businesses. However, in recent years this dynamic has shifted and, these days, law firms are increasingly operating in an environment which most other businesses would recognise: upward pressures on their cost base; downward pressure on price; clients demanding more for less and increasing regulatory burdens.
As a practising solicitor, I became interested in process improvement ten years ago, when, relying on not much more than a large dollop of common sense, we designed, developed and rolled out workflow software for our lawyers. Over time, as my role changed to running the IT department, my interest expanded beyond that which our lawyers were doing to include
processes in the wider business.
Five years ago, with some external help, we looked at improving our business processes using swim lane diagrams, root cause analysis and a bit of basic gathering of data. We looked at a number of internal cross-functional processes with the people that were involved in the process and we made things better. Frankly, it was dabbling around the edges, but it helped me realise the potential of business improvement.
When I changed roles to become responsible for operations four years ago and started to hear grumblings from some areas about our processes in a particular area of our business, my interest was renewed.
The team in a particular part of our business were suggesting that the cause of a number of issues was IT. A cross-functional team invested some time with that team and we discovered that, whilst there were some issues, IT wasn’t their real problem. Most of their issues were actually caused by the processes that they had put in place and which had then grown organically over time, without anyone having the time to stand back and look at them.
Working closely with the people involved in the processes we made a number of changes to make their ways of working easier for them.
As a (now former) lawyer I like structure and off the back of this experience, I wanted to introduce a formal business improvement approach to make the process less ad hoc. I looked to the Lean Six Sigma methodology – one of the most common business improvement approaches in the world – to see if it would work for us and provide the structure we wanted.
Taking the first step
Shortly afterwards, I found myself on a week-long Green Belt course with 100% Effective, to satisfy myself that Lean Six Sigma was definitely the right horse to back.
The course was a revelation to me.
I recognised some of the things that we had been dabbling with but there was so much more.
There was the structure I wanted for solving problems but, more importantly, there were some key hooks I felt could persuade our Board to invest. The Board were interested about the focus on driving value from the perspective of the client and ensuring that any reduction in waste and variation is a win-win. This approach ensures the client gets a better quality output, it costs us less to deliver that output and so we can continue to make some profit despite the downward pressure on the rates that we can charge.
The Board were sufficiently impressed to give the green light for the first round of Lean Six Sigma training and projects at Weightmans. We’re on the first step of our journey but I am confident we can show the Board the benefits of Lean Six Sigma, and a significant return on their investment.
To be continued…
Stuart Whittle, IS and Operations Director, Weightmans LLP
Stuart is a certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, but is a qualified lawyer by trade, having practised law as a professional indemnity lawyer since 1995. In 2002 he became a partner at Weightmans, and during 2003 he became involved in IT; designing, developing and rolling out case management systems across the firm. Nine years ago Stuart took on responsibility for Weightmans’ IT department and in 2010 was promoted to IS and Operations Director with responsibility for IT, HR, KM, Projects, Facilities, Risk and Marketing and became a member of Weightmans’ Board.
Stuart regularly presents at events, discussing his special interest in business improvement and helping lawyers to work smartly in an uncertain market. He is currently working on projects within Weightmans to enable his lawyers to demonstrate the value of Weightmans’ services to their clients.