Guest Post: 7 Lean Ideas For Lawyers


Mark's note: Today's vacation guest post is from D. Mark Jackson, a lawyer who has been studying and embracing Lean principles in a California law firm. He normally writes in his very interesting Lean Law blog and I've been following him for a little while over there.

Some recent posts I really liked include:

I hope you find today's post interesting, even if you're not a lawyer. How many lawyers do we have reading, I wonder? And now D. Mark Jackson's post:

7 Lean Ideas For Lawyers

Thank you Mark for inviting me to guest blog. I've been reading Lean Blog for at least two years and it's been a frequent source of information and inspiration. It's am honor to be here. And, I wish Mark a restful and well-deserved vacation.

I'm a partner at a twenty lawyer San Francisco law firm who's been study Lean for three years. My Lean journey started on the playground with my son, talking with another father about his new job at a large Bay Area construction firm. He was hired to lead the organization's Lean transformation. After hearing his story, I was instantly hooked. I read  The Toyota Way the next week. And since then, I've been reading about Lean and trying to implement the philosophy in my law practice.

It hasn't been easy. Lean concepts are foreign to many service industries and contrary to  traditional law firm  culture. But we've had some initial success, thanks to the commitment and contribution of my coworkers, and I'd like to share with you seven Lean methods for improving a law practice or other service organization.

1. Respect people.  Law practice involves a lot of relationships. Lawyers regularly interact with their partners and associates, staff, clients, insurance company representatives, witnesses, vendors, judges, mediators, and opposing counsel. A culture of respecting people supports these relationships.

And within the firm, a culture of respect is critical. I've seen traditional command-and-control lawyers display contempt for those who are younger, less experienced, or those with fresh ideas. These lawyers alienate people. Work quality suffers. And  professionals recoil at being managed this way — attracting and retaining new talent to your firm depends on creating a culture of mutual respect.

2.    Minimize waste to increase client satisfaction and profit.  Despite the push for alternative fee arrangements, lawyers generally still bill by the hour. This can discourage efficiency. And time spent developing good processes is time not billed.

But that's taking a very short term view. By removing waste from legal processes, clients gets better service, it's done faster, and the firm is more profitable because there's less costs. And being more productive is just more satisfying.

3.  Minimize over-processing.  A big problems for lawyers is over-processing, one of the seven forms of waste. Lawyers do more work on cases than their clients want. And the amount of work may be disproportionate to the value of the case, which burdens our legal system.

Part of the solution is greater upfront communication with clients to understand what they want and communicate back clearly how much it will cost. With corporate clients, this may mean identifying what's “good enough,” given their budget.

It also means increasing cooperation with opposing counsel. A discovery dispute, for example, can get expensive quickly, without adding any value to the client. These disputes are usually avoidable through cooperation.

4.    Develop a culture of  continuous improvement.  Every case is different. But law firms do dozens if not hundreds of repeatable processes every day. Legal processes can be standardized and continually improved.

While our firm has had some “Kaizen events” (though we didn't call them that), the more profound results come from changing the culture. People go from just doing their job to figuring out how to do their job better.

5. Standardize tasks.  I'm a strong proponent of using checklists. I have a checklist for different phases of a case. I have a checklist for things I need to review daily and one for things I need to review weekly. We also follow checklists for complicated tasks like filing a motion, submitting pre-trial papers to the court, or taking a deposition. For all of these projects, there's lots of things that — though simple — are easy to forget unless you use a checklist. And using a checklist frees up your mind to think about the hard stuff, like  communicating with people  and developing strategies.

I try to combine the standardization of the checklist with the kaizen mindset. So my checklists change as our processes improve. (I used to laminate them, but no longer)

6.    Design continuous flow.  At law firms, work-in-progress is in the form of paper or its digital equivalent. It moves around the office, physically or electronically, until it has been appropriately handled.  Outgoing work moves around until it's out the door. We frequently encounter large volumes of paper or other data. Large  batch processing  is a constant temptation.

But we've been developing continuous flow systems. I use one piece flow for small processes at my desk, like editing a brief. And we use it for large processes, like an  electronic discovery data  collection, or routing incoming documents and profiling them in our  document management system. We try to reduce the size of a batch down to the individual document or a small group of closely related documents. Sometimes large batch systems makes sense, like using automated bulk processing in a document database, but this is the exception. As a result of using continuous piece flow, we catch errors sooner. Processes run faster. And the work seems easier.

7.  Work closely with outside suppliers.  Litigators now work with a lot of outside assistance, whether in the form of experts,  electronic discoveryvendors, investigators, technology consultants, product and service providers, and contract lawyers. These folks are the supply chain for legal services. It's critical to see them as an extension of the law firm.

For a period, with one of our technology consultants, our work suffered because there was a strong division between in-house and outside team members. We spent over a year redeveloping this relationship  — increasing communication and developing mutually beneficial processes —  to the point of being a seamless relationship today.

There's a lot more to say about each of these ideas.  But, I hope this perspective has been helpful.  Thank you again, Mark, for allowing me to contribute to these pages.

About Mark (full bio here): D. Mark Jackson represents clients in commercial litigation, product liability, toxic tort, fire litigation, employment law, and civil rights matters. As his firm's Information Technology partner, Mark manages the firm's technology staff and guides litigation teams and clients on e-discovery issues.

Mark earned his law degree from the College of William & Mary. He received a B.A. from Willamette University, where he completed the pre-medicine program, consisting of four years of hard science, including physics, chemistry, and biology, as well mathematics and computer science coursework.

Mark is a member of the  American Society for Quality and participates in the Lean Enterprise Division. He studies  lean manufacturing concepts, Six Sigma, and the Toyota Production System. Also an avid practitioner of Getting Things Done, Mark works to implement efficient processes in the firm's litigation workflow.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. I really like your perspective for how Lean can apply to law. In healthcare, some providers see every patient as variation and therefore do not think standardized work applies to them just as you state every case is different yet there are repeatable process surrounding them.

    I also appreciate how your example demonstrates how professional services can benefit from Lean thinking.

    I added your blog to my RSS feed and look forward to reading more from you!

  2. Thank you, Brian!

    The reluctance to adopt standardized work you describe — I wonder how much that has to do with ego. Atul Gawande has a nice section in The Checklist Manifesto about the reluctance of professionals to use checklists because we live in the Age of Heroes. People want to believe success depends solely on heroic efforts or heroic skills. People don’t want to believe success depends on following good procedures in a disciplined way. He uses the example of the media’s near refusal to report that Capt. “Sully” Sullenburger – though a great pilot – used checklists and standard procedures to achieve the Miracle on the Hudson. (It was only through his own humility that this fact even came to light.)

  3. Mark;
    Your post points back to what has been somewhat overlooked in the area of law and that is what the customer values. The change from a billable time process is quite a culture change that most firms are unwilling to embrace or fail to understand. Happy customers with less cycle time in the process may indeed yield more long term profit with a lot less headaches. I’ve also added your blog to my list and look forward to more great posts.

  4. Mark, do you every experience a strong conflict of values with “respect for people” in the middle of a heated trial? How do you deal with that?

  5. Mark, interesting question. Unfortunately, I’ve seen conduct by fellow lawyers that’s “not respectable.” I won’t bend to such tactics. But at the same time, treating others with respect — even when they don’t deserve it — is something judges and jurors tend to appreciate.

  6. Have you found opportunities for level-loading of work? The lawyers I know seem to think that there is no way to avoid the dramatic peaks and valleys of work, with days of little or no sleep followed by days of wishing for something to do. I have to believe there are ways to overcome this long-time tradition of feast/famine – if not fully leveled, at least less dramatic shifts. Of course, different areas of law will have different opportunities or constraints here (ex: contracts vs litigation), but there must be huge opportunities.


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