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How Lean is Driving Big Change in the Legal Industry

Lean has been slow to penetrate industries other than manufacturing. Well, truth be told, it’s taken decades to penetrate manufacturing and, even there, is nowhere near the norm. Little by little though, other sectors are also seeing the benefits of lean. For example, lean is making progress in healthcare, where stars like Virginia Mason and the Cleveland Clinic are drawing praise for their transformations.  Lean in construction, which is practiced by Gray, is gaining strength. There are also some standouts in other industries, like Fidelity Investments in finance. Lean in the law, however, is still pretty rare.

How Lean is Driving Big Change in the Legal Industry

Manufacturers don’t need to wait for the legal world to see how lean can transform it. As the customer, the lean company can insist on that value without the waste by using its supply chain principles to manage the legal value stream. Once they see their lawyers as suppliers, manufacturers gain leverage. They can ask for faster cycle times, more accurate work products, fewer defects, less rework, lower costs, and a commitment to continuous improvement.


Some manufacturers have taken that approach. For instance, Yazaki North America’s internal legal department and the Heico Companies in partnership with law firm Shook, Hardy & Bacon have been recognized for doing so, and named 2015 Association of Corporate Counsel Value Champions. Eli Lilly has also used lean to improve its internal legal department. Common denominators have been shared vision, standardization, process mapping, identifying and eliminating unnecessary tasks automation of routine processes (which means breaking down the IT department’s walls, too), metrics, training and client-customer communication. Successful efforts demand a deep understanding of the client’s needs, and have seen law firm associates working at manufacturers’ sites, and attorneys partnered with sales reps.


As the customer, whether you are paying for internal or external legal services, you can start by drawing up the factors that you consider “value” parameters in terms of cost, time, the number of people involved (yours and theirs), process clarity, rework and achievement of the desired outcome. Make some preliminary evaluations of your current legal service providers and see how they measure up. Ask them to define what they consider the value they provide clients. Then get together and compare—it may be surprising.


What if they won’t meet for that open and honest discussion? That’s easy. Find better suppliers. The most effective way to change an industry is for customers to insist on a commitment to continuous improvement.


Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

    Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray.

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