LEAN is a method of optimizing the people, resources, and processes in your organization to create value for the customer and eliminate waste. It started in the manufacturing world, with many crediting the Toyota production system as its inception. LEAN is not a one-time implementation; it is a process of continuous assessment and improvement. LEAN practices have since migrated from the manufacturing world to the practice of law.
The authors, both of whom are members of the State Bar of Michigan’s Affordable Legal Services Committee, interviewed Portage attorney Mechelle Woznicki and gained insight on how she implemented LEAN into her legal practice. She offered invaluable tips and tricks which save time and improve the overall efficiency of legal services.
Woznicki is a family law and estate planning attorney who offers limited-scope legal services and operates as a LEAN law firm. She also helps other attorneys integrate LEAN into their practices. Before starting her own firm, Woznicki was in the United States Navy for 10 years. She worked as a global sourcing manager in the pharmaceutical industry for 20 years. Her experience in manufacturing introduced her to LEAN, and she eventually became a team trainer in LEAN methodology. As Woznicki explained, LEAN is not just one technology or program. It is an approach, a concept of increasing value to your clients while decreasing waste in your processes, and a continuous cycle that can always be improved upon.
Woznicki outlined five LEAN steps she uses (see the graphic to the right) when targeting when targeting a process for improvement:
- First, define your process. This includes charting out your process and laying out each step from start to finish.
- Second, measure your process. Ask yourself or your staff how long each step takes and who does each step.
- Third, analyze your process. Ask: Is this working for us? Identify waste and how to reduce it. Not making a profit on certain types of cases is a sign of waste, she said.
- Fourth, improve your process. Modify your steps or create new if-then charts as issues arise.
- Fifth, control your process. This is essentially maintaining your process and improving it when needed.
If-then charts are excellent tools for automating legal tasks and training future employees. These charts can be used to write your organization’s policies and procedures. They should clearly outline procedures for staff. Woznicki uses different charts for specific types of cases to outline what she and her staff will do for each part of that case. She says that such charts can be modified and shared with clients to lay out the timeline of their case. Proactively showing your client the steps from start to finish helps them understand where they are in their case at all times.
While Woznicki has a physical office, implementing LEAN into her legal practice has reduced the need for her to meet with clients in person. She also has a virtual receptionist. By using LEAN methodology, she can do most of her client interaction virtually. She utilizes email drip campaigns — a series of automated emails with a predetermined timing sent to individuals who interact with her website — to follow up with potential clients. For instance, her drip campaign may automatically send two follow-up emails to an individual who reached out to her on her website about services. Such practices cut down on the amount of time spent on client intake.
Once hired, Woznicki outlines how she will communicate with her clients throughout their case. Utilizing a client portal, she sends videos to demonstrate to her clients different aspects of their case. The videos usually explain hearings that do not require client preparation. For example, Woznicki has a pretrial hearing video that explains to the client what the pretrial hearing is and what they can expect. She can also share documents through the client portal if needed and if clients have questions, they can reach out to her via the portal. The prerecorded videos decrease Woznicki’s time on the phone with clients, aligning with her view that clients would rather watch an informative video than pay $150 for a short phone call.
LEAN methodology can also be used outside your legal practice. Woznicki implemented a “5-S” concept for keeping work desks clean: sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain (see the graphic below). For example, sort your client files in an organized way; set your stapler in the same place so it is easily accessible; shine your computer monitors, pens, desks, and chairs so they are clean; and sustain this process over time. Following this mantra leads to every item on your desk (or even in your house) having a place and a purpose and helps you end each workday with a clean, organized desk, ready to start on your next case the following day. When asked if she encountered challenges implementing LEAN into her legal practice, Woznicki, as a former LEAN trainer, unsurprisingly said she had none. She started implementing LEAN about a year into her practice and as a solo practitioner with one employee, putting LEAN practices in place was easy for her. For larger firms, she recommends engagement for stakeholder buy-in. If the owner of a law firm or its employees are not persuaded to implement LEAN, it will not work well, she explained. All staff members need to be engaged. If one employee is not on board and not willing to change, that could slow the entire implementation process. Woznicki recommended assigning reluctant team members to join the charting process. If they work on charts designed to streamline legal tasks and services, they will be more engaged and more likely to see the value of LEAN for both the law practice and its clients. Woznicki also suggested using financial incentives such as bonuses to garner staff support for implementing LEAN.
The benefits of implementing LEAN methodology in your legal practice are numerous. When Woznicki implemented LEAN into her firm, it was the first time she experienced LEAN as a business owner. The impact on revenues and her profits exceeded even her expectations. Plus, LEAN made her life simpler, saved her more time so she could spend it on other endeavors, and cut costs for her clients. The biggest payoff? Woznicki has rarely worked Fridays since implementing LEAN. As for when attorneys should implement LEAN, Woznicki’s advice is simple: Start today and remember LEAN is a process of continuous improvement.
For more information, check out the State Bar of Michigan LEAN resources page at michbar.org/LEAN.