Higgs&Sons, a UK-based law firm with a 130-year history, is successfully adopting lean thinking to improve its processes and the service it provides to clients. Finance Director, Glyn Morris, explains to LMJ the model the firm is using to introduce a new way of thinking.

We were recently invited to give a briefing on lean approaches in professional services jointly organised by the West Midlands Economic Forum and Aston University in the UK.

As the event was a breakfast seminar starting at 7:30am, we anticipated just a row or two of a small meeting room to be filled by lean enthusiasts from the university’s engineering faculty. Imagine our surprise when around 100 people turned up for the presentation!

They showed real interest in the lean work we have been conducting at the law firm.

We left the seminar thinking that the professional services sector might be ready to embrace lean thinking.

Higgs’ lean journey began with a drive to overcome the inherent dysfunctions in a traditional law firm and grapple with the challenges in the wider legal services sector, widely criticised for being ineffective, inefficient and uneconomical for clients.

Below are listed the main challenges for businesses operating in this sector.

Internal Challenges

  • Legacy service models that no longer deliver value either to the client or the firm;
  • Difficulty in implementing changes in knowledge-based businesses;
  • Inherent fear of disruptive innovation;
  • Obstructions to fully understanding clients’ needs and expectations on service and price;
  • Changing requirements of the modern client

External Challenges

  • Increasingly diverse competition from those who have access to new funding sources and greater knowledge base;
  • Threat of new entrants in the form of “supermarket law shops” triggered by deregulation;
  • Rapidly changing marketplace;
  • Cost pressures and the attack on hourly billing

It was with these challenges in mind that we began our breakfast briefing to a diverse bunch of people from business and commerce intrigued by what we had been doing.

Whilst it is commonly known that many law firms have reacted to changes by resorting to consolidating their market positions through mergers and acquisitions and taking heart that there is security in size, lean practices remain largely untapped.

However, we believe that the way to tap into lean is to use the correct approach, find what lies deep-rooted within a firm’s culture and values, whether large or small, and begin to rethink conventional prevailing wisdom in the legal industry.

To many, a law service can be an elusive concept, difficult to visualise and highly intangible, involving high levels of knowledge intensity and customisation. To complicate matters further many other external stakeholders are also involved; for instance, processing a typical road traffic accident claim requires up to 15 different parties; all of whom impact upon the time to reach a settlement.

Higgs must liaise and obtain necessary information from these external stakeholders whilst aiming to reduce processing and lapse time, improve engagement between the client and lawyer and enhance the quality of service being delivered; this is a tough set of performance metrics to balance. Managing such processes effectively with seamless integration can help minimise time spent and reduce costs.

Due to the implicit nature of law processes with high knowledge intensity and demanding provider-client co-production a very personable approach to change was most suitable.

Our lean journey has used a new approach to imbibe lean thinking into the organisation through a type of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) known as The Process Oriented Holonic (PrOH) Modelling Methodology developed by Ben Clegg at Aston University (the work is part funded by a Knowledge Transfer Partnership from the European Regional Development Fund and the Technology Strategy Board).

Using PrOH this project has modelled five different legal services: road traffic accident settlement; dispute resolution; commercial property; corporate services; and private client. These were selected to represent the range in volume and variety of services offered. PrOH models were used to conceptualise, visualise, critique and initiate the redesign of these services.

As material wastage is relatively insignificant compared to wastage of fee earners’ billable hours in law services the approach to change had to focus directly on people, and to increase their personal and firm-wide propensity towards lean.

Buy-in for change from lawyers and support staff meant potentially reducing wasted time, reducing bills for the client and improved productivity for the firm. This approach worked equally well in all service lines whether high-volume-low-variety or low-volume-high-variety.

Thus the lesson from that morning’s talk for our audience was that lean was not just about the tools and philosophy already familiar to the practitioner, but also about using an appropriate modelling and change methodology. We would propose that the more people-centric one’s operations are the softer the approach to change should be.

In this instance applying lean thinking through the use of PrOH modelling not only helped achieve cost savings, improved process efficiency and service quality but also enabled Higgs to bring about a much needed cultural change measured by the readiness of its people, in all strata, to participate in the lean implementation.

So far this project has received a significant degree of interest from the legal profession, wider business community and academia. We will continue our early successes by applying it to other Higgs processes and examine more closely how a person appraisal, learning and development system might strengthen the quest for the philosophical adoption of lean.