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Cutting Corners and the Question of Quality

Posted in Legal Project Management

As you might expect, proponents of Legal Project Management (LPM), Legal Process Improvement (LPI) and other approaches for driving greater efficiency and value into legal service delivery get a lot of blow-back.  One of the more common gripes we hear is that “LPM encourages corner-cutting.”

Two Ways to Complain

In fact, in this form the complaint puts rather too blunt a point on the issue. So let’s be more precise: the substance of the corner-cutting charge actually derives from two quite distinct allegations. One, driven by market competition, might be labeled the “my competitors are all slime” complaint. It sounds like this:

“The reason our competitors are eating our lunch on price and stealing clients is because they are cutting corners on quality. They must be doing sloppy work or leaving important stones unturned. They are low-balling us to get work, but they can’t deliver good service at those prices.”

The other complaint derives from today’s law firm-client dynamics, as impacted by legal department economics, costs and budgets. We could call this “the client made me do it” complaint:

“When our clients’ budget pressures force them to demand greater ‘efficiency and cost-effectiveness’ from us, what they’re really doing is asking us to cut corners – to compromise our standards of quality service delivery. In so doing, they expose both themselves and us to unprecedented risks.”

We’ll discuss the first of these provocations in this post, following up with the second one next time. However, there is a common theme to these posts:

An inevitable dog fight erupts whenever lawyers try to discuss quality and cost in the same sentence.


If I’m Good, I Must Be Efficient

“Excellent lawyers” i.e., the ones who consistently produce legal outcomes that satisfy their clients, invariably assume that their way of lawyering is the best way of lawyering, perhaps even the only way of lawyering. This calculus tends to lump legal knowledge, quality, value and efficiency into one undifferentiated bolus, one clients have swallowed with scant protest for decades.

This time-honored (i.e., fossilized) line of thinking holds that if one’s approach to service delivery produces “good results,” it must be “worth it” to the client.  In other words, historically, law firms viewed their inputs (no matter how inefficient) as leading to an acceptable outcome, without regard to whether a comparable outcome could result from an improved (and efficient) process.

As the Worm Turns

So imagine their shock when, in the wake of the global financial crisis, clients suddenly began defining value as much in terms of costs as in terms of outcomes.  Many “excellent lawyers” simply did not know what to make of the notion of efficiency. This was because they seldom had had to subject their work product to a cost-benefit analysis before. A corollary problem was that law firms often had not bothered to measure the costs of doing business, because they could always pass them through to the client.

Run, Rabbit, Run

The fact is that most lawyers tend to fall into habits or routines of getting work done without really examining whether there might a better, faster or more efficient way to deliver the same (or better!) quality work.  They assume that if a piece of work is completed more “efficiently” – meaning that it took less time to do or otherwise imposed fewer costs — some essential step must have been omitted.  Some corner must have been cut, right?

It Ain’t Necessarily So

But this simply is not so. If a lawyer, at any level, whether working on a novel challenge or a redundant task,  can find – or be taught — ways to accomplish that task more efficiently (and thus can both charge less and/or stay on budget), s/he has not necessarily done a sloppier job or put the client at greater risk. It simply does not follow that the more time one spends on a legal activity, the higher the quality of that activity. In fact, in study after study into the relationship between productivity and hours worked, the results show that more time spent working on a matter does not lead to better results.  Robert C. Pozen, former executive at Fidelity Investments, former chairman of MFS Investment Management, and current lecturer at Harvard Business School argues this premise convincingly in his book Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours. 

A Model of Efficiency

Enter LPM and LPI. These related process disciplines help lawyers re-examine and re-think the way they do work. They help lawyers identify superfluous steps, unproductive activity or missed opportunities to re-use prior work product as their starting point (rather than starting every matter afresh with a blank screen or legal pad).  LPM and LPI reduce redundancies, re-invented wheels, do-overs, communications babel or law firm-client disconnects, scope creep, budget creep, disorganization, internecine team battles, delegation disasters, having high-level lawyers doing low-level work, and vice-versa. They are tools for improving quality, not excuses for eroding it.

Work quality and process efficiency are not co-extensive, although the latter certainly may enhance the former. LPM’s emphasis on thorough front-end scoping, comprehensive project planning, and detailed budgeting are invaluable tools for defining – clearly and consistently – all the necessary corners, not cutting them.

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