I believe law departments, law firms, and individual legal professionals have an ethical obligation to do things Better, Faster, Cheaper wherever possible regardless of the economic incentives. But the trouble with incentives is that they work.
As businesses, law firms really do need to concern themselves with the return on investments in process improvement, training, or technology. If we do X, will we get more business? Will our profits increase? While it is relatively easy to make the case as to how a particular innovation might improve quality or reduce labor, it is less straight forward to demonstrate that clients will actually care. And clients are a rather important piece of the economic equation.
If a law firm were suddenly to get 10% more efficient, would their clients notice? Would their clients reward them with more business? Or would their clients continue to demand the same discounts and cut invoices by the same amount? I don’t have the answers. But the problem is that no one else does either. This inability to project ROI is an obstacle to making the business case for investments in process and technology.
The presumptions against law firm efficiency are so ingrained that it surely not enough for law firms to simply say they are efficient (which all of them already do). And it probably isn’t even enough to be efficient (few are). It is likely necessary for them to prove they are getting more efficient. But how?
Law departments and their core law firms should engage in structured dialogue about what the efficient delivery of legal services looks like. This starts with an honest mapping of the value stream. Identification of areas needing improvement should be followed by prioritization and collective decisions about deliverables, timelines, and measurement. This should be a true dialogue in which both sides are accountable for achieving shared goals. Just as law firms can do better at delivering legal services, law departments can do better at sharing information and integrating their law firms into the client’s legal supply chain. System efficiency, rather than individual efficiency, should be the overarching objective.