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Your law firm is like a factory, SC lawyer says in new book

lean-law-firm-book-cover_main“The Lean Law Firm,” a new book co-authored by attorney Dave Maxfield of Columbia, South Carolina (along with Larry Port, the CEO of Rocket Matter, a case management software company), is grounded in a few key insights. One is that running a law firm is much like running any other sort of business. Another is that many good lawyers are nevertheless terrible at running a business.

Much of the book, published by the American Bar Association, tells the story of the (fictional) attorney Carson Wright, who is trying to turn around a struggling legal practice. Carson has a kindly old mentor who owns a bicycle factory in town. By applying techniques that worked for the bicycle business, the firm is ultimately able to revive its fortunes.

Some attorneys may blanch at comparing a legal practice to a bicycle factory. And, indeed, the analogy is at times pushed harder than a domestique in the mountain stages of the Tour de France. But while not everything in the book will be applicable to every law firm, most any lawyer will likely be able to find useful advice to take away from the book’s insights.

To (leanly) summarize the book’s philosophy, a firm’s open case files spend most of their lifetimes in sit-and-wait mode. Some waiting is unavoidable, but often matters are waiting idly for no particularly good reason. The authors counsel attorneys to assiduously look for ways to move cases forward and to completion as quickly as possible, so long as the client is still getting the best result. There’s a lot of talk about Kanban boards, a means of visually representing a company’s work-in-progress that was first developed by Toyota.

Further, Maxfield and Port contend that the ideal number of clients is not “as many as possible.” They encourage attorneys to figure out what types of cases are most valuable, on average, and try to build a niche based around a firm’s core strengths. Specialization will allow firms to process cases more quickly, as more processes can be standardized and attorneys lose less time mentally shifting gears from one area to another. The implication is that taking on fewer cases can sometimes actually increase revenue.

The authors take their own advice about finding ways to stand out in an already crowded market. (Maxfield himself runs a niche law firm focused on consumer protection.) It’s a bit of an overstatement to call the book a graphic novel, as the ABA does, but the illustrated parable about Carson and his firm helps make “The Lean Law Firm” an unusually lively read for a book about business management.

“We set up a story and we do a lot of talking about systemic thinking, a shift in thinking to saying your business is just like any business,” Maxfield told Lawyers Weekly. “You take the raw material, process it, and out the other end comes the finished product. We try to get people to shift their thinking to that.”

The book, which was the top seller at the ABA’s Tech Show in Chicago earlier this year, also explicitly critiques the billable hour model, which blunts lawyers’ economic incentives to find ways to work more efficiently. The writing is tightly focused on how the techniques discussed can help lawyers improve their financial position, but it might have been worthwhile to devote more attention to the potential to improve outcomes for clients as well.

Nevertheless, the book is interesting and original in both its philosophy of law firm management and its storytelling format. It delivers on its promise to ensure that lawyers aren’t wasting their time.

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @SCLWDonovan