Assembly-line lawyering

I was talking to a friend over coffee the other day, describing what my old gig as an in-house lawyer had been like (don’t you just wish you had more coffees with me?).  I said that much of the time it had felt like sitting at the end of a never-ending conveyor belt of work, dropping onto my desk.  However hard I worked, the conveyor belt kept on delivering more and more packages of work that needed assembling, faster and faster.

That’s not to look for sympathy.  There aren’t too many jobs where the conveyor belt consistently delivers quality packages of work that require the recipient to apply legal intellect, strategic thought and commercial awareness.  And whilst most lawyers are not fat cats, the corporate end of the profession gets paid well for what it does.  But the problem with being a lawyer is that lawyering is a time intensive activity.  By the time you’ve dealt properly with one piece of work that fell off the conveyor belt, several more pieces of work have landed around your feet needing to be assembled.

How do lawyers deal with this problem?  Well, for a smart bunch of people, we don’t always deal with it very smartly.  The initial inclination is to work harder.  That might be followed by a decision to hire more employees and get them to work harder too.

Yet my experience and that of many lawyers I know, is that working harder and hiring more permanent staff does not solve the ‘conveyor belt problem’.  Admittedly, it might mitigate it in the short-term.  Staying in the office until the small hours might mean there is one less package of work lying on the floor when the lawyer finally leaves to go home, but it doesn’t mean that everything gets dealt with.  Hiring new staff can have a short-term impact on picking up all of those as yet unopened work packages, but the problem with new staff is that eventually they end up sitting at the end of their own conveyor belts of work and suddenly two of you have the same problem that caused you to hire the second person in the first place.

So, what’s to do?

You know that there is a change afoot in the way we think about work when the Financial Times, the self-proclaimed ‘friend of the honest financier’, is publishing articles raising difficult questions about the long hours culture prevalent in the legal profession.

As the FT’s John Gapper put it:

“The good news is that this method of organising work is inefficient and thus ripe for reform. The bad news is that many lawyers do not care much about that.”

Gapper’s first sentence is spot on.  It goes back to my earlier point about lawyers needing to work smarter, not harder.  I’m conscious that ‘smarter, not harder’ is a throw away line and any lawyer reading this at 9pm on an evening looking at the piles of work in front of them is entitled to think that it’s easier said than done to re-engineer work processes.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

I don’t though agree with Mr Gapper’s view that ‘many lawyers do not care much about’ working long hours.  Nobody joins the legal profession because they want to spend 12 or more hours each day behind a desk.  The motives for joining are varied and not the point of this blog post.  But a desire to work long hours is not a reason to become a lawyer, people become lawyers in spite of the long hours culture, not because of it.

And it is now acceptable to say that.  It is acceptable in the modern legal workplace, whether in a law firm or in-house, for a lawyer to say that she aspires for a better work/life balance, that he wants to work flexibly, that she’d like to work from home on a day when there are no client meetings.

Indeed, a recent research report found that:

“Many young lawyers would like the law to be more like a commercial business than a profession and see embracing technology as the key to transforming what many consider to be outdated working practices.”

It may surprise you, if you have read this far, that this research was not commissioned by a legal commentator who has never sat behind a lawyer’s desk or a wishy washy not-for-profit think tank, but by Eversheds, a City law firm.  [*Teaser alert* tune in to the @LOD_Law twitter feed over the next week or two for a very interesting research piece we’ll shortly be publishing.]

Lawyers don’t really like to work long hours – they don’t mind hard work and they’ll pull an all-nighter without blinking if they have to, but they don’t like to work incessantly long hours simply on the basis it was ever thus.  They also want to work more flexibly, to take more control over their career and increasingly they don’t mind telling their superiors this.  Many are increasingly working as freelancers as a way of seizing back control of their career.  It is a given that technology will at some point help re-configure the conveyor belt, although I’m not aware of any single killer app which has done that significantly just yet.

The much heralded and inevitable change in legal services will come through incremental re-configuration of the way that lawyers work, not by big bang trickery.  For example, legal process improvement is a bit of a buzz work in law firm circles at the moment.  I’ve seen it in action and it is an incredibly powerful exercise that does not require expensive technology or a huge shift in working practices.  Nor do you need to be a six sigma black belt to make it work (I had to look it up too).  Two or three hours spent logically de-constructing a workflow can quickly highlight where the inefficiencies are in a particular work-stream, what the ‘repeat problems’ are that come up and how best to reduce them.

It’s all about working smarter, not working harder.  Lawyers are definitely smart.  When you’re next sitting at the end of a conveyor belt of work, you have two choices.

Work harder and sit there longer to get a bit more done.  That’s the wrong answer by the way.

Or instead, be braver, work smarter, ask yourself (and your team) a few questions.  How does the conveyor belt work?  Is the right work being put onto it in the first place?  Who does the work that falls off it?  How do they do it?  And most of all, just approach the exercise with a big WHY do we do it like this?  Don’t think you can’t make it work better. Of course you can.

You just need to switch it off for a few hours to see how.