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Clifford Chance Adopts Continuous Improvement Program

This week Clifford Chance, one of the largest law firms in the world, published a white paper called Applying Continuous Improvement to high-end legal services.  I view it as a potential turning point in BigLaw.

A few other law firms, especially Seyfarth Shaw with SeyfarthLean, have promoted process improvement, a sibling of continuous improvement.  But Clifford Chance is a Magic Circle with much bigger throw weight than most firms.

I start by summarizing the report with quotes and bullets and then provide my views on its impact.  I close with how this report supports the idea of doing less law.

Report Highlights (Quotes and Paraphrased Bullets)

The white paper is clear, concise, and refreshingly honest about the challenges.  I cite a few highlights from it (emphasis added) and then bullet point a summary of these excerpts:

“Continuous Improvement helps a group of people familiar with the relevant task to analyse what they are doing and to find ways of doing it better. Put simply, it involves applying scientific rigour to determining the best approach to carrying out a piece of work.”

Almost any task that has a beginning, middle and end can be construed as process, including the practice of law.”

“The output… acts both as a visual instruction manual and a framework for organising knowledge resources related to the relevant task… a valuable additional benefit is that the process mapping sessions often become teaching sessions, as more senior lawyers share their deal experience and wisdom with their junior colleagues.

“The challenge in a less commoditised service environment, such as at Clifford Chance, is that legal processes are rarely repetitive or consistent… there needs to be agreement that there is a ‘problem’ and support for effecting change. This is particularly important in the matrixed law firm partnership structure that makes it hard to identify centrally those processes in need of improvement.

“[M]aking sure that the improvements are sustained, and sharing them with other teams that might benefit… has proved the most challenging aspect… the organisation of the firm around clients and matters does not easily fit with the concept of having a ‘process owner’ that is responsible for the ongoing implementation and monitoring of the improvements.”

Some other important facts from the report (paraphrased):

  • Clients want value. “Efficiency improvements” can yield the same effect as discount and alternate fee arrangements.
  • 450 associates and partners have already been involved and training program is being rolled out for all lawyers.  By the end of April 2014, 20% of lawyers will have been trained.
  • “Even at the high end,” work will have to be project managed with measures and controls to govern process.
  • The program will tap law firm professionals other than lawyers.


How I Read the Report and Comments on its Implications

Here’s how I read the report, in brief (my words):

  • We are looking for best practices and improvements and we won’t take no for an answer.  We have left the world of mythology for the one of science and industry  We have a standardized process, even in high stakes matters“; banished is the view that “I am an artisan, every matter is unique.”
  • We solve another challenge most firms face, which is training new lawyers. Plus, we call on our professionals who are not lawyers as equals.
  • We understand that change management is hard but we won’t be daunted. We will work hard to make sure we don’t backslide.


All this strikes me as brilliant. It clearly communicates to clients a new emphasis on the value of efficiency.  It puts a stake in the ground for partners, making it much harder for detractors to slow it down.  Going public is a great way to raise the bar for the inevitable partners who will detract. By inviting as equals the firm’s professionals Clifford Chance motivates and helps retain those professionals and signals clients that the caste system no longer hinders value.

Will it work? We will not know immediately but I suspect the firm would not publish this white paper were it not confident. Moreover, and I read between the lines here, it virtually invites the next step of asking clients to compare Clifford Chance bills to competitors’ bills for similar work.

In sum, the firm has drawn the proverbial line in the sand.  Now we can watch how other firms react – or do not.  And if they do not react, we will see if clients pay as much attention to value as they say they do.

The Do Less Law Angle

I save for last one of my favorite topics of late, which is the drive to “do less law”. The best way to reduce cost is simply to do less.  Yes, I know, that’s an anathema to many a partner.  So I saved my favorite report quote for last:

“Another critical shift is that legal advice is now seen as a more integral element of the commercial picture. The scope of the legal advice required is adjusted to match the risk of the matter, meaning that it is no longer a fixed or absolute concept; the legal dimension has become another consideration in the matrix that will decide whether a transaction, or particular course of action, is attractive or feasible.”  (emphasis added)

I see no other way to read this than a large firm saying it will no longer look under pebbles if clients only need it to look under the boulders.  Of course doing less should be part of process improvement.  And finally a very large, prestigious firm says so publicly.

  1. Pam Woldow

    Thanks for the great analysis, Ron. The one item that is not discussed in the white paper, but is of great importance, is how has Clifford Chance adjusted compensation to reward and incentivize doing “less law.” Most firms that I encounter agree that efficiency, predictability and not looking under every rock is what clients want. But, the lawyers are still paid and bonused based on meeting those billable hour targets. Has Clifford Chance made changes, additions or adjustments to compensation so that the lawyers’ self interests are aligned with clients’ needs for less? This seems to be where the rubber hits the road for firms – whether they are rolling out Legal Project Management, Agile, Lean or CI.

  2. Janet Taylor-Hall

    Great commentary on this Ron. Well done Clifford Chance!! Good to see this programme going main stream for the firm. An investment that had its beginnings in 2008 that has always been supported from the top. Not an easy thing to achieve but shows with the mix of client demand for change, vision, firm leadership commitment, and recognising you need to combine the skills of lawyers and transformation programme/consulting/Lean Six Sigma professionals leads to results.

  3. Ann Lee Gibson

    Great action taken by Clifford Chance. And great Cliffs Notes and review by you, Ron. Thanks.

  4. Wes

    Ron: Thanks for sharing. What a fantastic article!

  5. Liam Brown

    Kudos to Clifford Chance. I would like to reuse part of the comment I made on your blog ‘Can Law Firms Tap Latent Market for Corporate Contract Management?’, “In Growth is Dead, Bruce MacEwen described how Proctor & Gamble’s Lafley managed to grow P&G faster than it’s market by partnering with innovations from small, entrepreneurial companies, moving the company’s attitude from resistance to innovations “not invented here” to enthusiasm for those “proudly found elsewhere”.” I was always impressed by Clifford Chance’s appetite for learning from partners as they started experimenting with what George calls “NewLaw business models”, even as far back as 2006.

    I commented “No-one should underestimate the leadership of BigLaw firms” on George Beaton’s blog about ‘The rise and rise of the NewLaw business model’ Today I talked about “The Legal Ecosystem” with law firm and law dept. legal operations leaders at CLOC. They were ‘reaching across the aisle’ to brainstorm about how to jointly improve legal service delivery to deliver ‘Value’. And make no mistake, all parties understood that ‘Value’ meant delivering Efficiency, Predictability and Cost Effectiveness.