US corporations invest a lot in process improvements. And now law firms show signs of doing the same.

Two recent ILTA white paper excellent articles (Don’t Support the Practice of Law – Support the Business of Practicing Law and The Value Proposition of the Business Analyst Role) describe large law firm staff positions that focus on supporting law practice and business analysis.

Last year I completed a 15-firm benchmarking study for Hunton & Williams CIO Jamie Booth on the role we called “practice support consultants.” We wanted to learn firms’ views of practice improvement initiatives and compare how they staff and organize to support this goal.

In our hand-selected sample, most firms aspired to improve law practice and had at least some dedicated staff working on process improvement. Among the findings: (1) Though firms wanted staff in this role to initiate improvements, many pressures kept them more reactive; (2) The person in the role does not have to be a lawyer but must be familiar with law practice.; and (3) Organization and ownership of the role vary widely.

That law firm CIOs focus on business and practice process improvement might be surprising. Yet it’s not obvious who else in a firm would take on this mission. The Custodian Of Business Processes in the June issue of Optimize Magazine explains why CIOs in many companies own process improvement, even outside of IT.

Separately, a November LegalIT article, Taking charge of strategy, notes the new, strategic role of the CIO: “Responsibility for technology costs, support and development at the firm is no longer enough…. An understanding and adoption of the firm’s business culture and external market positioning is also essential.”

Jamie and I spoke after we both noticed the ILTA articles. We share the view that there are great opportunities to continue improving law practice. Jamie summed up his current thinking: “Our four practice support consultants keep working closely with our practices. They respond to demands and uncover hidden needs but as you found, there is tension between the two and also between operations and innovation. But as competition in the legal market heats up, I think more lawyers and firms will see the need for and value of this position and a focus on practice and process improvement.”