Can lawyers match the productivity growth in the rest of the global economy? 

I thought about this after reading a Wall Street Journal article last week, Robots Get a Makeover in Factories, which describe a new generation of robots that help assemble delicate devices, a big change from the early, giant welding robots. This is just another example of the continuous improvement in manufacturing productivity.

Would that we could say lawyer and law firm productivity improves continuously. Of course, measuring legal productivity and quality is hard, a problem Paul Lippe addressed in What if Someone Could Measure What Lawyers Do? in his New Normal column in the ABA Journal (8 Feb 2012). And Fred Bartlit reminds us in his New Normal column last week (30 May 2012) that we should not confuse amount of lawyer time spent with quality of output or productivity.

Improving service productivity is harder than improving manufacturing productivity. Yet consider a host of process- and technology-driven improvements in efficiency, quality, or customer experience:

  • Architects’ work was revolutionized by computer-aided design systems.
  • Medical care improves demonstrably when doctors and other health care workers follow checklists (as I noted here in a 2003 blog post).
  • Customers usually have a better experience waiting in a single line that feeds multiple check-out stations than choosing a single check-out line. (Some of us remember the misery before “jet lines” were introduced.)
  • Companies invest significant research dollars to speed up processes. Fast food chains have successfully found ways to shave seconds off the time required to fulfill drive-through orders, which turns out to be critical to profitability. Airlines continue to research how best to board planes efficiently, though the optimal answer appears elusive.
  • Technology has improved service experience everywhere. Common examples include the ATM, insurance agents equipped to pay claims in the field, picking up a rental car from a special aisle without having to stop at the service counter, the Apple Store experience of paying the person who helps you via a hand-held credit card reader, and the option to shop on the web instead of a store.

In the legal market, word processing and e-mail were probably the biggest and most ubiquitous productivity boosters over the last two decades Both are about 20 years old and both raise some productivity questions as well. (Arguably, lawyers should delegate more work on document processing than they do. And many lawyers lose time managing e-mail.)

More recently, predictive coding in e-discovery has significantly boosted lawyer productivity, though it remains controversial. I expect that legal project management and process improvement will have a bigger impact but it is early days. Can we expect to see the regular introduction of new processes, techniques, business models, and technology in law that we see in many other economic sectors? As clients continue demand higher value from outside counsel, law firms that improve productivity will win market and mind share.