The call for modernisation

Process isn’t a word traditionally associated with revolution. A good process may be important, but few would endow it with transformative power. Or at least, that was once the case. Now law firms appear to be thinking differently.

Facing a time of unprecedented change in the sector, more firms than ever are embracing the idea that the key to successful modernisation might just lie in the processes at the heart of a firm. This is translating directly to their recruitment needs. We’re seeing more calls from our law firm clients for candidates who are experts in process and project management – and who have the insights to fundamentally overhaul the way in which legal services are delivered.

Such a person is Richard Sawtell, whose work in process mapping and project management is now helping to inform some of the biggest transformation management initiatives in the legal sector.

Until recently interim operations manager for Addleshaw Goddard, he describes his work as turning an organisation from a collection of partners into a cohesive business unit and allowing it to properly engage with today’s clients.

“Process mapping is not an end in itself – it’s about shining a light on legal processes and identifying areas of performance that can be measured and improved to achieve specific objectives. This could include anything from delivering higher quality consistently, to improving scoping and/or reducing costs,” says Sawtell. “It requires focus, commitment and resource. It’s process mapping with a purpose.”

It’s also more than just blue-sky thinking. Sawtell represents, to me, a new wave of professionals bringing to law invaluable learnings from outside the sector. He has done this before, bringing with him critical knowledge from his time setting up a conveyancing division of Countrywide back in the 1990s.

It was a time when clients wanted more cost certainty, cheaper conveyancing and better customer service – basically the same demands law firms are facing now. “We had to do things on a fixed-fee basis no matter what happened – and I had to add value to the process over and above what others were doing,” he says. “The problem wasn’t getting the work, it was finding the resource to do it – that is, processing the work.” And it is these learnings that he has taken into the legal profession – he is now off to Berwin Leighton Paisner (BLP).

There’s a good reason why firms are starting to take these process issues so seriously. For a long time, clients have talked about wanting more from their law firms – more quality, more certainty with fees and more delivery without prevarication. But today’s clients also know how to articulate the specifics.

“Major corporate clients now have professional procurement departments, and they’re very clear about what they want and how they want it delivered,” he says. “They want to know exactly how firms are distinguishing between low-value administrative tasks and high-level work, and ensure they’re not paying partner fees for routine work. Not only that, they want to know exactly how firms will report back to them on progress.”

The point of aligning process mapping to project management disciplines is that it enables firms to deliver against these requirements while allowing for continuous improvement. “How do you capture the learning from your mistakes and ensure you don’t repeat them on the next piece of work you do?” Sawtell asks. “How many pitches did you lose, and why? How many tasks could be done by non-fee earners – and how many are currently being used and by whom? It’s about using process to get to know your business, and it’s about improving performance.”

It goes beyond meeting immediate client demands – there’s an additional and massive potential win for law firms that prioritise process.

“Clients have been doing process for a lot longer than law firms. There’s a clear opportunity to work with them to meld a law firm’s processes to theirs to improve efficiencies in how law firms take business from them and then report back.

“You can then create value for both parties – it cements the relationship and transforms it into a long-term strategic alliance. I’ve seen this used as a tool to win new relationships too.”

Firms have faced the threat of clients ‘shopping around’ for their legal services for years – and abandoning relationships that no longer add value. But this kind of process integration promises to not only improve core service delivery but bind clients a lot closer to a firm. “The more you manage to do this, the more difficult it is for competitors to step in – it’s like trying to unscramble an egg.”

Of course, there are challenges to this. This is about using process to transform a business, and success won’t come without facing all the same obstacles thrown up by other major change projects. Most of all, when all hands are on deck to deliver what clients want, how do you find the time to invest in the next level?

But that shouldn’t stop law firms doing it. With an increasing call for professionals like Sawtell, we expect to see ever more evidence of the truly transformative power of process in legal.

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