As a graduate of law school myself, I can relate to a number of the problems facing those that are in the legal industry on how they manage work. Throughout my career I’ve learned many lessons on how to manage knowledge work and since I empathise with those in the legal industry, I’d like to share some of that with you so that you can avoid some of the pain points that you’re experiencing in your practice. However, before I go into solution mode, I’d like to spend some time exploring the different problems faced by those in the industry. As someone in the legal industry, you may be able to relate to one or more of these problems. If so, I won’t explore the solution pathways here, but will do so in future posts.
There are key differences between those who are in private practice versus those who are in “in-house” legal teams. Oftentimes, in house legal teams are structured / managed like a law firm – which makes sense as to why this came about. However, the key drivers between the two may be quite different. If you’re from a traditional firm that’s primary focus is on billable hours and utilisation of your lawyers, as a caveat, you may not need to read on because many of the problems here are driven from this approach. Indeed, in the short term looking forward towards solutions they may have a short term dip in your profitability. However, if you are in a firm that wants to create better outcomes for your customers (eg faster turnaround) or where you want to create a sustainable work environment for your staff and long term survivability in your practice, then I believe this will help towards that aim. In house practices are different – they have a fixed capacity of lawyers and demand from across the organisation that they need to manage. They get paid the same in either case, so there isn’t a financial driver that makes solving these problems as inherently difficult as I mentioned above for a private firm.
Legal practitioners are those that are practicing law on a day to day basis. The actual title may vary depending upon the jurisdiction (eg lawyer, barrister, solicitor), but whatever the title and jurisdiction, it appears that these are common problems across the industry.
This is one of the key problems facing legal practitioners. This is primarily based on having too much work for a practitioner to be able to do in a timeframe. The other problems that I mention below for practitioners also contribute towards this. Many lawyers I have spoken to have faced a time of “burnout” at some point in their career – it seems to be quite common. But what is causing this burnout? No doubt a number of the things mentioned in this article. Let’s look at some of the factors causing this overburdening problem.
In terms of too much work, we often see lawyers operating as individuals. Lawyers often tend not to “share” work in the same way that teams work in other areas of knowledge work. There are often deeper causal factors at play such as “identity” that associated with practitioners prevents them from wanting to appear inadequate or unable to perform such a function. This often results in lawyers working long hours in an attempt to get the work done for their clients. There are also aspects of specialisation that come into play here. Often legal teams will have people who are specialists in particular areas of practice and those that are specialists deal in specific matters. It makes it difficult to hand off work or to get assistance – to get that deep expertise takes considerable time. Where there are time constraints and high demand for particular specialisations, this puts increasing stress on practitioners who, through no fault of their own, are becoming “bottlenecks” in the overall system.
Lawyers have trained for years and as part of that training they need to get things right for their clients. Perfectionism is something that lawyers often face – dotting all the “i”s and crossing all the “t”s to make sure you have absolutely minimised any risk exposure to your clients. But how much time do practitioners spend on the little minutiae – is it always to the right proportion to the potential risks your client is facing? There are likely instances in your practice where practitioners will spend 80% of their time shutting down the last 5% of the risk. All of this creates additional work for the practitioners and perhaps that might be spent on other matters.
Covid has helped contribute to this as well. As many businesses and governments out there need to adapt to a constantly changing environment, they’re increasingly engaging lawyers to understand the risks and to help implement changes to business models going forward. Many lawyers may have experienced an increase in demand for your services. An increase of demand will see additional work being passed down to practitioners increasing the stress that they were already under.
Practitioners usually don’t have just a single matter that they’re working on at any one point in time. They have lots of different clients with different requests coming in at different times. As part of legal work as well, there are often many “wait states” that occur during work. For example, they might prepare some documents for the client who will take time to review and consider them. Meanwhile, the lawyers get to work on other client matters whilst they wait. Many of these blockages are not necessarily within their control and they can’t necessarily predict when they are likely to become “unblocked” again so that they can restart working on it. This creates a lot of context switching overheads – the time it takes someone to switch from thinking of one matter to another. There are some instances where this doesn’t amount to too much, but in other aspects it can be considerable. For example, if you’re doing detailed research into a particular area of law where the precedents are not clearly appropriate to your clients case and then another client calls you. It will take you time to mentally shift out of that deep area and into the new client matter. Then, once this concludes it may take you another 10-15 minutes to retrace where you were in your research and reestablish the train of thought that you were in. This is the cost of context switching and it can create a great deal of mental exhaustion in practitioners if they’re not mindful of it.
As mentioned above, lawyers will often be waiting on others such as clients, regulatory bodies, other parts of the business, client partners / contracting parties and others. Although there are patterns to this, often the interdependencies are different and particular to each matter. Coordinating with other parties can become a problem that leads to many of the wait states in the practice, these can put additional pressure on lawyers to meet due dates for matters and as mentioned above the context switching overhead that it creates.
Lack of control
There are oftentimes when practitioners may feel a lack of control over what they’re doing. They don’t control when requests come into them and they often don’t have much or any control over when items need to be done by. Couple that with things like the dependencies mentioned above and practitioners can often feel like they have little control over their work. Oftentimes they reluctantly accept the status quo and just put their head down and get on with it.
Legal Project Managers / Practice Managers
Making reliable commitments
Key clients often have highly complicated / complex problems that are being handled by legal project managers or other practitioner managers within the firm / in house legal team. When faced with this complexity often we find it difficult to be able to make reliable commitments. We see each case / project as unique and they’ll need help with particular problems. This makes it difficult for these folks to be able to make reliable commitments. Some of the things we discussed above, such as specialisation, dependencies etc, start to impact the reliability of delivery. Some are within our control, but many are not or at least seem as if they are not. As a result, this puts a lot of pressure on these managers to be able to tough questions with confidence.
Maintain a team capability
Often because of the problems described above for practitioners, the legal industry often faces situations of practitioner burnout, or at the very least turnover of staff. Oftentimes, changeover of staff can lead to other delays – plus it’s a drain on the time of practice managers to ensure that they can backfill the missing capabilities. The areas of specialisation often also add to this because finding like skills can take time and are not always available.
Partners / Directors / Senior Managers
Choosing the right work
There are often many different types of work that come into in-house legal teams or firms. However, not all of that work is what the practitioners in the company should be focused on. This is particularly the case with in house teams – they need to be selective of what work they can actually do because they usually have a fixed capacity. Granted, they could go to external firms for additional support where needed, but there are also costs involved in that which may be prohibitive in many circumstances. In such scenarios, by saying “yes” to something, often you’re impliedly saying “no” to other things – but how are we consciously making the right decisions here? In the event that you can’t say “no”, you’ll invariably cause other problems such as “overburdening” on practitioners which makes it difficult to maintain a team capability in the long term. With the advent of disruptions such as COVID, legal practices are under increasing demand for their services and being able to continually service these new needs along with the regular workload becomes a delicate balancing act.
One of the other key problems that leaders face in the legal industry is positioning the practice for the future. How do you make sure that your practitioners can focus on the more challenging problems and spend less time on the mundane. How do you position your practice to be able to distinguish yourself in the market? If you’re managing an in house legal team, no doubt your organisation is thinking along these lines and your challenge is how to best support the overall business by providing relevant and timely legal services well into the future. How do you look to new technologies and processes to support things such as automation which allow your practitioners to focus on the more strategic needs of the organisation.
There are many challenges facing the legal industry in the 21st century in how they manage their work. There are problems facing each level of the legal practice and in at times they are interlinked. There are ways to help deal with the problems associated with 21st century knowledge work and these can be readily adapted to the legal practice that is looking to solve these problems. This will be the first in a series of blog posts for the legal industry. If you have any questions or would like to discuss how to deal with these impacts to your practice, please Contact Us. Alternatively, please try the new Legal Kanban Practitioner course if you want to learn more.
Special thanks to Lilian Mateu for your assistance with this post. Lilian is a lawyer and AKT based in Europe who seeks to help lawyers with these problems.