Smoother Operations:
How to foster a culture of continuous improvement in your legal team

Arbor Law’s Legal Operations expert Neil Smith has so far covered everything from the basics of what Legal Operations is, to excellence in service delivery, how to get started with legal technology and how to optimise your team of lawyers.

In this final blog, we will be discussing continuous improvement.

With your new legal operations strategy and structure in place, how do you ensure you and your legal team keep optimising your legal function so that it delivers ongoing value to the business and just keeps on improving?

So Neil, lawyers often strive for perfection and are hesitant to take risks or embrace failure. How can Legal Operations help shift this mindset and create an environment where team members feel empowered to experiment, learn, and continuously improve? 

A successful Legal Operations program or strategy must start by asking, “How can we make things better?”

The keyword here is “better.” Striving for perfection from the beginning only delays progress. I’m not suggesting shortcuts; rather, I advocate a practical, agile approach. Begin with small initiatives that yield tangible results, then expand. To make things better, you must understand your current position and your destination. Leaders, such as GCs, CEOs, and other C-suite members, should embody these values to influence the mindset throughout the team.

In your experience, what practical strategies can Legal Ops professionals implement to promote a culture of continuous improvement within the legal team? Are there specific methods or approaches that work? 

The Smoother Operations series has featured these three key questions in almost every blog and it applies here as well. It always starts with thought around:

  1. Where are you now?
  2. Where do you want to be?
  3. How will you get there?

Begin by reviewing and analysing current legal team activities, from granular matters to task and complexity reporting via time recording exercises.

These insights will guide your continuous improvement plan. Examples from my experience include consideration of more efficient work completion and automation solutions as well as team structure refinement, improved data analytics, MI/KPI metrics and dashboard development.

What role can leadership play in fostering a culture of continuous improvement within the legal team? How can leaders set the tone and provide the support and resources for lawyers to embrace innovation and learn from failures? 

Leadership plays a key role in setting the tone and fostering a culture of continuous improvement to enable a legal team to be operationally robust.  This should shine through in every interaction between leadership and its team of legal professionals.  Good practical examples might be things such as “Innovation Awards”, standing continuous improvement and innovation agenda items in weekly team meetings with rotating speakers, and holding “Lessons Learned” sessions at the end of every project.  In these sessions, the focus should be on improvement, not blame or highlighting mistakes. It’s about failing forward.

Are there specific tools or processes that Legal Operations professionals can adopt to support continuous improvement?  

One effective process is periodic time tracking exercises. Although the initial reaction may be an audible groan, it’s essential to clarify the purpose:

  • It’s not about policing the team.
  • It reveals key drivers of effort.
  • It highlights inefficient practices.
  • It may justify more cost-efficient work solutions.

It can uncover duplicated work within the team and across business units.

When combined with complexity analysis, it helps match work complexity with the right individuals and/or cheaper more automated solutions.

I recommend running time-tracking exercises for two-week periods every quarter to gather meaningful data.

In your view, what qualities enable Legal Operations professionals to manage failure effectively and embrace continuous improvement?

Simplicity, an open mind, questioning, and the avoidance of a blame culture are vital. Again, my top three questions for resolving issues and identifying areas for improvement are:

  1. Where are you now?
  2. Where do you want to be?
  3. How will you get there?

The resulting outputs often require prioritization. Consider cost-benefit analysis and think laterally across the business, not just within the legal team. Ensure that continuous improvement activities align with and optimize existing processes and solutions unless, of course, those existing processes and solutions are not themselves fit for purpose.

A good example of this is ensuring that any continuous improvement activities undertaken re CLM (contract lifecycle) process improvement tie in to, and also optimise, any already embedded CRM (customer relationship management) processes or solutions with which the CLM solution might want to integrate, or at least speak to.

How does self-reflection and self-assessment fit into a continuous improvement approach?

Self-reflection and self-assessment are crucial for continuous improvement. Regularly schedule agenda items for continuous improvement discussions to surface ideas and emphasize their importance. Also, it’s so important as lawyers and legal operations professionals, to allocate time for personal self-reflection and improvement. Keep track of inspirations using cloud-based notes which you can use from all your devices. The best ideas sometimes come out of hours after all!

Finally, at the heart of a Legal Operations mindset is a commitment to ongoing change to ensure consistent improvement of legal processes and services.

And remember – if you are not failing? You are not trying.

This brings our Smoother Operations blog series to a close for the time being. If you are a legal team looking for support driving legal operations and would like to work with a consultant who has worked on major transformation projects across law firms and in-house teams, contact Neil Smith to review plans for your legal team in 2024.