How to Improve Legal Processes: Step 3- Process Analysis

If the purpose of the last stage (Assess Current State) was to find out “how does the process currently work?” then the purpose of this stage is to answer the question

If the purpose of the last stage (Assess Current State) was to find out “how does the process currently work?” then the purpose of this stage is to answer the question “how well does it currently work?”

Undoubtedly, this is one of the most difficult steps and often the one that is skipped i.e. people jump straight from assessing the current state directly to defining the future-state, or the way it should work in the future. This is natural, particularly amongst lawyers (and other professionals) who are paid to solve complex problems. The problem with this is that without analysing the current state, it is difficult to identify what the root-cause of any performance issue is and definitively say what needs to change.

Often, the result is a poorly thought out change to a way-of-working (that quickly returns back to normal) or the implementation of some ill-fated IT solution (and some head-scratching when it turns out that no-one is using it). 

In other words, if you skimp on the “analysis stage”, the project will be a waste of time.

So, what should you analyse and how?

Again, that depends on the objective of the project (refer back to Step 1). Generally, we find that any LPI project is trying to improve at least one performance criteria from a list of:

  • Quality
  • Cost
  • Speed
  • Flexibility
  • Dependability

Ideally, one would wish for the project to improve all of these concurrently. However, that is rarely the case and by redesigning a process, law firm leaders and managers need to think about trade-offs and specifically which of the criteria above is most important. This will depend on the firm’s strategy, the markets that it operates in and, most importantly, its client’s requirements.

Let’s consider a simple example (using a relatively non-complex legal service such as Conveyancing) to illustrate the focus on improving different ‘performance criteria’. Let’s assume that we’ve already mapped out the current-state process map for each example and now we’re considering what to analyse.

Example 1 – A conveyancing service with a focus on improving cost efficiency

With a specific focus on cost-efficiency, it is likely that one would focus efforts on the amount of time it takes to complete specific steps within the process. This is often referred to as “Processing Time”. As the vast majority of the costs within a conveyancing process are the salary costs of the people delivering the service, it would be sensible to focus the analysis on how long it takes to complete each stage in the process. Some people see this as similar to the ‘time and motion’ studies made popular in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Essentially, the principles are the same, although I’m pleased to say that the techniques have moved on considerably to be less invasive than standing and watching someone carry out work with a clip-board and stop-watch. The purpose of this form of analysis is to identify the elements of a process which take up the time in a process and seek to reduce the amount of time taken to complete the step(s) either in isolation or in aggregate with the whole process. This can be achieved by changing the way a particular step is executed or, if it is deemed to be non-value adding, removing it entirely from the process.

Example 2 – A conveyancing service with a focus on improving speed of transaction

With a specific focus on the speed of a transaction, it is likely that one would focus efforts on the elapsed time between the first step in the process and the last e.g. from receipt of instruction through to completion of a property sale or purchase. This is often referred to as “Cycle Time”. This is generally of more use to a firm’s clients than the first example i.e. our clients don’t care how much it costs us to do something (assuming they pay a fixed fee!), but they do care if it takes 16 weeks rather than 8 weeks to sell their house. Of course, not all of the elements of a process’s cycle time are within the control of a firm. However, in my experience, much of it is capable of being influenced through proactive management. A particularly useful tool to analyse the cycle time of a process is Value Stream Mapping derived from the Lean toolset. The purpose of this form of analysis is to identify where delays can be reduced or removed from a process.

Example 3 – A conveyancing service with a focus on improving quality of service

With a specific focus on the quality of service within a particular process, there is a requirement to collect more qualitative data than in the first two examples e.g. from surveys, interviews or focus groups from clients. How often do we really ask our clients what they do and don’t value. There are still relevant elements of detailed process analysis that are relevant to improving the quality of service to clients. For example, one can identify the number of ‘touch-points’ that the firm has with its clients. Using the conveyancing service as an example again, we may interact with the client at a number of points e.g. provision of a quotation for services, receiving instruction of a sale, pre-exchange, exchange, at completion and post-completion. This prompts a number of important questions; are there too many touch points, too few? How do we interact with our clients (i.e. by letter, phone, email, SMS text message, via a real-time management information system access via a secure client portal?). Once again, for this example, the important thing is what do our clients want.

Illustration of trade-offs in examples above

Many of you will have already spotted the inherent trade-offs in each of the examples above. Example 1 (with a focus on cost) may drive for a reduction in the number of process steps and client touch points (or at least to make them more standardised, efficient and transactional). In contrast, example 3 would be pushing for the opposite, seeing the client touch point steps as an investment and an important opportunity to spend time with the client.

Example 1 is also focusing on reducing processing time (almost at the expense of all else) whereas within example 2, we might be happy to make certain process steps more time-consuming in order to reduce the delays associated with an extended cycle-time. For example, if we know that issues caused by inaccurate capture of client instructions at the outset of a matter typically cause a 3 week delay to proceedings, we might seek to invest additional time at the early stages of matter inception (e.g. changing it from a one hour task to a two hour task) in order to reduce that 3 week period. This is very much a principle of Lean thinking.

It is important to note that there doesn’t always need to be a trade-off in performance. When analysing an existing process, sometimes just eliminating “waste” will have a positive impact on cost, quality and speed. However, when redesigning a process or designing a new one, it is very important to be aware of trade-offs.

Practical considerations

There is a specific module in our “Process Mapping for Law Firms” eLearning course that gives practical tips on how to interpret and analyse your process maps dependent on the overall goals of your project.  The way in which you analyse a process will be different for each of the following goals: 

  • To improve efficiency, productivity or profitability
  • To support scalable growth
  • Get more of your IT / digital investments
  • To improve client experience
  • To speed things up

To sign up for the course and access all of these lessons, please click on the link below.

Practicalities – Data collection issues

There is can sometimes be an issue with collecting and analysing data in people-orientated process, such as those prevalent in law firms. Often the data that is required is either not collected (e.g. cycle-time data) or not robust (e.g. data in time-recording records on a firm’s Practice Management System (PMS)). In these instances, it is important to collect robust primary sources of data. In my experience, this is best achieved through sampling of a small number particular matters and then attempting to link that to corresponding data from a PMS.

Practicalities – Level of process analysis

One final consideration is about the level of analysis that you will undertake. Will it be at the level of the supply-chain, the law firm, a department, an individual process, etc. Typically, we consider analysis at 5 levels (in increasingly levels of detail and focus):

Level 1 provides an overview of a high-level process flow

Level 2 shows the flow of the process and the hand-offs between different individuals or teams

Level 3 is often the right level to identify specific areas for process improvement

Level 4 provides the level of detail that one might find in a training guide or procedural instruction

Level 5 goes all the way down to the detail of each individual step involved in a task

This is covered further in our “Process Mapping for Law Firms” eLearning course as well (link available above).

This is an important consideration and is, again, dependent on the objectives of the firm. If the objective is to improve firm-wide profitability by X%, this is unlikely to achieved (in the short-term) by focusing narrowly on one specific task in one process. In this instance, it is important that the analysis is pitched at the right level e.g. how can performance of the process be improved to free up capacity of our fee-earners rather than how can we shave a seconds of the completion of this task.

Analysis tools

Analysis may focus on a number of different types of data dependent on your objectives including:

  • Financial data (income, costs, profitability, lock-up, WIP, etc);
  • Operational data (capacity, throughput, cycle-time, etc);
  • Client data (qualitative surveys, questionnaires, focus groups, interviews);
  • Staff data (cultural diagnostics, role profiling, etc).

Specific process analysis tools to consider include:

  • High-level process maps
  • Data analysis (Simple tools such as Pareto Analysis).
  • Seven sources of waste (DOTWIMP or TIMWOODS are often used as mnemonics for this)
  • Value chain or value stream tools
  • Client surveys / questionnaires

The next article in this series is focused on defining your future-state process. This is an exciting stage where you can start designing the blueprint for how things will operate in the future.

If you’ve missed any of the articles
in this series, you can access them below:

Step 1
– Define the objectives and scope of the project

Step 2
– Assess the current state (legal process mapping)

Step 3
– Analyse the process

Step 4
– Define the future-state process

5 – Implementing the Solution


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