The New Normal

Is There a Trade-Off Between Efficiency and Innovation in Law Practice?

Posted Mar 7, 2011 3:00 PM CST
By Patrick J. Lamb

Patrick Lamb

A while ago, I attended a seminar teaching the basis elements of Legal Lean Sigma™, a marriage of the principles of Lean and Six Sigma. At its core, the program was about process management and efficiency. I posted about the program on Twitter, and received a response from a friend of mine that shocked me. She tweeted, “Pat, for real? Yikes. Efficiency kills innovation. Effectiveness always trumps efficiency. Use client selection and right price.” I was surprised, and said so. We had a back-and-forth on Twitter, but when you’re writing with only 140 characters, sometimes the great debates of our time have to move to a different forum. While this doesn’t qualify as one of the great debates for our time, it was better had elsewhere. It move to the blawgosphere.

I posted Does Efficiency Kill Innovation? on my personal blog, essentially making the point that the idea that there is a trade-off between efficiency and innovation is a false choice, and that “both should be desired areas of improvement.” I set off a firestorm.

Jay Shepherd entered the fray with Efficiency, effectiveness and baseball, in which he argued:

“Clients don’t give a flying something through a rolling donut about whether their lawyers are efficient. (Unless they bill by the hour; then it’s all about efficiency.) No: Clients want their lawyers to be effective. Am I quibbling about words here? Of course I am; I’m a lawyer. Words are my hammers and nails.

“According to the New Oxford American Dictionary (the only U.S. dictionary worth a damn), efficient means ‘achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.’ Effective means ‘successful in producing a desired or intended result.’ Which do you think clients care more about?”

Jay’s claim that clients don’t care if their lawyers are efficient is debatable. Certainly smart clients do, because they believe that efficient lawyers will cost them less than the same lawyer would being inefficient. But even if he’s right, the lawyers themselves should care about being efficient. However you price your work (other than hourly, of course), you’ll make more if your produce a result with with greater efficiency.

Next came Ed Kless from VeraSage in his post We Are NOT Against Efficiency. His post, the title notwithstanding, identifies four reasons why effectiveness is more important than efficiency. Same message as Jay, just different words. Needless to say, I view the either/or nature of the post as a false choice. The goal should be to effective efficiently, and notwithstanding the voracity of these two posts, I see no evidence that firms or people cannot achieve both. And if you can achieve both, I think that is better than achieving just one.

The third post was Dennis McKinnie’s Efficiency v. Effectiveness v. Innovation: Why Draw Lines? Dennis concludes with this: “So yes, I strongly believe the search for efficiency can lead to better effectiveness AND innovation. In fact, I think efforts in any of the three of these areas can benefit the others.” Needless to say, I find his analysis most compatible with my own.

Despite the brouhaha that my initial tweet seemed to generate, I have to confess that I still find this discussion fascinating, but not because of the content. Contentwise, I see nothing, nothing at all, that argues against efforts to increase efficiency. The suggestion that there is a trade-off between efficiency and effectiveness is navel-gazing or a by-product of a perception that what lawyers do (that is what I am) is somehow all so terribly customized that mere mental acuity is all one needs, which has no place in the world in which I practice. But what really amazed me was the voracity that two of the blog authors and my friend on Twitter pursued the simple idea I tweeted about. Maybe it is a testament to the power of Twitter, but it seems more like touching a raw nerve. Thoughts?

Patrick Lamb is a founding member of Valorem Law Group, a litigation firm representing business interests. Valorem helps clients solve their business disputes and coping with pressures to reduce legal spend using nontraditional approaches, including use of nonhourly fee structures, coordination with LPOs or contract lawyers, joint-venturing with other firms and implementation of project management tools to handle lawsuits or portfolios of litigation.

Pat is the author of the the recently published book Alternative Fee Arrangements: Value Fees and the Changing Legal Market. He also blogs at In Search Of Perfect Client Service.

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, and Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group. Paul and Pat spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. We hope you will join their discussions.

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