ABA Journal

Legal Rebels

Making It Lean: Lisa Damon, Seyfarth Shaw

By Stephanie Francis Ward

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Photograph by © 2011 David Moser

When you get paid by the minute, becoming more efficient might seem like a bad idea.

Lisa J. Damon, a member of Seyfarth Shaw’s executive committee, has moved past that notion. Her firm has developed a plan that borrows heavily from the corporate management plan known as Six Sigma with the goal of increasing value, service and efficiencies, and improving the predictability of fees.

With Damon’s leadership in 2008, Seyfarth tried its plan with client United Technologies. Now called SeyfarthLean, today all the firm’s practice groups utilize it.

“It’s incredibly hard to do, much harder than your initiative of the day,” says Damon, referring to BigLaw firms putting a lot of money into a proposed solution but not carrying out the proposal from the top. At Seyfarth, Damon is one of 75 considered a “green belt,” Six Sigma-speak for someone who gets certification with the program. The firm also has one Six Sigma black belt.

“When you do it right you get very creative, innovative solutions,” says Damon, who chairs Seyfarth’s labor and employment department and works out of the Boston office.

A former schoolteacher who had a Manhattan dog-walking business on the side, Damon was tapped to carry out the idea by J. Stephen Poor, the firm’s Chicago-based managing partner. Clients were asking for alternative fee structures, and he felt that to have those discussions, the firm should understand how it delivered legal services and how to do the work in an efficient, high-quality way.

“The ability for people to disagree and have a healthy dialogue about where to go next, she’s very good about managing that process,” Poor says.

Reviewing how things are done and asking the enterprise’s experts to develop ways the processes can be improved is a big part of Six Sigma. In an initial project with SeyfarthLean, Damon and others reviewed data from about 100 litigation matters.

“When we first started [alternative billing], clients would say, ‘I need the lowest possible rate,’ and we’d think we needed to push the work down to associates,” says Damon, 55. “The first thing we saw in the data was that can be the most inefficient way to solve a problem.”

Now, Damon says, an associate meets with a partner first to understand the partner’s strategy before writing the draft. The firm also uses technology that captures a legal issue’s facts, ideas and parties, with the information made available in a centralized database.

Also, with SeyfarthLean, the firm made the decision to move away from associate lockstep pay. Seyfarth now has three levels of associates, and criteria from the Association of Corporate Counsel Value Index are part of a list of competencies used to set the levels. Associates are evaluated against the competencies yearly to determine salary, bonus and progress along the levels. Like many large law firms, Seyfarth laid off associates over the past few years; but according to Damon, SeyfarthLean was not an instigator.

“To help lead your firm from an hourly billing model to more of a cultural transformation is a risk for any law firm leader,” says Kenneth A. Grady, general counsel and secretary of footwear manufacturer Wolverine Worldwide. “It’s not widely accepted.”

Grady met Damon at an ACC event. His Rockford, Mich.-based company was interested in finding a new firm to handle its trademark portfolio, and he was sold by Damon’s ability to easily explain—with a sense of humor—how SeyfarthLean works.

“There really aren’t a lot of firms that are going as far as Seyfarth has gone,” Grady says. “Certainly in law firm management, she’s more of a risk taker.”

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