We’re bombarded with information on how robotics and A.I. will revolutionise the provision of legal services in the future. So if you don’t have a robot in your closet knocking out chargeable work day and night, will your law firm and its human workforce be history sometime soon?
We don’t all have a magic machine yet, but could we get further by looking at what we have now? Focusing on workplace processes and systems for making our human workforce more efficient could yield far greater rewards, at lower costs.
The following has been kindly written for this site by my father, who had a lengthy career improving workplace efficiency for household name Companies.
Britain’s stagnant professional productivity problem
‘Ask any economist’, said The Economist, ‘what he sees as the biggest risk to the country’s growth prospects and the reply is the same: productivity.’
Lessons were seemingly not learned from that postwar flourishing of critical management techniques developed out of the old Time & Motion studies by ICI from 1947. In that year they had 110,000 employees and 30 Time & Motion men. Twenty years later they had 2000 engineers in their Work Study departments and had spread the word across the UK.
The Development of Workplace efficiency studies
In the 1960s all the larger organisations had a Work Study department. The theory was that after a very intensive 3-month training course you would be able to investigate any aspect of production, management or administration, and make considerable improvements. That was largely true because the technique was both simple and practical: it involved asking questions and making sure you had found the right answers.
Whatever task you were looking at – machining, sewing, form filling, pulling trolleys, chasing orders etc – you would ask questions. What is being done? Why? Why there? When? By whom? How? Occasionally we would run production studies, which meant you (with an occasional relief) watched someone for a whole day. You were not popular, of course. It was very soon realised that the ideas could be applied to administrative work and be just as effective as on the production lines.
When studying someone from nine till five at his office desk we often found our subject would finish all he had to do by eleven in the morning, then you stood there while he scratched around guiltily for anything else to fill his time. Nowadays you would be monitoring the computer screen as well as the person using it so it would certainly put a stop to roaming between Twitter, facebook, Amazon and all the rest.
This aspect of Work Study was called ‘Organisation & Methods’. The definition of O & M is: the systematic examination of activities in order to improve the effective use of human and other material resources. The secret is all in the second and third word: ‘systematic examination’.
How can we review workplace efficiency at a law firm?
Small offices can use the same techniques very effectively. The core of the examination process lies in that series of questions: What? Why? When? Where? Who? and How?
Enlarging on the first one: What is being done? Why is it being done? Is it necessary? What should be done? What else might be done? Follow this through to question the place, the timing, the sequence, who should really carry out the task, and the means, each time asking why. Then the answers should be challenged with more detailed questions. It always came as a surprise (when I was doing this kind of work) that so much administrative effort was simply not necessary or was being done by someone else.
What impacts on efficiency in a team of workers?
In a company with two or three employees maybe they know what they are doing, it’s all necessary and they don’t overlap. With four or more in an office it’s likely they know less about what the others are working on. Confusion can creep in, duplication may appear; you are now in danger of assuming that because everyone seems to be working hard, your office is efficient.
Maybe in the legal field there’s nothing to worry about – but it would do no harm to ask a few questions, surely?
Concluding note by Ben: I’m not sure my father will be encouraged out of retirement but please use the comments below below or get in touch if you know of an efficiency expert who will assess and review working practices at law firms. In relation to improving efficiency at law firms, this article is worth reading: