Seyfarth’s Success Story [#Ark]

If Lisa J. Damon has a bridge to sell, I’m buying it.  And, it’s not because I’m all that gullible.  However, over the course of one hour she changed me from an admitted Lean Six Sigma skeptic into a person willing to consider the possibilities of that approach for every law firm. I had previously heard several presentations on the law firm miracle that is Seyfarth Lean Six Sigma, but it was only when Ms. Damon and Seyfarth’s Chief Information Officer, David Hambourger, explained how they and their colleagues are beginning to change the way the lawyers of their firm actually practice law that I began to appreciate the scope of their accomplishment.

First a little background, Six Sigma is a business technique developed by Motorola to quickly identify and fix defects in its manufacturing processes.  Lean is a business technique derived from the Toyota Production System to redesign a manufacturing process to make it more balanced and consistent, thereby removing waste from the system.  (Another way of looking at this is to eliminate anything that does not create value for the end customer.)

At first blush, neither approach to manufacturing would have much obvious application to the work of any lawyer who considers herself or himself to be an artiste. Even in a so-called “law factory,” I’m not sure many would consider lawyers to be in the manufacturing business.   However, Seyfarth’s leadership came to the conclusion that elements of their practice needed to be handled with the same discipline Motorola and Toyota brought to manufacturing.

What drove them to this conclusion? Economics.  As their clients started requesting more alternative fee arrangements, Seyfarth’s leadership correctly concluded that the firm would take a loss unless it could find a way to reduce its own costs of production. So six years ago they began with the following goals:

  • improve predictability of fees
  • lower client costs
  • increase transparency
  • allow clients to collaborate
  • provide clients with real-time access to fees and the management of a matter

After looking at pure Six Sigma and Lean, and talking to clients who had used these approaches, Seyfarth settled on a modified Lean Six Sigma approach tailored for legal services.  To begin with, they eliminated the jargon, some of the statistical tools and the heavy-duty math. (Ms. Damon acknowledges that the focus on numbers demanded by Six Sigma would have been a major turn-off for every lawyer in the firm who went to law school just to avoid another math class.)  They also built in some strategy, project management and change management.  Along with this, they hired client-facing professional project managers and created a project management office. The other key element is a commitment to continuous, sustained improvement (kaizen) in the quality of the services they deliver.

To make these wholesale changes in the way they practiced law, the lawyers of Seyfarth also had to make wholesale changes in the way they carried out the business of law:

  • They replaced their professional development and promotion model with a more dynamic model based on advancement by competency and achievement rather than tenure.
  • They replaced their compensation model so that it rewarded results achieved rather than time spent.
    • Seyfarth has a scorecard system based on the ACC value index. They survey clients and then reflect that response in partner compensation.
  • They moved from merely automating manual processes to the creative, strategic use of knowledge, expertise and operational information.
  • They changed their service model from bill/pay as you go to one with a more strategic focus, with defined outcomes based on client business goals.

Lisa Damon is honest about the work involved in making such extensive changes within her firm.  While they don’t yet have 100% adoption, she says they make a new convert every day. Along the way, they take every opportunity to improve their practice and their business. As the inimitable Ms. Damon put it, “Seyfarth loves to process map. We create process maps for anything that moves within the firm.”  In addition, they approach this in a way that flattens the hierarchy within the firm; everyone with expertise is brought into the effort — whether they are professional project managers, paralegals, secretaries or lawyers.  In the beginning, they create their process maps with paper and pen. Later, they record their process maps using a lawyer-friendly tool called Task Map (an overlay to Visio). Once the process maps are created, they are linked to key knowledge management tools such as case analysis, checklists and samples. Better still, each process map can be tailored to the needs of individual clients or matters.

On the IT and knowledge management side, Dave Hambourger reports that they started by implementing enterprise search.  They also have built extranets that create new business for the firm.  (They are not just inert document repositories).  Another important element is the way they have deployed SharePoint to deliver “memorable value” to clients.  This includes matter management tools and financial dashboards.  The matter management tools show both the percentage of the project completed as well as the percentage of the budget spent. Since the dashboards are visible to the clients, the lawyers of the firm have had to learn the discipline of entering their time daily.

Lisa Damon will be the first to tell you that none of this has been easy or cheap.  However, the sheer joy with which she tells the Seyfarth Success Story suggests that the undertaking has been well worth the effort. At the end of the day, sustaining a success story like this requires top-level business support, careful project selection, project discipline, and a focus on continuous improvement.  Seyfarth shows that it can be done.  Is your firm willing to try?


If you’d like to learn more about SeyfarthLean, I’d encourage you to read (or listen to) the following:


Focus on the Right War Aims

Lincoln Memorial Each autumn I have the privilege of attending a day of classes at one of the best high schools in the country. Inevitably, I get to the end of the day exhausted — reminded once again that I now have only a fraction of the energy I once enjoyed as a teenager. But this post is not about the woes of aging. Nor is it about the joys of learning, although that day was a testament to the benefits of a great education. Rather, I want to share with you some things the students taught me in a fantastic discussion of the American Civil War.

In preparation for the class, the students previously read Lincoln’s second inaugural address, the Gettysburg Address, and a letter Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley (editor of The New York Tribune). Reading these texts over the shoulder of one of the students, I was struck again by the subtlety of Lincoln’s mind and the power of his rhetoric.  But, the purpose of the class was not to study rhetoric.  Rather, the students were led by a master teacher to unpack the shifts in Lincoln’s thinking and public pronouncements with respect to his war aims.

The class began with the earliest document of the three, the letter to Horace Greeley.  In it Lincoln stated that the main reason for the war was to preserve the Union in form and substance as it was before hostilities began, even if that meant tolerating slavery:  “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.”  That said, he made a clear distinction between the official war aims of his government and his personal views:  “I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.” This letter was written in August 1862.

One month later, Lincoln announced that he would emancipate all slaves in any Confederate state that did not return to Union control by the end of 1862. Suddenly slavery was front and center in official policy. What caused the shift? One of the participants in the class observed that the Union army had just won a strategic victory at the Battle of Antietam in which they stopped a Confederate incursion into Union territory.  This put an end to Confederate hopes that the English or French might join forces with the Confederacy to defeat the North. With this change in the fortunes of the secessionist South, Lincoln was emboldened to articulate a much more ambitious war aim in his Emancipation Proclamation: the abolition of slavery.

Since most of the readers of this blog are not professional historians, I’d like to step away from the Civil War and apply Lincoln’s experience to the day-to-day battles we face in the good fight for better knowledge sharing.  Many IT experts and project management professionals deplore “scope creep” in projects and, accordingly, advocate disciplined adherence to a project’s original purpose and scope. However, I’d like to suggest that it can be useful to reconsider your “war aims” during the course of a project. The purpose of this reconsideration is not to expand scope without regard for cost.  Instead, the point of the exercise is to ensure the relevance of your project by periodically evaluating the facts on the ground.  Has anything happened that makes it important that you revise your original goals? Has there been a major change in your business, your industry or in the economy generally that makes  the original goal less relevant? Or has there been a Battle of Antietam: a major advance on a critical front that makes your project more pressing or that requires that your project address a wider goal?

The key here is to understand that the situation is not static between the time the original requirements are gathered and the time the project is launched.  If you fail to consider those changes as you work, you run the risk of delivering a project that adequately addresses the concerns identified at the beginning of the project, but inadequately addresses the reality at the time of launch. This is not the best way to ensure relevance and value.

To be clear, this advice is not intended to be permission to run wild with your project.  Rather, it is a plea to stay in touch with the facts on the ground, periodically evaluate the impact on your project of changes in those conditions, and revise (as necessary) your war aims to reflect the new reality.  Otherwise you may find that you’ve won the war to preserve the Union but now must confront the evils of slavery with an exhausted army.

[Photo Credit: Russell Petcoff]


Fixing the Weak Link

LEEDM.E.1967.0032.G.13 He thought they were going to have a quiet dinner, but she arrived apoplectic.  Some of the folks who worked with her had dropped the ball on a project that was routine and should have been foolproof.

She thought they were going to have a quiet dinner, but he arrived apoplectic.  Someone had asked his help on a project, but frequently failed to send him the necessary documents — even when those documents were mentioned in the transmittal note.

This couple is headed for high blood pressure problems or, at the very least, indigestion.  I suspect they are not the only ones.

Why do simple things get messed up? Look for the weak link.  In the first instance, the weak link was between two parts of the organization that were handling a job together.  Because it was a collective effort, nobody felt responsible because everyone was (theoretically) responsible.  In the second case, the weak link lay in the person transmitting the documents carelessly.

Fixing the weak link is tough because by the time you confront it, you’re often in a towering rage.  So, the first step is to sleep on it.  If that’s not possible, at least count to 10 before commencing. Then, take a look at the procedure surrounding the weak link.  In the first case, each part of the organization had a checklist for handling their part of the process.  However, someone failed to follow the checklist. And the organization had not created a checklist to cover the handoff.  This handoff checklist could have acted as a secondary check, another chance to catch a error before it developed into a real problem. In the second case, the problem arose in…the handoff between the person sending the documents and the recipient.  They clearly did not have a checklist that the first person could follow to ensure that all relevant materials were sent to the recipient when promised.

Peter Bregman believes that problems arise in the handoff phase because of poor communication:

Most of us think we communicate well. Which, ironically, is why we often leave out important information (we believe others already know it). Or fail to be specific about something (we think others already understand it). Or resist clarifying (we don’t want to insult other people).

To address this problem, Bregman recommends that we develop and use a handoff checklist along the following lines:

Handoff Checklist

  • What do you understand the priorities to be?
  • What concerns or ideas do you have that have not already been mentioned?
  • What are your key next steps, and by when do you plan to accomplish them?
  • What do you need from me in order to be successful?
  • Are there any key contingencies we should plan for now?
  • When will we next check-in on progress/issues?
  • Who else needs to know our plans, and how will we communicate them?

Time it takes to go through the checklist? One to five minutes. Time (and trust) saved by going through the checklist? Immeasurable.

If you’re tempted to ignore the need for a handoff checklist or a checklist of any sort, take a few minutes to read this collection of sad (and in some cases, scary) stories of what happens when people fail to create or follow checklists.  If you want to learn more about checklists, read my prior post, The Value of Checklists.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that taking the time to develop and follow a checklist that addresses the weak link can save lives, save time and possibly save you from high blood pressure and indigestion.


Steve Jobs and Legal KM

Tribute to Steve Jobs 1955 - 2011 The day after Steve Jobs died, a knowledge management colleague at another law firm asked why a man who had such a profound influence on technology had seemingly little influence on legal knowledge management.  That stopped conversation for a moment.  Tongue firmly in cheek, I countered with the proposition that if Steve Jobs had turned his attention to legal technology, it would work a great deal better and be easier to use than it is.

All joking aside, my colleague’s question started me wondering about Steve Jobs’ legacy with respect to knowledge management.  After a little Google research, I must admit I haven’t found anything that Steve Jobs said directly about knowledge management.  However, I have found lots of things he said and did that legal KM should not ignore:

  • Focus on Simplicity. Steve Jobs was famous for his commitment to simplifying tools and processes. His drive to eliminate fussy, confusing buttons from the cellphone led to the iPhone. Stephen Wolfram says that Jobs stood out for his astonishing clarity of thought.  He “took complex situations, understood their essence, and used that understanding to make a bold definitive move, often in a completely unexpected direction.” Sometimes lawyers and legal KM professionals can make the error of over-complicating matters.  Steve Jobs would not approve.
  • User Experience Trumps All. Cliff Kuang, writing for Fast Company, said:  “Jobs may not be the greatest technologist or engineer of his generation. But he is perhaps the greatest user of technology to ever live….”  In short, Jobs was a “user-experience savant.” Kuang continues, “It’s not that Jobs doesn’t think like a consumer–he just thinks like one standing in the near future, not in the recent past.” Even if you don’t have someone like Steve Jobs in your firm, you can achieve better results by listening carefully to your internal clients.  Steve Denning argues that even with Steve Jobs’ famous aesthetic sense and conviction about what the customer wanted, Apple listened to its customers very carefully.
  • Plan Early for the Next Improvement. The launch of a system or application doesn’t mark the end of the project, it’s just the beginning.  Cliff Kuang describes how this fact has become reality at Apple:  “[Jobs] has taught his entire organization to play in the span of product generations rather than product introductions. Apple designers say that now, each design they create has to be presented alongside a mock-up of how that design might evolve in the second or third generation.”  Now contrast that with the plausible view that nothing much new is happening in legal knowledge management.  Things would be different in legal KM if Steve Jobs were in charge.
  • Knowledge Sharing is Essential for Innovation. There is a famous story of the visit Steve Jobs paid to Xerox’s R&D facility.  Daniel Stuhlman recounts it in the following way:

    The computer mouse and the graphical interface were invented at Xerox’s research center. Steve Jobs went on a tour of the facility and was able to get enough ideas to create a new computer software system that eventually led to Mac OS and Windows. Xerox was never able to capitalize on its own discovery. Steve Jobs did not steal an idea, he took a great idea and developed it. I wonder if Xerox had a knowledge management problem or was Steve Jobs a gifted visionary?

If you are wondering what law firm KM might look like had Apple taken an interest in it, look no further than Apple’s 1987 Knowledge Navigator.  I bet the lawyers in your firm would kill for a system like this.


[Thanks to Ron Young for reminding me about Knowledge Navigator.]

[Photo Credit: Cornelia Kopp]



Momento Mori

10-07 Store Shrines  005 Remember your mortality. That’s what the Latin phrase “momento mori” means.  It’s also the message behind  some significant art produced over the centuries.  In earlier times, the artists were not always subtle about their message regarding the inevitability of death.  They simply added a skull or another example of decaying nature to the portrait or still life they were painting.  Over the years, we’ve come to understand this symbolism when we see it.  However, nothing in art history prepared me for the symbolism of the post-it note.

We were walking to dinner late Friday night when I saw something odd on a nearby storefront:  post-it notes plastered on the store’s windows.  Below, some candles and flowers.  It was only when I got closer that I realized the store was an Apple store and the post-it notes were a tribute to Steve Jobs. Some of the sentiments expressed were trite, but all were heartfelt. The body language of the people gathered outside the store was telling as well — quiet, thoughtful, somber — they were trying to assess the scope of the loss.

Steve Jobs wasn’t coy about death.  In his famous Stanford commencement speech he told us that death had been a constant companion since he was 17-years old and read a life-altering quotation:  “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”  Jobs continues:

It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: `If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been `No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

In Jobs’ view, it was vitally important to love what you do:

You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

Stephen Wolfram wrote a very personal tribute to Jobs in which he made the following observation about his friend:

In my life, I have had the good fortune to interact with all sorts of talented people. To me, Steve Jobs stands out most for his clarity of thought. Over and over again he took complex situations, understood their essence, and used that understanding to make a bold definitive move, often in a completely unexpected direction.

Clarity of thought, doing what he loved, being passionately committed to excellence.  These are the hallmarks of this influential man.

It’s easy to think about this now and then shove it away in a drawer until another public figure dies too young.  However, that would be to do great disservice to the man and to the message.  For myself, I suspect that whenever I see a post-it note, I’ll be reminded of why it’s important to do great work, to do work that I love.

The post-it note is designed to adhere and re-adhere without leaving a residue.  It is used to capture the ephemeral.  It is not meant to last forever. It’s meant for now.  On reflection, perhaps it is a very suitable medium for momento mori in the modern age.


You owe it to yourself to take a few minutes and watch this video of Steve Jobs’ commencement speech.  (His remarks start at the 7:30 minute mark.) I’ve also provided links below to the text of his speech and some additional materials.



Text:  (courtesy of National Public Radio)



[Photo Credit: Pelcinary]