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How Lawyers Can Achieve Efficiency, Client-Focused Services And Profitable Businesses

By Lilian Mateu.

How Lawyers Can Achieve Efficiency, Client-Focused Services And Profitable Businesses With The Kanban Method: A Journey To Agility

The legal services industry is going through an accelerated and highly complex transformation from which there is no going back. The globalisation of all industries, the appearance of disruptive technologies and the digitalisation of knowledge services are but a few of the challenges that we in the legal sector are facing.

The liberation of legal services has led to new players taking action, that is, from all kinds of legaltech solutions to alternative legal service providers, which have provoked an explosion of new business models that are creating a much more competitive market.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken everyone from the comfort of the office, bringing to light the real work we each do and bring to our teams and organisations. The role of offices and work spaces and the way we relate and collaborate with one another has changed for ever.

Legal services clients are mature and more demanding in all senses. They require a greater understanding of their businesses and that we align our services with their business objectives. They need legal services of a higher value, flexible and in tune with their present needs. What is more, they expect, of course, to get these with the highest quality and speed and for a lower price.

Despite the velocity of the social, economic, technological and regulatory changes over the last decades, lawyers and professionals in the legal sector are still anchored to the more traditional work styles.

The new generations of law students see this and are demotivated when faced with such an out-of-date sector. Legal services consumers are not seeing the same kind of evolution as in other services. For lawyers finding a working style that creates a work-life balance is a utopia. Team managers dedicate themselves to coordinating work through a culture of control and being as efficient as possible. Partners of law firms try to re-invent their business models with the aim of maintaining profit. The legal sector is overwhelmed with this new scenario.

Organisational and business agility is the solution

It is easy to predict that, as in all markets, only those lawyers and organisations in the sector that are quick to adapt to the new scenario, offering better solutions and services, in response to the new needs, will evolve and survive.

Only those that are resilient and reinvent themselves by, finding a new balance for all stakeholders, finding a new way to create value and generate different outcomes, will have a position in the market in the medium term.

The change must be quick. It requires new values and organisational structures to be able to offer more modern, sustainable, efficient, client-orientated, competitive and profitable services.

The greatest challenge those of us in the legal sector face in coming years is being able to create agile organisations and robust and resilient businesses that are capable of reinventing themselves.

Incorporating organisational and business agility in the legal sector means changing the way we do things. Starting with a critical review of the values that make up our culture, changing the habits we adopt, adjusting our patterns of interaction and cooperation, modernising the processes that we follow and reviewing all of the behaviour that determines the way we work.

Agility incorporates the values and principles of the so-called “Agile Methodologies”, that started around 20 years ago in the software development industry, as an alternative to the traditional project management procedures.

While the Kanban Method is not one of these original ¨Agile¨ methodologies, it is a contemporary and emerged as a response to the difficulty some organisations had with adoption of an Agile approach. Above all, Kanban integrates the culture of acceptance of change and taking advantage of this change, by adapting and evolving, aiming for continued improvement in the face of rigid work plans. Moreover, it also puts the focus on people and encourages collaboration.

It is said that the Kanban Method is an alternative path for professional services to business agility, understood as the ability of organisations to adapt to new contexts and respond quickly to constant change.

Kanban is rooted in two simple premises

  1. Rather than managing and controlling workers and blocks of time, we should manage and control quantities of work-in-progress, and let workers organise themselves around it.

  2. Rather than changing our business context to fit a defined and prescribed mode of working, we should start with how we work now, and adapt and evolve, incrementally, until we fully satisfy client expectations while operating a profitable and sustainable business.

Kanban requires us to think differently, and to adapt the culture of our organisations.

How do we deal with a cultural mindset shift?

All cultural change must be evolutionary and take place at different levels. It is not about us obsessing over implementing a disruptive and dramatic restructuring of organisations and services, or frantically adopting technology for its own sake.

Drastic social and organisational changes only serve to slow businesses down. We must be aware that to successfully manage this huge transformation, the greatest obstacle we face is always resistance to change. Moreover, what is probably the greatest difficulty for the legal sector is the lack of interest, given all that this implies, in changing the traditional business model.

Whatsoever the case, it is about us really beginning to understand our purposes and what our values are, what we are searching for and what we achieve, understanding how we work and why.

It is about analysing what we do to improve ourselves, our teams, and the organisation. It is about reflecting on what we do to understand and respond to the needs of consumers.

It is about implementing a culture of collaborative continuous improvement through organisational learning with the aim of changing the outcomes.

What is the Kanban Method?

The Kanban Method was first written about by its ideator, David J. Anderson, in the book "Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business" (2010), in which he described the management method that he had been using with his teams at Microsoft and Corbis, a stock photography & intellectual property rights licensing business.

Although the Kanban Method was created and developed in the software development services industry, David's main motivation to create the method was mainly to find a way to manage and improve professional service businesses, making them more profitable. He was inspired by concepts developed at Toyota, in their Toyota Production System (TPS), and adapted the concepts for use in professional services organizations.

In turn, the objective was to create a humane approach to change that was compatible with the human condition: to recognise that humans don´t so much resist change, as they resist being changed. David´s objective was to create the evolutionary DNA inside firms such that they were capable of adapting and being resilient in the face of changes in the markets.

The key to the method is to ensure that it is the work that is being managed and not the people. It starts from understanding that the delivery of professional services is a process, which goes from a request by the client to the delivery of an outcome. Therefore, we must ensure that we have the appropriate capacity to carry out the demand and that we manage and deliver it in the manner and time agreed to. We have to ensure that the work we carry out and the value we offer is, at all times, what is required and needed by the client.

Given that work knowledge is intangible by nature, in order to manage and improve this work knowledge agilely we have to start by visualising it, ensuring that all members of the team and the organisation literally have the “same image”. To do so, we implement the visual management of work processes, through so-called “kanban boards”. The work, represented by post-its or digital cards, has to flow through different phases of the process.

When we can see and understand how work is progressing, or not, what is causing delays or dependencies, etc. ... we are able to manage it better and over time create the so-called “kanban systems”, which are work flow systems.

Through the use of visual signals ("kanban"), we progressively limit the amount of Work In Progress (WIP), which is the work we are doing at the same time (usually too much), establishing prioritisation rules or policies.

From there, we can start creating the so-called Pull systems in which work is "pulled" (from within) only when there is available capacity to do it, instead of "pushing" (from outside) the work even when there is an overload.

The goal is always to complete the job as agilely and predictably as possible.

The benefits of applying the Kanban Method to legal services

The practical implementation of the Kanban Method in all its dimensions, not only improves legal services delivery but also manages change towards business Agility.

The application of the Kanban Method in the legal sector relieves overburdening, both for individuals and teams, reducing multi-tasking, improving efficiency and ultimately, a progressive improvement in quality and prompt delivery of customer service.

By creating a work management system based on the limitation of the activities that we carry out at the same time, we are able to work in a sustainable way. The balance between the demand for work by clients (external or internal) and the capacity of lawyers and teams becomes a reality. We are able to achieve an acceptable and sustainable rhythm of work, improving the motivation and satisfaction of the lawyers with the work carried out.

Secondly, we achieve a significant reduction in the variability in the work process, despite the standardisation of legal service being much more complicated and less accepted than in product production industries. By collecting data on the completion times of activities, it is possible to obtain patterns to improve predictability in how long a piece of work will take. In this way, we can make more reliable decisions and we can generate more confidence, by being able to commit ourselves and give an agile, fast and adapted response to different demands.

The elimination of work which adds no value, is a higher-level objective related to the economic profitability of the business. Given that in the daily provision of legal service there are endless activities that could be considered and labelled as having no real value, mostly developed by managers, they are not very easy to eradicate.

With the Kanban Method we manage to adopt a deep-rooted culture of continuous improvement. We promote and achieve the empowerment of lawyers and other professionals.

By defining objectives, continuously making small changes, making mistakes and accepting failure using the empirical data that we collect and evaluating the results, we manage to stabilise and standardise processes and achieve an evolutionary and incremental change in organisational and business maturity.

Ultimately we achieve the development of work systems based on cooperation at all levels.

In summary, the benefits that the applicability of the method offers us are:

  1. Sustainability of work

  2. Provision of customer-oriented services

  3. Business survival

  4. Continued improvement

  5. Business Strategy

Applicability of the Kanban Method to the legal sector

The Kanban Method has become exponentially popular thanks to its wide community of users in the software development services industry. Thanks to the simplicity with which it it is understood, the flexibility in its application and, above all, its success in rapidly improving results, it has spread to many service provision industries, for example, architecture, civil engineering, television & media production, advertising, market research and analysis , human resources and recruitment, financial reporting and, of course, legal services.

As it is a method or way of improving management, it is applicable to any organisation or team, irrespective of size, or the previously adopted or existing methodologies, frameworks or way of working. It does not prescribe specific development processes, nor pre-defined workflows, nor does it include new roles or responsibilities for the members of the work teams. There is never a question of using Kanban Method versus a given methodology or framework.

The values ​​promoted by the method

The Kanban Method takes as its starting point the fact that each organisation is a network of individuals, connected psychologically and sociologically to resist change. The Kanban Method recognises these human aspects.

At its heart the Kanban Method is concerned with the management of change avoiding resistance to it, starts with the Change principle of "start where you are", through which change is catalysed in an evolutionary way, respecting existing roles, responsibilities and positions.

A "big bang" transformation from a current state to a future state is not pursued, but rather the implementation of the method is based on the agreement to pursue improvement through evolutionary change encouraging leadership at all levels.

Change management should be based on fostering leadership at all levels of the organisation, that is, from the individual contributions of each person to the most senior positions.

We should not only think of leadership from the traditional roles such as those embodied in partner-directors or managers, but rather leadership based on contributions from all lawyers and other members of the organisation, who through their knowledge, experience and observations, whether this be through mere suggestions for improvement or low-level decision-making, are capable of making meaningful contributions.

The Kanban Method is guided by the principle of promoting certain values. It is motivated by the belief that it is necessary to respect all individuals who contribute collaboratively in an organisation, not only for the company’s success, but so that the transformation is worth it for everyone.

The values ​​that guide the Kanban Method are the following:

  1. Transparency, is based on the fact that openly sharing information improves the flow of business value. Having the same "vision" and using the same language, simple, clear and direct, is part of the value.

  2. Balance, in reference to understanding the different aspects, points of view and capacities, which must be balanced to be effective.

  3. Collaboration to improve the way people work together.

  4. Client-focused, internally or externally, as clients are the natural focus of the Method. In each kanban system, work flows until it reaches a point of realisable value: when customers receive their requested item or service. Customers and the value they receive is the natural focus in the Kanban Method.

  5. The flow of work is the execution of that work, the flow of value, whether it is continuous or one off piece of work. When using Kanban the flow is seen as an essential starting point when using Kanban.

  6. Leadership, understood as the ability to inspire others to action through example, words and reflection.

  7. Understanding mainly means knowing yourself (both as an individual or as part of a team) to move forward. Kanban is a method of improvement, as such knowing the starting point is the foundation of everything.

  8. Agreement, as a commitment to move forward together towards the objectives, respecting (and where possible, accommodating) differences of opinion or approaches. This is not management by consensus but a dynamic joint commitment to improve.

  9. Respect, as a summary of the other values, means valuing, understanding and showing consideration for people.

The correct implementation is the key to success

The implementation of the Kanban Method must be done on the basis of understanding that organisations and teams, regardless of their size, are interconnected ecosystems of interdependent services.

Moreover that, in the process of providing the service, the most important thing is to understand the needs and expectations of your customers and focus on them.

The first thing is to understand is that we manage the work, and not the people or resources. We must agree on working rules and impose and demand their compliance, as such these must be explicit and followed by everyone, in order to standardize processes and achieve better results for the client.

From this point on, micro-management should be avoided. We have to let the lawyers organise themselves around the tasks, respect their autonomy and demand responsibility for the results.

The results depend on how we do things, how we work. Thus, the most practical part of the implementation of the Kanban Method consists in the implementation of certain fundamental activities, called General Practices, which must be carried out for the creation and management of Kanban systems and which will vary depending on the extent of the application of the Method (for instance, whether we are dealing with one team, several teams, departments and so on).

The application of the above becomes more sophisticated depending on the level of maturity that organisations reach and, over time, an adaptive capacity is developed to respond better and faster to changes in the markets and customer expectations, thereby becoming an efficient organisational and business development and transformation tool.

The visualisation of the work and its flow allows us to absorb and process a great deal of information in a short time and improve transparency. It is the key to effective collaboration and the identification of risks and opportunities that allows us to make decisions.

On the other hand, when resources are used pushed to the limits, the result is low quality and speed is reduced. The most effective systems are those in which the focus is on work flow, not people. By limiting the work in progress, it is possible to balance the demand on the system, ensuring that the work "flows" adequately in accordance with the capacity of the people and teams, maintaining the operation in a sustainable way. Monitoring work flow and measuring results provides us with key information on how to manage customer expectations, predict risks and improve.

We make endless decisions every day about how to organise work, whether, alone, with the members of our teams, between teams or at an organisational level. All work policies must be agreed together between all parties involved, including clients. Policies must be explicit, simple, well defined and reviewed periodically.

On the other hand, we must establish feedback mechanisms to coordinate and improve the way we work and deliver service. Strengthening collective learning capacities through boards, metrics, and regular meetings and appropriate reviews, known as "cadences" are the key to evolutionary change.

The Kanban Method is a method of collaborative improvement. Through the design and common implementation of small changes, called "experiments", based on the verification of the fulfilment of hypotheses, then incorporating them or going back easily, we reach an experimental evolution.

The Kanban Method for lawyers, a journey to agility

The Method is simple to understand but not so easy to apply. Obtaining its full benefits depends on the way it is implemented, which will depend on the organisation’s level of maturity and according to the Kanban Maturity Model, along with the appropriate training and knowledge.

It must be said that it is often implemented at a very superficial level, limited to visual mana-gement system, whether physically or digitally.

Kanban University was set up in 2011, in order to establish a quality standard in the way the Kanban Method is taught and practiced. All the elements of the Kanban method, principles, values and practices, while abstract and applicable across industries, are pragmatic and actionable; applicable to any service, organisation, project, or team.

Coming soon, lawyers and professionals in the sector will be able to access to a certified training on the basics of Kanban Method, adapted to the legal sector, that will be trained by Lilian Mateu, in collaboration with Kanban University. For more information about courses you can visit Selectius or send a mail to


About the Author

Lilian Mateu is a Legal Management expert certified as Kanban Management Professional, Accredited Kanban Coach and trainer of the Kanban Method for lawyers and professionals in the legal sector. She is the founder of Selectius Projects, a firm providing training programs, coaching and consultancy on Agile Management with the Kanban Method for legal services. Following her studies in Law and Business, at Barcelona University, she completed a Master in Business Law at UPF Barcelona School of Management. Lilian worked as an associate lawyer in the tax department for Cuatrecasas in Barcelona and Lisbon, from 1995 to 2003. After that, she co-founded her own law firm, Leymar abogados, legal boutique specializing in the real estate sector, being Managing Partner for 7 years.

From 2008, she specialized on restructuring and insolvency proceedings. In 2011 she founded an auctions and sales portal for the liquidation of business assets. Since 2015, she has been focusing on web development, digital marketing and agile management methodologies, frameworks and methods, working and collaborating for a variety of companies in both the legal and digital sectors as a consultant, coach and project manager.


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