I recently spoke with Professor Dan Linna, Professor of Law in Residence and the Director of LegalRnD – The Center for Legal Services Innovation at Michigan State University College of Law. I wanted to hear his thoughts on the meaning of lean innovation, lean thinking, and his experience teaching lean thinking to law students. Dan Linna is also very well known, of course, for his leading and groundbreaking expertise in the area of lean thinking as applied to the delivery of legal services. 

How would you define legal innovation?

Well, for starters, you could look to other verticals to define innovation. But we need to think about innovation in terms of where we are in the legal industry. There is a tendency to go for the home run. I don’t disagree about the need to look for ways to enact broad systemic change. But part of the problem in the legal industry is that over the years we really haven’t been doing the kind of work needed to continuously improve. In most other industries, much more has been done to systematically improve products and services over the years. In other industries, markets and competition have driven change. That’s not the case in the legal industry, for the most part. If we just sat down and looked at things we currently do and became more client-centric, e.g. how can we get more efficient, improve quality, get our clients get better outcomes, we would find many opportunities to provide greater value to our clients. Right now, there are too many looking for the home run and not enough looking at things scientifically and systematically, through the use of metrics and continuous improvement, for example. Larry Keeley, who wrote “Ten Types of Innovation,” says that innovation is more about discipline than it is creativity. We need to get much more disciplined in the legal industry when it comes to innovating and improving the delivery of legal services.

What is the biggest misconception about lean thinking as applied to the legal industry?

People tend to think that it is just about eliminating waste. But lean thinking, as embodied in the Toyota Way, is about much more than that. The twin pillars are continuous improvement and respect for people. Respect for people, if you embrace the Toyota Way and create a learning organization, requires coaching and developing people to be the best that they can be. We don’t spend nearly enough time mentoring and coaching people in the legal industry. Lean also calls for going to “gemba,” the place where the work is done and engaging with the people doing the work. While improvement and innovation initiatives require strong leadership and commitment from the top of organizations, the value is not produced in boardrooms. We need to go where the work is done and engage the people doing the work. This is not limited to engaging the lawyers. We need to work with paralegals, administrators, technologists, marketing professionals—everyone involved in delivering legal services.

Lean thinking also requires us to be client-centric. Clients define value, not the lawyers. For our innovation projects in my classes, we use the Improvement Kata. The foundation for the Improvement Kata, like design thinking, agile, and many similar disciplines, is the scientific method. It requires us to identify a problem or challenge, gather facts and data about the current condition, and from there experiment our way to achieving our goals. The Improvement Kata forces us to identify our assumptions and prevents us from jumping to conclusions. Too often someone proposes an idea, it’s deemed a “good” idea, and it’s implemented. But we need to test our ideas before blindly implementing them. In Silicon Valley, you might talk about “fail fast.” It’s the idea that we don’t want to pour resources into an idea only to find that it doesn’t move us closer to meeting the challenge. I prefer to frame this as “learn fast.” For example, if we think that we can build an expert system to automate a legal task, what’s the simplest way that we can test that idea? It should not involve spending $100,000 over three months. Can you map the workflow? Can you create a draft of the desired output? Can you create a checklist of standards and best practices? Can you interact with potential customers and get them to role play how it would function? You can learn fast doing these things. You’re forming a hypothesis, testing your ideas, and then analyzing the gap between expectations and results. Plan-Do-Check-Act. That’s how we test our ideas, learn, and continuously improve and innovate.

“But we’re not producing widgets, Dan,” many lawyers protest. They say lawyers don’t have the luxury of “failure.” The biggest problem with this approach is that it prohibits learning. If we do not surface our mistakes and rigorously assess our performance and test our ideas for improvement, we cannot learn, continuously improve, and innovate. These objections also ignore how lean thinking is implemented in other industries. Auto manufacturers do not risk the safety of their employees, customers, or society. Hospitals use lean thinking and related disciplines not only to improve efficiency but also to improve quality and patient outcomes. In law, we’re not doing rigorous retrospectives to assess how we can do better. We generally have ways of doing things—often many different ways of doing the same thing even inside of the same organization—and we just keep doing them that way. It’s time for lawyers to recognize that our ad hoc approaches result in mistakes and harm to clients, at a minimum harm in that we fail to continuously improve and produce greater value for clients. This must change. Lawyers must scientifically, systematically continuously improve legal-services delivery not only to be more efficient but also to improve quality, obtain better outcomes, and create greater value for clients and society.

What has it been like teaching lean thinking?

There are certain parts that are easier teach than others. Process mapping, for example, is a common activity that you see in workshops. It is a great tool, especially if you have the people who are closest to the work in the room with you. You want to understand the process, but the real benefit is getting the right people together in the same room working together. But you can only accomplish so much in a classroom or workshop process mapping. Where we have been most successful is getting students, who have learned lean thinking principles, out of the classroom and into organizations to work with them. For example, we’ve done a couple of projects with local courts and legal aid organizations. Most recently, Jordan Galvin, our LegalRnD fellow and Innovation Counsel, led a project helping to assess and implement an eviction diversion program in a local court. We didn’t just function as consultants. Jordan, two students, and I worked closely with Chief Judge Alderson and her staff to map the process, establish metrics, including for outcomes, and gather data. This semester in our LegalRnD capstone class, Jordan and I working with student teams on innovation projects with Perkins Coie, Akerman, Davis Wright Tremaine, and Michigan Legal Help. We are using ThinkSmart and Neota Logic to automate processes and documents and build expert systems. The student teams are working closely with the project partners, mapping processes, learning about the current condition, and doing Plan-Do-Check-Act cycles while Jordan and I lead them through the Coaching Kata. It is great to have the students working with practitioners on real world problems. It’s also great to have a lab setting in which we’re working on both commercial and “access to legal services” projects side by side. It’s a win-win-win all around.

What are your thoughts about the future for lawyers and legal technology?

Technology can help lawyers become more efficient, improve the quality of their work, and generate better outcomes for clients. Technology can help lawyers increase access to legal services for everyone. For many people, lawyers are inaccessible and irrelevant. We have to change that. But technologists are not waiting for lawyers to become more proactive. Technologists are out in front of lawyers in many ways. I believe that lawyers can contribute a lot of value not only to improving legal services but as participants on multidisciplinary teams solving wicked problems. But lawyers have to embrace a people, process, data, and technology approach and demonstrate tremendous leadership and a clear value proposition to earn a seat at the table.