How to Get the Most Value from Legal Document Work

By Ivy B. Grey, Vice President, WordRake.

If your organization cuts cost but doesn’t increase value, then you’re doing transformation wrong. This is a sign you’re adding complexity and processes that clients don’t want to pay for and your lawyers hate. But don’t give up. It is possible to ease burdens, elevate work, and satisfy clients simultaneously. The key is implementing improvements that increase value from the client’s perspective. To do so, it’s time to move our focus from process to value. Take a holistic approach to workflow improvement by using the value stream framework.

Changing How We Approach Change

Law firms and their clients are fed up with failed change initiatives. Each initiative is bigger and more intense, yet nothing seems any better. In fact, it may seem worse. That’s because our past attempts to improve have led to local optimization, which is counterproductive to adding value. When we locally optimize, we apply process improvement principles to our own work, doing what’s best for us as individuals, without regard to how our deliverable fits into the whole. At best, our improvement is superficial. At worst, it’s detrimental to broader goals. The result is that the firm suffers and clients get less value. Without understanding the source of the problem, clients demand discounts, firms increase cost-cutting and process complexity, and the cycle repeats.

We won’t solve this problem by blindly adding more process. Instead, we must rethink our goals using a bird’s eye view of our workflow and a shared vision of who our work is meant to benefit. Putting the client first gives our work purpose and direction.

Value stream optimization is a change management strategy that helps us to optimize holistically, deliver value to clients, and maintain the most important work of the legal profession. This framework aligns lawyers and clients against waste and offers a unified vision where everyone in the legal ecosystem benefits and quality increases.

Seeing Value from the Client’s Viewpoint

A value stream is an end-to-end series of linked processes that chronologically combine to deliver value to a client. When mapping a value stream, include the individual tasks that make up a process and connect those processes in a way that shows how each person’s work contributes to creating value. The value stream map will reveal three types of work: primary value-creating activities, secondary value-supporting activities, and waste. Value-supporting activities facilitate activities that create core value.

Core value is everything that a client would pay for if they knew the price tag for the work. Value is defined only from the client’s perspective, regardless of how much effort it took or how it felt to employees to create it. The client’s recognition of value gives the work purpose, which defines the value stream. A value stream cannot exist without the client’s perspective.

Identifying the value stream will naturally reveal inefficiencies and waste in your process. It will also help you see which activities are strategically relevant and can be emphasized or optimized to produce more value for clients going forward.

A New Framework for Legal Work

If you think the value stream framework is the same as standard process improvement, think again. To demonstrate, let’s apply the value stream optimization concept to legal document creation. Many firms have invested in improving document creation but haven’t achieved the desired results. Document creation processes are still full of waste: defects, non-utilized talent, overproduction, and extra processing. Value stream optimization gives us a new tool to map and tackle these problems.

Without the value stream framework, we can’t see that a single deliverable (a legal document) intertwines core-value work and value-supporting work. As a result, we treat both types of work the same. Flattening document creation work to fit into the process improvement framework leads to top-down imposition of stifling new processes and causes lawyers to overwork visible problems that may not be high-value problems.

In contrast, value stream analysis will help you disentangle the activities that go into a document deliverable and divide them into core work and supportive work. Then your goal will be to elevate the core work and optimize supportive work.

Applying the Value Stream Framework to Legal Documents

When applying value stream analysis, remember that the form of the deliverable is secondary to its function, even though they seem to be the same thing. In law, the tangible deliverable is the document, but a client hires a lawyer for advice—the document is just the container.

Legal advice is a core value clients pay for, and the steps to build a document (writing, formatting, editing, and proofreading) are value-supporting activities (though the cycle of thinking and writing can also create value). Therefore, while our legal advice must be unassailable, our documents must merely be as good as possible. But the document form and the words in it are not unimportant—they support the core value that lawyers provide. Some document defects undermine the core value; others only affect secondary value.

An example of a document defect that affects the core value of a lawyer’s work would be a typographical error that conveys the wrong parcel or results in an unenforceable money judgment because it is in the wrong debtor’s name.

An example of a document defect that affects secondary value would be an error of citation form (but not substance or validity) or a rambling document filled with legalese that people dread reading. Correcting these errors is important because they can distract from and detract from the core value work. However, resolving and avoiding these errors is work best left to machines, not humans.

We cannot treat both types of document defects as equal or avoid them in the same way. When we insist on equal treatment, we are saying that supporting work is equal to value-creating work and equally deserving of human attention. Humans are not the best solution to every problem and our work is not devalued when we admit that.

Clients define what value is, and they would agree that the price tag for hunting for typos is not one they would pay if they knew how many hours went into that work. Clients would be more satisfied if we spent our time serving as trusted advisors tailoring our legal advice to be as useful as possible in a given business or personal context.

Mapping Value Streams in Knowledge Work

Value stream mapping is useful in knowledge work because it makes complex, invisible workflows visible and cohesive. With this end-to-end view of process, information, and purpose, everyone can work better together to deliver more value.

Improving knowledge work is challenging but worthwhile. While knowledge workers often resist process improvement and automation efforts, they may be more open to changes designed through value stream optimization because it creates a shared vision, allows flexibility, emphasizes value, and scales improvements so they outpace complexity. If we merely implement more process, we reduce flexibility and add more work for humans, which is not what clients would want.

Overcoming Skepticism to Align Goals

If transformation were easy and comfortable, lawyers would not resist it. So why have we resisted for so long? As change leaders, we’ve sold the wrong story. We’ve conflated value with process, and made process synonymous with automation. Therefore, if lawyers could find any reason that automation wasn’t ideal, then they could topple any transformation effort.

The reasoning went something like this: Transformation is bad because it means automation. Automation reduces the value of lawyers. If we can find any flaw in the idea, then we defeat any initiative presented and protect lawyer work. Some obvious issues with automation are that legal work is multifaceted and many parts are never repeated. So, historically, lawyers claimed their work was unknowable, undefinable, and built on tacit knowledge that comes together as know-how. However, that’s just knowledge work. It’s not unique to law and the elevate/optimize plan (elevating value-creating activities and optimizing value-supporting activities) has been successfully applied for other knowledge workers like software engineers. The mixed aspect of knowledge work makes it even more important to analyze and optimize it.

Still, this argument worked. With the strategic goal of opacity, lawyers worked accordingly: without a plan. For years, this approach insulated lawyers from critique and commodification. However, that protectionist approach meant that the only levers lawyers could pull were more hours or deep discounts. We’ve now made so many cuts and added so many work hours that anything more is unworkable, and an approach that once protected lawyers is now limiting them.

We’ve followed this path for so long that lawyers and their clients are at odds with each other. We cannot resolve this problem unless we define value together. Value stream optimization will empower lawyers to play a more deeply consultative role and become a trusted advisor.

Starting a Client-Focused Value Journey

As with all transformation efforts, you need a quick win. Ideally, choose an identifiable process you understand well that has set standards or methods (for example, the legal document creation process, as discussed in the Effectiveness Project). The right quick win won’t feel limiting and will immediately tackle waste. You’ll know you’ve found the right value stream to optimize when you can easily imagine relief from your lawyers and delight from your clients.

To improve chances of successfully transforming lawyer knowledge work, implement a program with a flexible structure that feels invisible to the lawyer. While the new method must yield better results, it ideally should be as similar as possible to the current method, so lawyers feel they can still work in their own way.

Because creating documents is necessary work, with a mix of value-creating and value-supporting activities, you’ll want to separate the work into elevate/optimize categories: value-creating activities to be elevated and value-supporting activities to be optimized. Technology can lighten the value-supporting workload so humans can devote more time to preparing legal advice without reducing billable hours.

If you use technology in your value optimization journey, choose software that reliably does what humans cannot (long durations of detailed tasks with consistent results) and elevates the work humans can do (thoughtful, strategic storytelling and persuasion). Legal-specific point solutions will give lawyers a sense of relief and yield more value for clients by freeing up more time for advice and counseling. For legal documents, editing software like WordRake, proofreading software like PerfectIt, and document styling software like DocStyle are great point solutions that will fit within the elevate/optimize plan. In fact, editing software like WordRake is the ideal fit: it provides depth, breadth, and flexibility in legal editing so lawyers can maintain their work style while reaping the benefits of automation.

Let the work guide your choice: roll out software and processes that support humans, rather than creating more processes that humans must support.

Leaving Room for Future Growth

New solutions should leave room for iteration and growth. Stop looking for cutting edge end-to-end solutions and start looking for ways to ease effort for humans. One of the great aspects of working with documents is that most of us work in Microsoft Word, which has longevity and worldwide adoption, and provides the valuable connective tissue for flexible point solutions to work together. Seek solutions that fit today’s work and have enough interoperability that they will not block you from future transformation. You’ll need this flexibility—using value stream optimization, you will always discover ways to improve!

Satisfying Clients by Focusing on Value

By stepping back and looking at a value stream, rather than narrow process improvement opportunities, we encourage a holistic approach to thinking about systems and strategically align the daily activities of lawyers with generating value for the clients we serve. Using other approaches to develop and justify process constraints, lawyers could always argue that their work was unique, bespoke, and unquantifiable. But no lawyer would dare argue against creating value. With value stream analysis, we finally get lawyers and their clients on the same side of the equation.

For lawyers, the document is the deliverable, so finding a way to address value-creating and value-supporting work related to documents will have the biggest impact. If you do the value-supporting work efficiently, then you will do the core-value work effectively, and that will always satisfy clients.

About WordRake

WordRake is editing software that uses 35,000 editing algorithms to improve clarity and brevity and help convert your writing to plain English. It offers suggestions for improving readability and simplifying complex language to better serve readers and meet plain language requirements. In one click, WordRake detects jargon and legalese, unnecessary modifiers, pointless introductions, nominalizations, redundancies, cliches, usage errors, and more. WordRake stands out for the depth, breadth, and accuracy of the edits it offers for legal writers. It respects legally operative phrases and key legal content. The newest WordRake runs in Microsoft Word and Outlook, and its suggestions appear in the familiar track-changes style. A free 7-day trial is available here.

About the Author

Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the WordRake team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. During her decade of legal practice, Ivy was named a Rising Star in the New York Metro Area for five consecutive years, and her significant representations included American Airlines, Columbia House, Kodak, and Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Since joining the legal tech world, Ivy has become known for her work on technology competence, ethics, and innovation. She has a unique blend of skills and an outstanding ability to synthesize technical, business, and legal information into practical advice and actionable plans. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center.

[ Artificial Lawyer is proud to bring you this sponsored thought leadership article by WordRake. ]