Law Firm Adopts Lean Strategy

Members of the Wilmington Law firm Elliott Greenleaf have a discussion in one of the firm’s conference rooms at Wilmington. FROM LEFT: Paralegal Jessi A. Adkins, Counsel Theodore A. Kittila, Counsel Kenneth L. Dorsney, Associate Darcy White and Law Clerk Phil Giordano. Photo by Tom Nutter

Members of the Wilmington Law firm Elliott Greenleaf have a discussion in one of the firm’s conference rooms at Wilmington. FROM LEFT: Paralegal Jessi A. Adkins, Counsel Theodore A. Kittila, Counsel Kenneth L. Dorsney, Associate Darcy White and Law Clerk Phil Giordano. Photo by Tom Nutter

By Eileen Dallabrida

Elliott Greenleaf is a full-service law firm of 55 attorneys and has been recognized as an ALM Go-To Law Firm in litigation and labor and employment law. With offices in Delaware and throughout Pennsylvania, the firm serves a variety of clients, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to small and medium-sized businesses.

Despite its impressive track record, Elliott Greenleaf faces the same challenges as other firms, heightened as corporations struggle in a stubborn economic downturn.

“There is tremendous pressure on our clients to make certain the dollars they devote to legal work are used wisely,” says Rafael X. Zahralddin-Aravena, managing shareholder of the Wilmington office.

At Elliott Greenleaf, that reality evolved into a radical plan to generate fewer billable hours for clients, but with better value.

The concept was a natural fit, as the firm was already staffed lean and offered alternative billing. As a smaller firm, Elliott Greenleaf offers quality work at lower rates because conservative management results in lower overhead, fewer junior attorneys, greater partner involvement, less debt and a long-term view toward clients, regardless of their size. Six Sigma training – learning how to grow even leaner – was the natural next step in the firm’s evolution.

“We are taking a leap of faith that if we get better, which means fewer billable hours, we will get more business,” says Ken Dorsney, of Elliott Greenleaf.

To get the tools to refine their lean strategy, the firm took its cue from manufacturers. After all, the in-house counsel for many corporations Elliott Greenleaf represents were already versed in Six Sigma.

Zahralddin, trained as an architect, has experience in legal Six Sigma, which meant the initiative had top management’s support. His earliest Six Sigma experience was through the DuPont Legal Model©, which incorporated Six Sigma internally to its in-house lawyers and encouraged it to outside providers.

Dorsney, a mechanical engineer and registered patent attorney, received Six Sigma training at BASF while working as a production engineer in DaimlerChrysler’s Newark Assembly Plant.

Zahralddin met Jim Jones, a specialist at the Delaware Manufacturing Extension Partnership (DEMEP) through Dorsney at a Delaware State Chamber of Commerce event where they discovered common bonds.

Elliott Greenleaf looked to DEMEP for what would become a fruitful partnership, with DEMEP providing Six Sigma Green Belt training.

DEMEP suggested training the entire office – attorneys, paralegals and staff – in Six Sigma, a concept readily embraced by the firm.

DEMEP’s mission is to improve the quality, productivity and profitability of Delaware’s service, health care and manufacturing industries through process improvement, employee training and the implementation of best practices.

Originally developed by Motorola in the 1980s, Six Sigma is a structured process improvement program that enhances efficiency by eliminating time-consuming variables and waste.

Those principles can be applied far beyond manufacturing, says Steve Quindlen, DEMEP’s executive director.

“We also can help service providers, such as law firms and health care organizations, to become more efficient,” he says.

Like manufacturers, processes in law firms can be measured, analyzed, improved and controlled.

“It’s information that has to be tracked and analyzed,” Jones says. “If you can minimize the touches, you will save time and be more effective.”

Six Sigma has been adopted by at least one out-of-state, 750-lawyer firm. But the system met with resistance and took years to fully implement.

Zahralddin saw that Elliott Greenleaf, because of its agile size and management, was ideally positioned to put the principles into action quickly. The program would produce 13 Green Belts for a firm with fewer than 90 employees, approximately 15 percent. By comparison, the other pioneering firm has 75 Green Belts and one Black Belt among its 1,500 employees, only 5 percent.

“We were excited about learning the Six Sigma language and skills,” says Neil Lapinski, shareholder. “We not only can talk the talk everywhere that business people gather, we can now walk the walk.”

Zahralddin adds, “we now spoke a common language with manufacturers, and increasingly with other businesses.”

DEMEP training helped the attorneys and staff to identify and analyze the firm’s processes through an approach known as DMAIC – as in Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control – which was ultimately translated into such streamlined processes as litigation pre-suit and pre-response investigation check lists.

“When you use a checklist, you don’t think of something new a week later and say ‘we need to go back to the client,’” Dorsney says. “We can maximize time spent with clients and, in turn, lower their bills.”

DEMEP trained the group to foster focused initial conversations to extract maximum information.

“When you can react quickly to information, you do it right the first time,” Jones says. “That is far less likely if you are acting a month later.”

DEMEP training enabled the staff to develop methods to complete routine tasks quickly. Lapinski analyzed merger agreements, identifying the source of delays. The result: reduced costs, improved quality and a turnaround time of as little as one day.

Six Sigma also enables the firm to provide clients with detailed budgets, updated at milestones, a key tool in conducting a litigation risk benefit analysis.

Shelley Kinsella, a bankruptcy lawyer, is able to use metrics to identify the key points in bankruptcy litigation when a defendant is likely to spend less in a settlement.

“We are helping our clients by taking the guesswork out of costs and demystifying the legal process for them,” she says.

The principles are also applied to more complex work, providing a clear blueprint for allocating resources. In short, the firm saves clients money by determining the most effective mix of higher-cost hours by senior attorneys and lowercost hours by associates and paralegals.

“Because the process identifies what work is more efficiently mine, I have a clear grasp of my responsibilities,” says paralegal Kristin McCloskey. Adds paralegal Jessi Adkinds, “our work is more satisfying and involves us more with the clients and the cases.”

Taking care of routine work more efficiently translates to more time to devote to creative problem solving, Zahralddin says.

Attorney Ted Kittila applies DMAIC to the early steps in corporate litigation, sharpening the processes in the early stages so resources can be preserved for a more expensive fight later. The firm now tailors processes more closely to individual clients, using the data they have collected to fine tune their approach.

That is impressing clients. Recently, Elliott Greenleaf made a pitch to an unsecured creditors’ committee representing trade creditors in the bankruptcy of a large manufacturer of building materials.

“There was an immediate connection when we told them our entire office was in the process of completing Six Sigma training,” Zahralddin says. “In fact, all of the steel producers and the transportation logistics provider were fluent in Six Sigma and were fascinated that our firm was applying the concept to legal services.”

Elliott Greenleaf won the engagement by outlining how they would represent the client in the most efficient and effective manner.

“The bottom line is we could show them that we would not be wasting their money,” Zahralddin says, “and that is precisely what they were looking for in a law firm.”