Managing legal projects: a Streamlined approach

Cathy Mattis of Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP describes how Streamline, a legal process improvement service, is helping clients to define and improve processes, create efficiency and reduce risk.

Cathy Mattis, Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP

Many in-house legal teams are under constant pressure to deliver more, while at the same time their costs are being increasingly scrutinised. These conflicting demands can easily result in a reactive, rather than proactive, approach to dealing with problems. It is tempting to plough ahead with a legal project rather than spend time discussing the potential issues that could arise.

However, taking a reactive approach will add stress and uncertainty to legal projects, and increase the risk that work will be missed or duplicated, or that unforeseen roadblocks will appear. This is particularly undesirable when a team is dealing with a major project, such as a flagship acquisition or a dispute that threatens a company's reputation.

While working on a project, in-house legal teams may also struggle to invest time in additional training. Typically, an in-house lawyer will need to develop, often at short notice, commercial awareness and legal technical knowledge in relation to areas of law outside his usual expertise. For example, an in-house lawyer with a background in construction assisting on a building project may need to quickly develop an understanding of property litigation so that he can liaise effectively with external counsel on an unforeseen land dispute.

Creating a map

One way of making a legal project more efficient is for the in-house legal team to create a map of the project together with other internal teams and external professional advisers, such as surveyors or architects. Creating a map involves breaking the project down into component parts, then pinpointing the best way for the wider team to work together. It will ensure that the right things are being done in the right order, at the right time by the right people, which will save time and costs.

This approach is particularly useful for multinational companies that wish to achieve a consistent approach across their various locations, as it opens up conversations about project and process requirements, costing, resourcing, timing and communication.

The main benefit of breaking down the steps of a project is that it enables fresh thinking that creates opportunities for innovation, therefore reducing waste and building in knowledge and value. Building knowledge into the process ensures efficiency and means that businesses can achieve the outcomes that they want while securing optimum value for money.

However, creating a successful map for a legal project requires specialist process improvement and project management expertise and advanced facilitation skills. Building knowledge into the process will often involve collating know how, gathering precedents and standardising documents. Using standardised documents is important so that busy teams can build on the learning of others and maintain their organisation's position on key clauses in the market.

The Streamline approach

In October 2014, Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP launched a legal process improvement service called Streamline, which was designed to find the most efficient and effective route to delivering legal projects. The Streamline team breaks down the elements of a project then uses its expertise to pull them back together to create a map that eliminates waste and allocates resources on a cost-effective basis without compromising on client goals (see box "Example 1"). The outputs from a three-hour Streamline workshop typically include a visual map of a repeat process or one-off project and a list of improvements, both delivered within a week.

The Streamline team has gone a stage further in supporting work delivered by more junior colleagues through its legal service delivery team in Manchester. It has worked with relevant internal experts to develop bespoke documents and training for each process. It has designed knowledge that can be consumed task by task: client-specific information is also provided in a bite-sized format. Inductions are provided to guide team members who are new to a process through the detail, and the built-in knowledge offers experienced colleagues an easily accessible refresher. In addition, the team provides standardised documents, automated templates and pre-populated draft emails that can be checked, completed and sent by team members. This dramatically reduces the time spent on matters and improves consistency (see box "Example 2").

To date, Streamline has helped major clients including four FTSE 100 businesses, and has been applied to over 100 projects (internal and external) involving banks, property companies and retailers. In 2014, Streamline was Highly Commended for Innovation of the Year at the Modern Law Awards, and the firm won Most Innovative Law Firm in Client Service at the FT Innovative Lawyer Awards.

Cathy Mattis is Head of Process Improvement at Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP. She has 20 years of law firm experience, with ten years' experience as a Knowledge Development Lawyer at BLP.


Example 1

A company was developing a substantial mixed-use property in central London. As the project and asset value was almost £1 billion, and involved multiple parties, development delays would prove hugely costly. In particular, failing to meet pre-letting goals might threaten joint venture agreements and financing covenants. Projects of this scale and complexity can generate hundreds of legal issues, any of which might increase the risk of delay.

A Streamline workshop pulled together all of the stakeholders to identify issues that might delay leasing goals being met. The Streamline experts helped the in-house legal team to agree a single, structured plan for identifying and tackling issues that needed attention. This enabled the company to direct its resources in an efficient and effective way. The construction side of the project could move ahead, with the risk of lease delays more clearly known and manageable.

Example 2

A financial services business was selling thousands of residential and commercial properties that it held as security for bad loans. Their combined value was several hundred million pounds. The disposals were completing as planned, but it was taking too long for the client to receive its funds. Staff were spending time chasing payments when they could have been completing more transactions. Funds were often delayed because some of the information needed to make a transfer was missing. The high volume of deals increased the problem and different staff used different approaches, so file handovers were frustratingly complex.

A Streamline workshop created a clear, consistent sequence of pre- and post-completion actions to ensure faster and smoother money transfers. It also established a new team focused on implementing the process. This helped the business to unblock the flow of funds and cut the time taken to deal with payments by 25%, freeing the original team to focus on its main task: disposing of the properties.

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