Prioritising practice improvement

Prioritising practice improvement

James Sowry April 14, 2016 Improvement, Legal

4 considerations that will help you decide which improvement ideas to implement

Strategic planning offers a firm a great deal of guidance in positioning its goal posts. Prioritising practice improvement ideas generated through the strategic planning process is often a very real challenge. In this week's post I break down an approach for turning these plans into action.

Creating a backlog

The starting point for all improvement is to understand the full breadth of opportunities the firm has to improve efficiency, improve client service, or drive down costs.

Creating a backlog of improvement opportunities provides a record of all ideas, big or small, good or bad, which can then be prioritised. We use an app called Trello to quickly and easily, manage and prioritise backlog items, both for ourselves and the clients we work with.

Importantly you should encourage input from the entire firm.  Very often the best opportunities for improvement, particularly relating to efficiency, come from frontline staff and not from the management team.  Try running a competition or providing other rewards like coffee vouchers for anybody that contributes ideas.  Make it easy for people to contribute by using a web form and provide regular public recognition of submissions to ensure a continuous flow of ideas. Acknowledging staff contributions when an idea is successfully implemented gives the whole team the reassurance that ideas are taken seriously and some ideas really do get implemented.

Parameters for prioritising practice improvements

You may want to take a more formal approach to scoring each idea in order to prioritise opportunities. The Harvard Business Review offers an interesting outline of an assessment methodology called DICE.

However there are occasions when your team simply needs to make a call when prioritising opportunities.  Sometimes it is more important to simply get on with implementing improvements. Particularly when they are quick, cost-effective and provide short-term returns.

So what are some of the considerations for which initiatives should go to the top of the pile?  Here are some tips on how to prioritise improvement opportunities.

1. Get runs on the board

Particularly when a firm is just starting out on the continual improvement path is important for the entire firm to see something achieved in the short term, even if it is a quick and simple change.  This builds confidence in the improvement process and demonstrates commitment from the firm.  Demonstrating progress greases the wheels of ongoing improvement in the organisation.

Pick improvements that can be implemented quickly, preferably in a month or less.  Break larger projects into smaller deliverables, each of which can fit inside a four week timeframe.   This increases the psychological momentum within the organisation when you can report that things are getting done.  Make sure you tell everybody whenever something is achieved.

2. Do only what is possible

Too often firms undertake projects despite lacking the internal technical capability and time required to achieve a cost-effective and successful result. Pick the improvement opportunities where the firm already has the expertise required to undertake or supervise the work required.

Do not underestimate the time required by staff to implement change and ensure that managers make the necessary time available. Time is perhaps the biggest challenge facing any firm wanting to seriously undertake improvement.

3. What’s got buy-in from the partners

Improvements rarely work without the firm’s commitment from the highest level.  Pick improvement opportunities that the firm will be willing to fund, that is where there is a demonstrable return on the required investment, and where the necessary staff time will be made available.

For firms just starting down this path, gain the partners' support by demonstrating early successes before asking for commitment to larger initiatives.  It is just as important for the firm to build a capability to execute change as it is to make the change itself.

4. Prioritise incremental improvements over Big Bang projects

Using an agile, iterative approach allows a larger number of shorter projects to be implemented over time.  Shorter projects typically come with lower cost and less risk.  Each completed project brings new know-how to the firm and makes subsequent improvements easier to implement.

From time to time big projects are unavoidable, such as changing practice management systems or relocating an office.  Having an ingrained improvement culture will often make these larger projects easier to execute.

It’s okay to fail, occasionally.

Some improvement initiatives that ultimately provide significant benefit start out as uncertain or poorly defined ideas.  This doesn’t make them bad, it just makes them more risky.   Attempting to avoid all risk eliminates these potentially highly beneficial opportunities.  Be prepared to take on risky initiatives on the basis that the project will be cut if milestones can’t be achieved in the rough timeframes agreed, typically within weeks but not more than a few months.

Giving yourself permission to openly call a project a failure offers staff the freedom to take chances. Without staff taking some risks your firm may pay the ultimate price of restricted innovation. Don't ignore the reality that your firm will always learn more from project failures than project successes. Recognise and reward staff for trying an idea, even if it fails.


For many law firm leaders that I speak with, effectively prioritising what needs to be done first in order to effect real improvement in the firm's operations is one of the biggest challenges they face. Addressing the four considerations detailed here, whether formally or through a more casual approach, will not only help keep the firm on track to achieve the desired business outcomes, but also help establish the culture of change across the team that is so important for successful and sustained innovation.


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