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Quality should not be an afterthought.

This is the fourth of a series of sixteen articles that will explore the relevance and, for some law firms the existential importance, of W. Edwards Deming's Fourteen Points, especially for small and midsize law firms.

"Cease dependence on inspection," W. Edwards Deming's third point for effective management, is perhaps one of the least understood principles in the context of service industries like law firms. Conventionally, it translates into the notion that quality should not be an afterthought checked through after-the-fact inspections but ingrained in every step of the production process. For law firms, this means shifting the focus from reactive measures to proactive strategies that enhance the quality of legal services by reducing or eliminating altogether the causes of mistakes and rework.

The traditional approach in many law firms is to rely heavily on a "find and fix" model, where work is done, reviewed for errors, and then corrections are made. This method, akin to inspection, is both time-consuming and inefficient. It also is a major reason for disappointing profitability, because clients simply will not pay a law firm to fix its own mistakes. The bad effects on profitability are doubled because not only does the firm have to perform unbillable work to fix the mistake, but it also loses the opportunity to use that time for other, possibly higher-value, work.

Deming's principle suggests that it is more beneficial to eliminate the causes of errors from the outset, making review processes smoother and more efficient.

To achieve this, law firms need to identify potential pitfalls in their processes that lead to errors. This could involve analyzing past cases or transactions to detect common issues, surveying employees for their insights, or even hiring an external consultant for an objective analysis. This exercise would help identify areas for improvement and potential solutions, acting as a roadmap for improving service quality.

An example of implementing this principle could be reevaluating and improving the process of legal research in the firm. If common errors are detected in the application of case law, the firm might provide additional training to lawyers or invest in more comprehensive legal research tools. The aim here would be to enhance the accuracy and efficiency of legal research, reducing the possibility of errors.

Another practical application of this principle is in document creation. Instead of relying heavily on the review stage to catch errors in legal documents, firms can implement measures to ensure that the documents are drafted correctly the first time. This could include training sessions focused on common document errors, creating standardized templates for common documents, or adopting technology that automatically checks for errors during drafting.

Furthermore, ceasing dependence on inspection doesn't mean eliminating reviews or quality checks; instead, it means that these processes become more of a confirmation of the quality of the work rather than a principal method to detect and correct errors. Reviews become less about "catching mistakes" and more about confirming excellence.

Importantly, implementing this principle requires a change in the firm's culture. It requires a shift away from a blame culture, where individuals are held responsible for errors, towards a learning culture, where mistakes are seen as opportunities to improve the system.

In essence, the third of Deming's Fourteen Points encourages law firms to build quality practively into their processes rather than reactively inspecting for and correcting mistakes. This principle, when fully embraced, can lead to more efficient processes, better service quality, and ultimately, greater client satisfaction.

Our next post: End the Practice of Awarding Business Based on Price

Norman Clark


W. Edwards Deming's Fourteen Points provide a framework for sustained growth, improved quality, and better client service. Their successful implementation will require commitment, leadership, and an ongoing dedication to improvement. The law firms that integrate these principles into their daily operations will be well-positioned for future success in the ever-evolving legal landscape.

To learn more about the Fourteen Points, consult W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis, (Massachussets Institute of Technology, 1982). Future posts in the Walker Clark World View blog, will examine the strategic relevance and practical application of each of the Fourteen Points to law firm operations and management.  

The members of Walker Clark have been guiding law firms, corporate law departments, and other legal services organizations to introduce quality management since the 1990s. For more information about how we can help you integrate the Fourteen Points into a strategy for sustainable success in quality management in your organization, contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.