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ISO certification for law firms

|Written By Judy Van Rhijn

When an organization wants to provide consistent service that meets clients’ requirements and expectations, they apply for ISO certification.

Of course, there’s nothing to say that a personal injury law firm can’t join the club. In fact, one Ontario firm is now the proud holder of that guarantee of organizational excellence.

Carranza LLP is the only ISO-certified personal injury law firm in Canada. It attained the designation in 2010. Juan Carranza says the idea sprang from a resolution made during the formulation of the firm’s 2005 strategic plan.

“We had discussions afterwards as to whether it was appropriate given that it is regarded as being more akin to motor vehicle manufacture than to the service industry but we realized that we use a number of processes and we didn’t know how effectively they were working.

ISO certification is a tool that helps us figure out if what we are doing is an effective way of meeting our obligations to clients.”

The first Canadian law firm to obtain ISO certification was Fillmore Riley LLP in Winnipeg. Managing partner Glen Peters says the firm didn’t do it just to have the ISO logo in its lobby.

“What motivated us to do it is that it indoctrinates a culture of continuous improvement by instigating management system efficiencies and checks and balances internally. It’s an objective measure to show the outside world that we’re not just talking the talk.

We are not allowing things to stagnate. We are challenging ourselves.”

Carranza also saw it as a way to harmonize the firm’s practices. “Not every department in the firm followed the same process,” he says.

Certification also addressed a concern that the firm might not be making necessary changes promptly.

“In civil litigation from time to time, a decision will significantly affect how things are done and what documentation is required to comply with the change,” says Peters.

“The lawyers were worried that things could fall through the cracks. We might read the cases, but would that translate into changes in practice and procedure? It’s an aspect of knowledge management. We wanted to incorporate changes flowing from legislation and case law into our practice as quickly as possible.”

A consideration for other firms pondering the ISO approach may be the practice area of the firm. “It is well suited to personal injury law, for sure,” says Carranza.

“But I can see it working in other areas as well, such as real estate or corporate and commercial work where there are a set of standard steps followed regularly.”

Peters thinks there’s an even wider application. “Ultimately, we all follow processes. We all open files, diarize events, have document-management systems, and maintain technologies.

We all make decisions whether to have electronic or paper files or a hybrid of both. The actual lawyering — client interviews and the procedure you follow in the courtroom — it’s not going to have a dramatic impact on those things but behind the scenes it will.

Have you got the right person on the file? Have you done the appropriate searches? Those things apply regardless of practice area.”

Asked why a busy law firm would subject itself to the work of certification, Peters says it’s not as labour-intensive as it sounds. Carranza agrees. “There is an investment of time initially, but we already had a culture around our strategic plan.”

His firm didn’t consider taking only certain features of the designation. “If we only borrowed

certain aspects, I don’t think that would be appealing or compelling to the staff.

Having the ISO designation got buy in from the staff and translated into a marketing and public relations tool. It is a widely recognized standard that sends a message to the community that we have made an effort to improve our processes.”

Peters has noticed that other firms have adopted ISO methodologies but haven’t gone the whole way to get the designation. “They take the approach of adopting continuous improvement methodologies.

The danger is that without a system of internal audit and an outside person coming to audit, it’s easy to fall back to the normal routine.

If firms could achieve the continuous improvement without the discipline of the designation, that’s great. But it also provides an objective measure that you can show to clients.”

At Carranza LLP, a consultant who has other tasks conducts the monthly audit. He effectively serves as an internal auditor. Once a year, an external auditor meets with him and reviews the reports.

Carranza isn’t concerned about the work involved in the recertification coming up next year. “Our monthly process ensures that the generation of our reports is up to date.”

Carranza has seen significant benefits within the firm. “The whole firm is more aware of the necessity for continual improvements in existing processes.

Before, the staff might not have thought it was important to bring a proposed change forward and the person it was brought to might not have thought it was important to deal with it, so then it goes to the bottom of the pile.”

Peters echoes this observation and notes that an unexpected benefit has been the empowerment of the staff. “The process is not top-down where the managing partner dictates and everyone follows that drum. It’s almost the opposite stream.

The committee suggests the best methodology and it moves up to management for approval. The secretarial or paralegal staff can suggest methods for improvement. We have lots of long-term employees and it makes us a team.”

He adds: “From my point of view — that is a management point of view — there is a twofold combination of benefits: the knowledge that we are continuing to challenge ourselves internally and an objective measure to implement efficiencies.

When responding to cases, we audit the process to ensure it is done properly. Also, an outside independent party pokes and prods us every so often.

We can’t ignore the internal process and we can’t ignore the recommendations from the outside. If they say, ‘We know you’ve been doing it this way for five years, but this way’s better,’ we have to consider it.”

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