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(006) Legal Therbligs: Breaking down the practice of law into measurable parts

(006) Legal Therbligs: Breaking down the practice of law into measurable parts

Many of you are familiar with the Time and Motion (T&M) study, where employees are monitored or recorded performing work tasks, and a time is assessed for each iteration of the task. In an automobile factory, this could be a task such as “install tire on vehicle.” After studying multiple employees performing the same task, managers establish a baseline for the standard amount of time it takes for the task, and can then compare individual employees’ times against the baseline. Managers set an acceptable range for employee performance, for example 15% above and 10% below the baseline. If an employee is found to be working outside the range, managers can address the issue to prevent exhaustion and remove inefficiencies.

How long does that take? (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The inventors of the T&M study were Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, industrial engineers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1908, they conceived of the therblig to analyze, quantify and streamline employee motions (therblig is “Gilbreth” spelled backwards, except the “th”). As shown in the chart above, therbligs are basic human motions and cognitions used to execute a particular task. In an example described by Frank Gilbreth in his book Cheaper by the Dozen:

…Suppose a man goes into a bathroom and shave. We’ll assume that his face is all lathered and that he is ready to pick up his razor. He knows where the razor is, but first he must locate it with his eye. That is “search”, the first Therblig. His eye finds it and comes to rest—that’s “find”, the second Therblig. Third comes “select”, the process of sliding the razor prior to the fourth Therblig, “grasp”. Fifth is “transport loaded”, bringing the razor up to his face, and sixth is “position”, getting the razor set on his face. There are eleven other Therbligs—the last one is “think”!

The Gilbreths used therbligs to analyze not how long a process took, but to determine when employees wasted effort performing tasks that did not contribute to production. Did an employee pick a part up, only to put it back down to adjust a machine, then subsequently pick the part back up again? Why? Should the bin of parts be located on the other side of the machine?

“There is no waste of any kind in the world that equals the waste from needless, ill-directed and ineffective motions.”

Frank bunker gilbreth

Obviously many therbligs are only applicable to manual tasks, such as “transport loaded”, “position” or “release load”. On the other hand, “inspect”, “avoidable delay” and “plan” can be directly applied to legal practice and legal engineering. With a bit of thought, we can come up with a few more new legal therbligs: “redline comparison”, “case status lookup” and “enter billing hours” come to mind.

The same analysis will be familiar to those working in law who have worked with process maps. Understanding the steps needed to install that car tire are readily identifiable upon watching, but tasks and processes in the service sector are much harder to lay out. As mentioned in the previous post, process mapping in law often uncovers varying opinions on how a specific task is performed, and what sub-tasks are involved. My point here is twofold: (1) you cannot streamline a process until you understand (and agree on) how it is done; and, (2) you can reassign low-skilled work to lower-skilled people or machines.

Are you sure?

Forward-thinking lawyers, legal engineers and Alternative Legal Service Providers (ALSPs) call this “unbundling” or “unpackaging”: The splitting-off of the real high-level thinking and analysis that years of training, education and experience require from the more mundane and repetitive tasks associated with it. Some problems do arise, and this is where we navigate the combination of people, process and technology. Can computers decide if someone is guilty, or should be released on parole? Should that decision be logically explainable, even if it is based on huge sets of amassed data? What about legal arguments? Can machines outperform humans when performing the therblig of “determine best precedent to cite in front of Judge X when you represent the plaintiff in a case involving subject matter Y”? (For more research on this issue, check out the decision analytics firm Gavelytics)

Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth

I would be remiss if I did not mention that many are opposed to the scientific analysis of what they consider the art of law practice. Of course, many complex legal opinions can only confidently be arrived at by legal artisans skilled in their trade. Others, however, can be arrived at more quickly and at less cost by machines. I feel it is in the interest of society to decrease the cost and increase the speed and access to the adjudication of legal matters. To that end, the American Society of Legal Engineers is soliciting input for legal therbligs, at any level of complexity. If you want to contribute to the identification and cataloging of legal tasks, please contact us.

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