For some time now, I’ve encouraged lawyers to leverage process improvement and project management to improve legal-service delivery. After I joined Michigan State University College of Law two years ago, I began to explore how applying these disciplines to career development could help us achieve our goals. Two years later, we have seen a 13.64% improvement in law graduate placement into “gold standard” jobs–full-time, long-term, bar-passage required or JD-advantage jobs.

I would not suggest that “lean thinking” deserves full credit for this improvement. First and foremost, I had the pleasure of working with a great career development team. We also engaged with and received great support from the dean, faculty, staff, board of trustees, alumni, and others. But “lean thinking” played an important role in our transformation of career services. At a minimum, it provided a framework and disciplined approach to improving our delivery of services and building a lean, “continuous improvement” culture.

Our “lean systems thinking” coach, Jim Manley

Jim Manley delivering a lecture to the Litigation {Data, Theory, Practice, & Process} class at Michigan State University College of Law.
Jim Manley delivering a lecture to the Litigation {Data, Theory, Practice, & Process} class at Michigan State University College of Law.

About the time I began teaching at MSU Law as an adjunct professor, I met Jim Manley, then the Managing Director of the Demmer Center for Business Transformation at the Eli Broad College of Business at MSU. Jim learned and practiced lean over several decades in the automotive industry. While he worked at General Motors, he had the privilege of working with Dr. W. Edwards Deming, who is well known as a founder of the quality movement and Plan, Do, Study, Act (P-D-S-A), often referred to as Plan, Do, Check, Act (P-D-C-A).

When I was teaching as an adjunct, Jim lectured about lean to our Litigation {Data, Theory, Process, & Practice} class. He and I also did presentations on applying lean to legal-service delivery. For all of the reasons that lean can transform legal-service delivery, I knew it would produce results when applied to career services.

Before my first day as the Assistant Dean for Career Development at MSU Law, I began consulting Jim about applying “lean systems thinking” to improve the services the Career Services Office (CSO) delivered to students and employers. In our second year, Jim was our coach and attended our weekly “lean systems thinking” meetings.

What is Lean?

Jim uses the following succinct definition:

Lean is getting the most value for the customer using the least amount of resources with the shortest overall lead time.

1. Value is defined by the customer.
2. Lean can be applied to any process that provides a product or service

Lean aims to maximize value for customers by eliminating “waste.” But lean is not only about efficiency, it is also improving quality. And the greatest benefits come from lean not when it is used for one-off projects, but when it is part of a transformation into a “lean systems thinking” organization.

Applying Lean From the Beginning

Initially, we tackled several prime candidates for process improvement in the career services office. For example, we implemented online appointment scheduling, eliminated processes that required students or employers to fax or mail information to us, and created online forms and registration systems wherever possible.

Email was a significant pain point. Nearly everything was run through email. Our inboxes overflowed with student and employer emails, as well as lengthy internal email threads that we used to manage projects and share files. Many in the legal industry feel the pain inflicted by running our businesses with email. We needed a better way.

To eliminate unnecessary email exchanges with students and employers, we improved existing online systems and forms and added new ones. We leveraged our student-management software and Google Apps, primarily Drive, Docs, and Forms. We followed the Plan-Do-Study-Act process, quickly implementing experimental solutions and rapidly iterating to improve processes and reduce errors and loop backs.

We implemented Basecamp, an online project management and collaboration tool.

Internally, we implemented Basecamp, an online project management tool, for communicating and managing projects. Basecamp greatly improved our communication, collaboration, efficiency, and effectiveness. We no longer wasted time searching for information in emails. All relevant communications took place in Basecamp and related files were stored there or connected via Google Drive. Basecamp made it easy to manage projects and create and reuse checklists for common tasks. Most importantly, the CSO team embraced Basecamp and fully utilized it to improve everything that we do in career services.

Throughout this process we also implemented several new and expanded existing programs that, according to our data, contributed to improving student employment outcomes. We upgraded our on-campus recruiting program, implementing two one-week sessions, similar to other Big Ten law schools. We moved to greater advisor specialization, such as assigning one advisor to oversee judicial clerkship advising. We also expanded on-demand advising, getting out of our offices and into high-traffic areas around the law school to interact with students. We made a point of being visible and available.

We ran a social media contest for students in 2014-15, which we repeated in 2015-16. The CSO and LegalRnD  together brought Kevin O’Keefe, LexBlog founder and CEO, onto campus to lead social media workshops for students and practitioners. Our office also significantly increased social media messaging, including through Facebook and Twitter, to establish a presence where our students spend time.

#MSULawSM Contest 2015
2015 MSU Law Social Media Contest winners, other contestants, and judges.

Communicating Clear Standards for Resumes and Career Success

One of our career development goals was for all students to have excellent resumes, cover letters, and LinkedIn and Twitter profiles. Our existing materials provided general guidance on resumes, but they were lengthy and overly flexible on many items, leaving best practices in doubt. Shortly after I started at MSU, as I read Gemba Kaizen by Masaaki Imai, it struck me that to eliminate these “defects”–that is, student resumes in circulation that were not as good as they could be–we needed to distill our general guidance into clear best practices and standards.

To accomplish this, we created checklists for resumes, cover letters, LinkedIn, Twitter, networking, and interviewing, which we later tied together with a Career Readiness Guide. We distributed them not only to students, but also to the faculty as student-advising guides. Our aim was for everyone in the building to be equipped with the same playbook.MSU Law LinkedIn Guide

Getting a Career Jumpstart–Before Day One of Law School

For incoming students, we launched a “Summer Career Jumpstart” program, which started in May, well before classes began in August. Our message was that students, with the help of our career development team, need to start developing a plan for career success before Day One of law school. We taught them about traditional and nontraditional careers, the competencies employers value, the evolving legal landscape, resumes, cover letters, LinkedIn, Twitter, and their online presence. Students read “The Startup of You” and began developing a career plan.

We brought in second- and third-year law students to provide “level one” feedback on incoming students’ resumes and LinkedIn profiles. It would have been very difficult to do this without the standards and checklists that we developed. With the checklists, students received consistent advice from our advisors and student assistants.

We believe that this early involvement with students will not only improve future placement but also help students do the self-assessments that leads to them pursuing positions that are a good fit for them. Importantly, students need to learn to do this work not only to land their first job, but to succeed in their careers over the long haul.

The “Summer Career Jumpstart” program complemented “Career Jumpstart”–networking events designed to connect the CSO and students with alumni in major markets. We held events in Chicago, Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Detroit, among other places. We held virtual programs for many other cities, having alumni appear via video conference for students gathered at the Law College.

Kevin O'Keefe at an MSU Law social media workshop.
Kevin O’Keefe at an MSU Law social media workshop.

Weekly “Lean Systems Thinking” Meetings

The pace of our progress accelerated when we began weekly “lean systems thinking” meetings last summer. Jim Manley graciously agreed to join us as our lean coach. Daniel Elliott, then a LegalRnD Innovation Intern in his last year of law school, also joined our team and helped on many projects. Jim’s student Marie Brosnan, a packaging major in her junior year, worked closely with us. Third-year law student Chelsea Rider and LegalRnD Innovation Counsels Tyler Soellinger and Andy Ninh assisted on several projects, Andy having done significant work with Deborah Almasy to implement Basecamp.

Each week before meeting, our team read an article or a book chapter, including chapters from Lean Thinking by Womack and Jones and The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. Our goals extended beyond efficient, high-quality processes; we aimed to develop a lean, “continuous improvement” culture.Lean Thinking

We identified our business imperatives (i.e., goals) and created value-stream maps of students’ interactions with career services during their three years of law school. We also created process maps of the services that we provided to students and employers. This was all done to maximize the value provided to students and employers. We eliminated tasks and processes that did not produce value, allowing us to make the best use of our resources.Checklist Manifesto

We created metrics to operationalize our business imperatives. Consistent with lean’s emphasis on visuals and transparency, we posted a large dashboard on the main wall in the career services office. On the dashboard, we set out our goals, including for placement rates and other key metrics, and tracked our daily progress toward achieving them. Everyone on our team knew where we stood, the same as every student, professor, administrator, and alumnus who walked into our office.

13.64% Increase In “Gold Standard” Job Placement Over Two Years

In our first year, 66.17% of 2014 MSU Law graduates reported gold standard jobs–a 9.36% increase over the percentage reported for 2013 MSU Law graduates. We achieved this increase despite the class size increasing from 301 to 331 graduating students. This last year, 70.45% of 2015 MSU Law graduates reported gold standard jobs–a 4.28% increase over the prior year and 13.64% increase over two years ago.

These numbers reflected a significant improvement relative to other law schools. (This comparison is important because some portion of the increase is likely attributable to, among other possible causes, the reporting period having been extended from nine to ten months.) According to Law Jobs by the Numbers, for 2013 graduates, MSU Law was at number 157 compared to other law schools based on the percentage of graduates landing full-time, long-term, bar-passage required or JD-advantage jobs by the reporting date. For 2014 graduates, MSU Law moved up to 138. For 2015 graduates, for whom the reporting period ended on March 15, 2016, MSU Law landed at 109.

Career Services Dashboard
Career Services Dashboard

Onward and Upward

I am extremely proud of the excellent Career Services Office team that I assembled: Maria Jandernoa, Deborah Almasy, Beth Wickwire, Jill Roberts, Mary Bowen, and Amy Krieg (listed in the order they were hired). They have met every challenge and, with their many talents and dedication, we accomplished a lot together. I will miss working with them now that I am spending 100% of my time teaching and as the director of LegalRnD – The Center for Legal Services Innovation.

We as a CSO team celebrated this improvement in placement outcomes, while at the same time committing to continued improvement of our services. Neither our CSO team nor our MSU Law colleagues are satisfied with where we stand. We’re not only committed to improving these numbers, but also continuing to improve the overall value we provide to students, alumni, and employers. True to the iterative, “continuous improvement” nature of lean, the CSO team is already implementing additional improvements that will greatly contribute to future successes.