Karen Skinner/ Bringing Business Innovation to the Legal Practice

Karen Dunn Skinner is a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and a senior attorney with over 20 years of experience practicing law in Canada and Europe. She combines her deep understanding of the legal industry with her training in Lean Six Sigma to provide practical solutions to the competitive and budgetary pressures on practitioners and clients alike. 

Karen is an expert in Lean and process optimization and co-founder of Gimbal Canada Inc. Her work adapting Lean’s business improvement strategies to the legal industry has made her a recognized leader in legal practice innovation. She’s taught Lean and process improvement to thousands of lawyers and legal professionals, and led process improvement projects in law firms and legal departments across North America.  

Karen has a B.Sc. (Honours) from Queen's University, an LL.B./B.C.L. from McGill University’s Faculty of Law, and certification as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and Lean Six Sigma Sensei from Villanova University. Karen was a member of the Quebec Bar for over 20 years.

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1.     Let’s start with the basics. What are you doing now? In a sentence or so, describe your work/practice(s).

 

I’m not practicing law now. I recently even let go of my membership at the Bar. However I still work with lawyers all the time. I work as a management consultant in the legal industry. I work with lawyers in law firms, legal departments and government departments across North America helping them become more efficient. I use Lean and Lean Six Sigma  process improvement strategies. Many businesses that are in manufacturing and other services have actually been dong this for 20 years. Law is a little late to the party. It’s using a different way of looking at what you do, looking at legal practice, what value you’re adding, what wastes there are in the work you want to do. Essentially, it’s about delivering more value for clients with less waste. 

We help lawyers achieve better productivity, more efficiency and more streamlined processes. We look at things like how you deliver a legal service like an M&A transaction or the way you do your expense reporting at the end of the month. We look at  both the business and administrative side of the practice of the law and the substantive practice of the law. 

I do this work through Gimbal, a company I founded with my husband, also a lawyer and McGill grad, who spent over 20 yearsworking in big law firms and as general counsel. 

 

2.     Did you always imagine yourself going to law school?

 

No, I never imagined myself going to law school. I have an undergraduate degree in Life Sciences from Queen’s University. I specialized in immunology and microbiology. 

I got to about 3rdyear and looked out at all the people who were psychotically pulling their hair trying to get into medical school. I didn’t like the level of competition, I felt people were so driven they were losing the point. I thought, “I can’t do that for 4 years through medical school”. I decided to do something less competitive and less stressful. I had no idea what that would be. I was working in laboratories most of the time. I decided I needed more people. In the immunology labs there were not a lot of people involved. 

 

So I decided to apply to law school. I didn’t know a single person in law school. I didn’t know a single lawyer.  To this day, I am still not entirely sure why I applied to law school, but I did. I wrote the LSAT, got in the 95thpercentile, so I thought, “OK maybe this is the right thing to do,”. I knew nothing about which were good law schools. I chose to apply to schools based on their proximity to the ocean or skiing, and ended up at McGill. 

 

3.     At what moment did you realize you wanted to take your legal education and career in your own direction? 

I started going in a different direction from the beginning, not always out of practice but in a very different direction. I was working with Heenan Blaikie here and going to bar school. My partner was working for Stikeman Elliott, and Stikeman decided to send him overseas to Hungary While David was there, the managing  partner in the Budapest office called me and offered me a job. I left Heenan, moved to Stikeman, and practiced law in Budapest. That was very different from many of our classmates. 

 At the time, Stikeman represented the Hungarian government in the privatization of the electricity industry. I ended up working predominantly with the regulators, helping develop the regulatory framework. For a brand new lawyer it was an amazing legal experience. I spent 8 hours a day in the regulatory offices working with another Hungarian lawyer and Hungarian energy experts to develop a set of regulations and procedures for this industry. I knew nothing about electricity going in. I learned a lot of Hungarian, a lot about the energy industry, and a huge amount about drafting regulation. I didn’t know that I would like regulatory law, but I did. I really enjoyed that work a lot.  

I worked on other things while I was in Hungary, but predominantly my main focus was this regulatory work, supporting the Hungarian Energy Office. I absolutely loved it. It was an incredible opportunity—to have that much exposure to clients as a junior lawyer. It was also an incredibly time to be in Eastern Europe. This was 1994 to 1996. Things were really new and fresh in Hungary. We saw Viktor Orban at the beginning, when he just started Fidesz. Now he’s gone in a very different direction…he started out so well. 

The Stikeman office quickly grew to become one of the largest firms in Hungary. We partnered with a Hungarian firm, and they also grew quickly. Together, we did a great deal of the privatization work, and other corporate/commercial work as well.  

We had great lawyers from Stikeman’s Toronto offices but the core of the lawyers came from Montreal. I think one of the reasons was that people from the Montreal office had additional skills that made it easier to function in a foreign country. We already all spoke more than one language. Being surrounded by another language all the time didn’t faze us, and most people learned enough Hungarian to get by. 

 Also, we were all used to working in more than one legal system. That made a big difference. The Hungarian system is civil law, as is our system here. Most countries that were trying to buy into the electricity industry were also civil law jurisdictiona. We had an ability to work across systems and we were used to looking at things through a comparative optic. We could build transaction documents that worked that way. I really believe coming out of this trans-systemic system, withexposure to multiple legal systems, made it easier to work overseas. 

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4.     What were the steps you took and opportunities you seized in order to get where you are?

 

A bit like my decision to go to law school, where I am now evolved out of a series of decisions that were never really focused or planned. Going overseas was an opportunity; I took it. Going from there to London was an opportunity to study; I took it. Coming back to Canada was something that had to happen. We moved back after almost 10 years overseas.  It was just time to go back. But because I had worked with clients overseas, I used that experience to build a practice here. 

In my private practice, I did corporate finance work for clients in Central and Eastern Europe. I supported their multi-jurisdictional transactions. Essentially, I acted as a legal process outsourcer. They would send me their letters of intent and the terms, I would build the transaction documentation. Whether it was to sell companies in the Czech Republic , Turkey, Holland or Cyprus….I did all the paperwork. Corporate finance transactions involve a lot of mergers and acquisitions and different types of commercial transactions. I did that from here for my clients in Eastern Europe. I still really liked regulatory law so I was also involved in some regulatory work in Canada as well. I worked with schools and school boards. 

Then, I decided I wanted to get back into a law firm environment but I didn’t necessarily want a Big Lawpractice. Around the same time, my partner’s business was shifting. He had been at Stikeman, and then at Freshfields in London, and finally worked in-house as general counsel for 10 years. He was also looking for something else to do. Through his practice he had become convinced that there was a way a better way to deliver legal services. I’d been working in my own entrepreneurial way to deliver services differently. Together we decided to explore this. I took courses in Lean and Lean Six Sigma. We determined that they could work in the legal industry. We have now spent the last 6 years adapting basic business management and improvement strategies to our law, to help solve problems in service delivery. These strategies are already being used in other industries, including financial services and healthcare. We just adapted them to the industry we know best, which is law. 

 

5.     What makes your current practice “lawfully uncommon”?

 

It’s not a practice! It’s definitely lawful but it’s uncommon. I think we’re probably the only ones in Canada doing this, but we have some competitors in the US. We teach lawyers and other people working in law firms (professionals, people in the back office who support the profession and make it possible for lawyers to do what they do). We speak, we teach, we deliver conferences, and we work directly with law firms and in-house legal departments. We facilitate process improvement and practice management projects. We travel all over North America (we have a terrible carbon footprint, I’ll have to plant a lot of trees). If you look at my practice overall, it was pretty uncommon from the beginning. 

 

6.     Is there anyone influential in your life that helped you realize your goals? Mentors or role models in the field that inspired you?

 

I don’t think I had any mentors. I’ve kind of done my own thing. I didn’t have a mentor in law school, I had professors I liked in law and in my science degree, but I can’t say I actually had a mentor. 

 

7.     What got your juices flowing or tickled your fancy while at law school?

 

I loved criminal law. I also liked constitutional law but I really liked criminal law. It’s funny; when I think about it I’m not entirely sure why I don’t practice criminal law. I think it’s because I had this opportunity to go overseas. When I was starting my PHD, I began by researching corporate criminal responsibility. I was trying to bring together my corporate practice and my love for criminal law. My thesis ended up shifting over time away from that for a number of reasons. I ended up looking more at how corporate governance developed because my focus was on Eastern Europe, and there wasn’t enough there to make a thesis on corporate criminal responsibility. I then started looking at the development of corporate governance structures and how they were developing in Eastern Europe.  

 

8.     What made your blood boil or made you snooze while at law school?

 

Ok, so property made me snooze, whether it was civil law property or  common law property. It has nothing to do with the Professor Glen; she was great. Property law is simply not something I enjoyed.

Your question is interesting, because what made me snooze and what made my blood boil happened in the same class. In Civil Law Property, there was one thing that still sticks with me. There was a practitioner teaching, I don’t remember his name. He wasn’t a member of the faculty.

He said something that was so appalling that I always regretted not calling him out. He was discussing the exam and he was discussing who got what marks on the exam. He was talking about what he had expected and what he had got in terms of responses. 

The professor said one student had done a really great job because he had used humour as well in his answers. The fact pattern had to do with a person with an Asian name who had bought a piece of property, and this student had underlined the letters W, O, G in a sentence in his answer. WOG was a very derogatory term for an Asian man. The professor told us it came from Wiley Oriental Gentleman. This prof thought the slur was really funny and showed the student’s creativity.

I thought it was disgusting. He was basically praising this student in front of the class for making a racist comment in an exam answer. I didn’t say anything because I’d done so badly on the exam and the professor was so unpleasant that I expected he would just say I was whining because I got a C. So I stayed quiet. And I have regretted it ever since. I should have stood up and said what I wanted to say, , “are you seriously telling me that you gave more points to a student for making a racist comment than for people who just wrote the answers to the fact pattern?” 

 So that’s what made my blood boil in law school. To the school’s credit, I’m not sure that particular man ever taught a course at the Faculty again. I am also sure it wouldn’t happen today, and if anything came close, today’s students would be braver than I was, and would stand up and call out anyone who was so innapropriate. 

 

9.     Were there challenges you faced in the transition from law school to the profession?

 

Ha, I had to learn Hungarian! 

But no I don’t think so.  Apart from that, I didn’t feel like it was a superhuman challenge. 

 

10.  Do you still see the law all around you?

 

Of course the law is everywhere, even if I don’t practice anymore. It’s in the way I think about problems, and the way I read and write. It’s in my daily work. I think about the profession, how it works, and what its future holds every day. And of course family and friends still ask for free legal advice. 

 

11.  What advice would you give to a first-year law student?

 

I think that students should realize that probably 70% of the need for legal services in this country goes unmet. If you want to really make a difference, you should be looking at ways to fix that problem. It’s a huge problem and I think to solve that there are a couple of things that students need to be looking at. 

They need to think about what they really want to do. IF they want to work in the towers downtown or on Bay Street, great; they can have successful careers and they’ll be well equipped to do that. But that is only answering the needs of a tiny fraction of the population. To solve some of the problems we have in access to justice and to learn how to have a practice that’s anything other than a big law practice, you have to learn a few different skills. 

I have a long wish list for what I think lawyers should learn. Obviously, they can’t learn everything (and certainly not in first year), but here goes: 

One of the things I think the Faculty is trying to do now is to expose students to a range of different alternatives, which I think is a brilliant idea. I know other law schools are going farther and exposing students to a range of skills as well. I would recommend that all lawyers take an accounting course (I know the Faculty is offering one now, which is great). Because while a lot of people will end up in the towers, a lot of people will also end up running their own practices. To do that, you need to know basic accounting. 

Students should get some business skills. You’re not  going to learn it in law school and you’re not going to learn it at the Bar, but you’re probably going to have to run your own business some day. Right now, no one teaches you how to run your own practice. Law is a business, but the business model—partnership—doesn’t always lend itself to thinking like a business.

In the future, I think a growing section of the population of lawyers will need to know how to run their own business and they’ll need to run them more effectively. They’re going to need to be more competitive, more creative in the types of solutions that they offer. They’ll need to use technology more effectively. When you start to practice, you’ll find that people don’t use everything that’s available to them. For example, they’ll use only a fraction of what’s available on Word. It’s the same with many practice systems. They’re just not used fully.

Systems thinking and process improvement are other skills I think lawyers should learn. What is considered normal behaviour for many business sectors is not necessarily considered normal behaviour in law. This idea of innovating—of constantly looking for a better way to delivery your service or your product—doesn’t happen the same way in law firms. You get so focused on the billable hour that you don’t take time to learn other skills that help you become a better lawyer, or think about how you could do something differently. 

In my ideal world, lawyers would take the time to look at how they actually practice and how they work and from a process perspective. What can I do better each time? What’s the same every time? What could be improved every time? Everything can be improved. 

We rely on tradition in the way we act as lawyers, but sometimes tradition is just there because it’s there and not because it works. I’d like people to think about different ways of working to be more efficient. 

I think everyone should take a design-thinking course. In design thinking, like with Lean, you look at a problem from the perspective of the client. Law firms are built for lawyers and yet a huge part of the population isn’t being served and would be too intimidated to walk into a big firm downtown. How do we fix that? You need to have creative ideas and design thinking is a really neat way to approach problems from a client’s perspective. What does that client need? What would work for them? Create a prototype, test it out, do some innovative development, and if it fails try again! Oh, there are lots of things I could tell first year students. 

  

12.  If you were given the blessing and curse of an extra hour every day to do whatever you wanted, what would it be? 

I’d go to the gym everyday. 

 

13.  Any regrets?

No, there are things I would have liked to do but no, no regrets (apart from not calling out that Civil Law Property prof back in second year).