TQM in the Law Firm: What is Total Quality Management?

Total quality management (“TQM”) is a program of continuous improvement of service quality. It is not a static goal to be achieved. Rather, it is an ongoing process of evolution and affirmative change to meet variable market and client expectations. Over the past few years TQM has ceased to be simply the latest “buzzword” in a long line of management fads and has gained the respect of successful businesses (both large and small) as a necessary component of their strategic planning.

The basic concepts of TQM include:

  • A firm-wide, top-to-bottom institutional (instead of individual) approach to quality.
  • Having the client define what constitutes quality in work product and services, not the legal department or law firm.
  • Use of statistical methods and controls to track progress in quality improvement.
  • “Empowering” all workers, on all levels, to actively participate in quality improvement.
  • Redesigning operations to restructure business processes to function as they should, unconstrained by existing methods, people, or designs.
  • “Benchmarking” performance in discrete areas of operations against top performers in those areas to identify ways to improve.
  • “Partnering” with suppliers and clients to facilitate communication and perceptions of improvement.
  • Consistent, enduring focus on continuous improvement of client perceptions of quality.


  • Improved performance and productivity throughout the firm.
  • Increased client satisfaction and loyalty.
  • Increased lawyer and staff satisfaction and loyalty.
  • Improved communication at all levels of the firm, both internally and externally.
  • Improved competitive position.
  • Improved profitability.


The law firm environment is the perfect forum for applying TQM because of the TQM focus on the client. TQM looks to the client to provide the definition of “quality” and then creates a management environment and organizational structure to meet client-defined expectations. 

Of course, all businesses are client-centered in that they depend upon the goodwill and satisfaction of their clients to survive. The practice of law differs, however, in that lawyers are something more than simply providers of a service. They are counselors, business advisors, advocates, sometimes psychologists, and often mentors. The law firm client does not simply receive a standard service that the firm provides to all of its clients; the law firm client receives a service that is unique because every client’s needs must be individually assessed and met. This type of service involves the client (or should involve the client) to a more intimate degree than most other businesses because the client and the client’s specific needs and goals define the service to be rendered. 

TQM teaches the lawyer how to relate to his/her client to determine what the client seeks to achieve and the kind of result the client desires to obtain. This prevents the lawyer from gathering the facts and forging ahead with his/her own agenda thinking that the client would want what the lawyer would want if the lawyer were in the client’s shoes. 

For example, a client may ask that a business document be drafted to serve a minor, functional purpose. His lawyer spends long, expensive hours drafting an elaborate, airtight document providing for a thousand contingencies which, in the client’s real-world business life will never occur. The lawyer thinks that she has done a top-notch legal drafting job (and may, indeed, have done so) but the client sees a large bill and has no appreciation or need for such a detailed document.

TQM also teaches the lawyer how to relate to other members of the firm and to work as a team player with his/her practice assistant, legal assistant, associates and partners to meet client needs. At the same time, TQM teaches the other members of the firm to focus on and be responsive to client needs.


1. Clients want it. 

Results of surveys show that a “significant” number of managing partners had been asked by their clients if they will implement a TQM program.

Many surveys show that clients’ unmet needs and expectations often have little to do with a lawyer’s competence. Client dissatisfaction is a result of the insensitivity of the lawyer to the client’s needs. Clients are sending a message : “Change the professional-oriented process you use to run your law firms to a client-oriented process.” A lawyer must go from “How can I apply my legal talents to solve this problem?” to “How can I respond to the needs of my clients?”

2. Quality is increasingly important because the legal market is a mature service market.

Look at today’s legal market and you will find:

  • More sophisticated clients.
  • All market niches being served by more than one firm giving clients a choice of many law firms to provide needed services.
  • Intense price competition.
  • Clients who can obtain “legal” services from non-legal providers such as accountants, banks, insurance companies, etc.
  • Local markets being served by branch offices of large firms headquartered elsewhere.

Quality is becoming more and more the differentiating factor between law firms.


In 1993, the American Bar Association set up a TQM task force with ten test firms agreeing to work with the task force to implement quality programs and report their results. All of the progress reports have been positive.


The essential first step to implementing a TQM program is to conduct a quality audit to determine the state of quality within the firm as a starting point from which to begin making changes. An audit is a time-consuming task that requires commitment from and participation at all levels within the firm. Therefore, it is helpful to conduct a preliminary diagnostic analysis prior to beginning a full-blown audit in order to raise participant consciousness concerning the quality problems that the firm faces so that skeptics can see the potential benefits of investing time and energy conducting a true audit.


The checklist is divided into five sections:

  1. Client Relations
  2. Practice Management and Service Delivery
  3. Administrative Management
  4. Profitability and Financial Performance
  5. Total Quality Service


On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest), how do you rate the overall timeliness and responsiveness of attorneys in returning client telephone calls?

Rating _____


1. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest), how do you rate the timeliness with which the firm responds to inquiries from prospective clients?

Rating _____


2. How would you describe the firm’s client base (check one): 

  • Growing 
  • Staying the same
  • Shrinking


4. Looking objectively at our firm and at our competitors, what particular strengths does our firm have that will help us to secure our client relationships?


5. What do our clients tell us that they value the most (may vary widely among clients)? How do we know?


6. Of clients we have lost in recent years, if any, have there been any patterns and reasons for their departure(s)? (examples would include our firm is too expensive, lost a case, services too slow, “chemistry” problems with an attorney, etc.) 

7. Have we conducted client surveys and if yes, how recently? What did the survey(s) tell us and how well did we implement changes to address these results?


8. For our firm, considering our geographic location and existing practice areas, do we expect competition for “our” clients and new business to:

  • Increase
  • Stay the same
  • Decrease


1. On a scale of 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest), please indicate your opinion of the effectiveness of the firm in the following areas: 

 Properly staffed with associates

  • Associate training
  • Utilization of and delegation to associates
  • Equitable and even work distribution
  • Supervision of associates 
  • Communication with (to and from) associates
  • Evaluation of associates
  • Quality control over associates’ work

2. Do you fell the firm uses its lawyers (both partners/shareholders and associates) effectively?

_____ Yes _____ No


3. How would you assess the firm’s overall processes for consistent preparation and review of legal work?

  • Overall excellent
  • Overall very good
  • Overall good
  • Overall fair
  • Overall poor
  • Varies too widely to give a single response
  • Don’t know


4. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest) rate the success of the firm and its system of work distribution in “getting the right work in the right hands.”

Rating _____


5. Do you feel there is enough coordination among different practice areas, specialties or subspecialties?

_____ Yes _____ No


6. Do you feel there is enough coordination within individual practice areas, specialties or subspecialties?

_____ Yes _____ No


7. On a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being the highest), how do you rate the firm’s training program?

Rating _____


8. What needs to be added to or deleted from the training program to improve it?

9. Are lawyers given regular feedback on how to further develop their capabilities and improve their performance?

_____ Yes _____ No



1. Overall, profits for income distribution and reinvestment are: 

  • Improving
  • Staying about the same
  • Decreasing


2. Is our current profitability satisfactory? Does it require: 

  • Maintenance
  • Slight improvement
  • Major improvement?


3. Agree or disagree with this statement:

If we basically “stay the course” and look to maintain our personnel, service quality, work product, profitability and so on, our firm will be satisfactorily secure and profitable for the foreseeable future.

_____ Agree _____ Disagree


4. Does the firm’s time-keeping, billing and collection system assist in, or detract from, the firm’s positive quality image? 

  • Assists
  • Detracts
  • Neutral factor


1. On a scale of 1 to 10, (with 10 being the highest), how fully and effectively are we utilizing technology to:

Produce legal work?


Assure, control and improve quality of legal work?


Reduce cost of producing legal work?


Otherwise increase value to clients (such as faster response , more appealing/functional work product, fewer errors, etc.)? 


2. How would we assess overall teamwork between lawyers, between lawyers and between administration, lawyers and secretaries, etc.? 



1. Should we proceed with further review in the form of a Total Quality Service audit or more defined TQS review of identified areas?


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