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Queuing theory and what it might say about how quickly law departments turn around work

Queuing theory is a mathematical approach to the analysis of waiting times, particularly where requests for service arrive randomly. The terms and techniques of this discipline could help general counsel.

This post draws on William J. Stevenson, Operations Management (McGraw-Hill, 2005, 8th Ed.) at 779. For a legal department, clients request assistance as issues arise: they queue. They dislike waiting for assistance. One way to reduce waiting time and the associated loss of goodwill is to schedule arrival times and maintain constant service times, such as where reservations are made in advance. Managers of in-house lawyers wish they could!

“The goal of queuing analysis is to balance the cost of providing a level of service capacity with the cost of customers waiting for service.” The “service capacity” of a law department is the number of its lawyers and paralegals, taking into account skill levels and tools available, while the “cost of customers waiting” includes not only the dissatisfaction of clients impatiently expecting answers or documents but more importantly the business opportunities of the company at risk from legal delays.

Queuing theory provides a vocabulary for legal department managers. “Capacity” in a legal department does not usually grow linearly, it grows by a step function: you add or lose a whole lawyer, not a third of a lawyer. A law department would be considered an infinite-source situation, since the potential number of clients greatly exceeds a law department’s capacity. Each lawyer would be considered a “server” or a “channel.”

Queuing theory might help formalize our understanding of throughput efficiency (See my post of Jan. 17, 2007: improved turnaround time for contracts; and March 26, 2007: turnaround time shown by matter management system.). Law firm responsiveness could be analyzed under queuing theory. Even if the theory were to explain some results, a large measure of what legal departments and law firms achieve would elude the metrics and insights of the theory