Production Lines and Job Shops

J.B. Ruhl
Legal project management is taking techniques—such as such as Lean, Six Sigma, and other management efficiency innovations—to the legal industry.

Legal project management is taking techniques—such as such as Lean, Six Sigma, and other management efficiency innovations—to the legal industry.


The Post-Normal Times is a column that follows trends in the legal industry, legal technologies, legal innovation, and access to legal services and offers insights into how new lawyers can turn them from agents of change into agents of opportunity. 

Each year in my class on the legal profession at Vanderbilt Law School, Professor Nancy Hyer of Vanderbilt’s graduate business school and Nashville practitioner John Murdock have delivered an insightful presentation on how to improve efficiency in legal practice. If anything could be considered innovative in legal practice, it would be improving efficiency!

Their presentation opens with a proposition that never fails to rattle my students—law firms and law departments are job shops. That doesn’t sound very glamorous, but it is a very useful way to think about what lawyers do best.

A job shop is a small business that makes specific products for one customer at a time. It is a manufacturing unit that specializes in small quantities of tailor-made items. Job shops move on to a new job when one job is completed, and may need to move the product through the process in different ways each time. Compare this to a production line style of manufacturing, which passes the item being produced through a set linear sequence of mechanical or manual operations, and does that the same way repetitively for item after item. A production line makes the same thing over and over—it is low on variety and high on volume. A job shop makes new bespoke things one after the other—it is high on variety and low on volume. Legal practice spans these two models. Drafting nondisclosure agreements is more like the production line; drafting appellate briefs is more like the job shop.

Much of the innovation work that has been directed at legal practice over the past decade has been about two initiatives. The first is to move as much legal work that is production line in style to producers that can make the parts faster and cheaper, which increasingly has meant fewer lawyers are needed. While this may sound threatening, the upshot is that maximizing the production line model for legal work that is conducive to it frees up lawyers to do more of the bespoke work. That’s where job shops come in.

The second innovation initiative in legal practice has focused on treating bespoke legal work more like a job shop. Job shops face two challenges. One is too much demand and the other is too little. When there is too much demand, the twisty nature of the job shop production flow—where the item being produced moves from one artisan to another, back again, then on to others—can become a bottleneck. When there is too little demand, however, some of the artisans have nothing to do. Ideally, the job shop will work as efficiently as possible to avoid bottlenecks, and the managers can control demand and capacity to reduced idleness.

Job shops have moved in this direction in many industries with the rise of techniques such as Lean (introduced by Toyota in auto production), Six Sigma (introduced by Motorola and General Electric), and other management efficiency innovations. Legal project management is taking those techniques to the legal industry. The increasingly competitive legal market and the rise of alternative fee arrangements have focused law firms on the need for efficiency, and the expansion of work and staff within legal departments has made capacity control a foremost challenge. Innovations aimed at these pain points are best designed when lawyers move the production line work to a production line model and think like a job shop for the bespoke work.

As I tell my students at the end of my guests’ presentation, there is no shame in working for a job shop—it’s where you do the stuff you went to law school to learn how to do.


J.B. Ruhl

J.B. Ruhl is the director of the Program on Law and Innovation and the codirector of the Energy, Environment, and Land Use Program at Vanderbilt Law School.