Do fast food chains have lessons for the legal profession?

A recent article in the New Yorker looked at lessons that the medical profession could learn from the fast food industry. The article profiles the successful “Cheesecake Factory” restaurant chain and provocatively asks whether the medical profession could learn a thing or two from the chain.

There are some interesting passages about what the author (who is also a surgeon) thinks is holding doctors back from allowing their industry to incorporate lessons about efficiency in the same way fast food chains do. Although there are numerous differences between the medical industry in the US and the legal industry (in both the US and Canada), these passages do not sound very different from the way many critics have depicted the legal profession.

For example, doctors have had a similar approach to hourly billing:

Historically, doctors have been paid for services, not results. In the eighteenth century B.C., Hammurabi’s code instructed that a surgeon be paid ten shekels of silver every time he performed a procedure for a patrician—opening an abscess or treating a cataract with his bronze lancet. It also instructed that if the patient should die or lose an eye, the surgeon’s hands be cut off. Apparently, the Mesopotamian surgeons’ lobby got this results clause dropped. Since then, we’ve generally been paid for what we do, whatever happens. The consequence is the system we have, with plenty of individual transactions—procedures, tests, specialist consultations—and uncertain attention to how the patient ultimately fares.

And the author thinks that assessing the work of doctors based on results – not on the services – is the key to improving medical delivery:

The theory the country is about to test is that chains will make us better and more efficient. The question is how. To most of us who work in health care, throwing a bunch of administrators and accountants into the mix seems unlikely to help. Good medicine can’t be reduced to a recipe.

Then again neither can good food: every dish involves attention to detail and individual adjustments that require human judgment. Yet, some chains manage to achieve good, consistent results thousands of times a day across the entire country. I decided to get inside one and find out how they did it.

Given the similarities between the legal and medical profession, the article raises the interesting question of whether the fast food industry has some lessons for the legal industry too.

 

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