shutterstock_400543099

Law-gile: the application of Agile practices to the delivery of law and legal services

Law-gile

Agile is a methodology which seeks to break work down into smaller pieces to be delivered iteratively, the premise being that establishing a flow of work will release value to clients faster. I have recently come across the term ‘Law-gile’ in a couple of conversations. Law-gile, it follows, is the application of Agile practices to the delivery of law and legal services.

At this year’s Legal Geek conference, I enjoyed Nikki Shaver’s brilliantly witty commentary on ‘Turning Your Law Firm Agile’. The session focused on the legal profession’s penchant to put ‘legal’ in front of everything: legal tech, legal project management, legal operations, legal spend management. Her well-made point was that, by making everything specialised or niche, the legal profession is not shedding its image of being inaccessible and may not be attracting the best talent in these areas. I have shamelessly titled this article ‘Law-gile’ to catch your attention. However, with Nikki’s talk ringing in my ears, I am going to talk about Agile methodology and how it can benefit legal teams. No further references to Law-gile from here on out!

I like the word agility. For me its connotations are flexibility, speed, efficiency, and the ability to be nimble and change direction. The rise in alternative fee arrangements and fixed fee, as well as the increase in seeing large pieces of work as ‘projects’, are a few reasons the legal profession is primed for harnessing the benefits of a more agile working method. Furthermore, the rise in cost pressures and alternative fee arrangements means most lawyers are battling trying to deliver what the client wants at an increasingly competitive price.

What is Agile?

There are four central values to Agile methodology, all of which have great applicability to the Legal profession:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
  2. Working product over comprehensive documentation;
  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation;
    This may be a tough one for lawyers to get on board with. The premise is not to do away with contracts but rather to place focus on interaction and collaboration, allowing the documentation of the contract to be a record of what was discussed.
  4. Responding to change over following a plan.

Whilst Agile was originally conceived to improve software delivery, the delivery of legal services is not as far away from software delivery as you might think. The delivery of software often requires a project to manage the process and keep a team on track to produce and deliver value, which strikes me as very comparable to the discipline of Legal Project Management, which is most certainly on the rise. More and more teams are seeing the benefits project management and oversight can provide for financial management, priorities, risks and issues, and resource planning, just to name a few. 

Value Proposition of Agile

According to Woldow and Richardson[1], clients want the following from their lawyers:

  • Value conferred as viewed through the eyes of the clients,
  • Efficiency in managing to budget with lean and efficient staffing and lower outside legal spending,
  • Predictability so there are no costly surprises and fewer unexpected events,
  • Communication that is timely, responsive, accurate, and complete,
  • Understanding all aspects of their businesses, not just their legal needs, and
  • Alignment between the clients’ interests and the firm’s behaviors

Looking back to those Agile values, there is a lot that adopting a more agile way of working can do to achieve the ideals conveyed by Woldow and Richardson. Prioritising individuals and interactions, as well as client collaboration, will have the knock-on effect of increasing communication, understanding and predictability. Prioritising the “working product”, i.e. the output desired by the client, over comprehensive documentation will help confer value more readily to the client. In the case of legal work, the product may well be a document, in which case the reduction of documentation may simply mean the number of emails and letters back and forth which do not provide the client with actionable advice and transparency on the end product and how it is progressing. Finally, by responding to change rather than rigidly following a plan, lawyers can ensure that clients’ real-world problems are addressed, even as they evolve and change throughout the engagement, and that alignment is maintained between the client’s interests and the advice provided.

Putting it into practice

With all this in mind, let’s look at some ways to implement key agile concepts into Legal practice.

Scrum

One popular Agile methodology is Scrum, which promotes the use of daily team stand up meetings, led by a Scrum Master (essentially a facilitator and “un-blocker”). The main purpose of such meetings is to increase visibility and accountability by making commitments to the team, resolve issues, identify dependencies and for everyone to contribute and align. This is an eminently sensible practice to adopt for any team working together to achieve a shared goal, as it keeps everyone aligned and puts focus on unblocking issues before they become problems. Why not try identifying a project that might benefit from this collaborative approach and implement daily stand ups? These should be very short – no more than 15 minutes – and are literally best carried out standing up, to avoid getting into lengthy discussions!

Kanban

The other Agile methodology you are most likely to come across is Kanban, a Japanese term which essentially translates to ‘signboard’ or ‘card’. A Kanban board displays all tasks for a team, and the progress of each, in a visual way. The simplest Kanban board can contain just three stages – To Do, Doing, Done. The ‘Doing’ list may also be broken down further into more useful stages of your work e.g. preparatory, in progress etc. The main benefits of Kanban are providing visibility of work throughput at the team level, catching any limits to work progressing and providing the morale boost (often much needed mid project!) by seeing all the work you have completed. Kanban questions the value of work product being completed if it is not immediately usable. If work that is not yet needed is sitting on the ‘Done’ list, could the resource have been put to better use working on a higher priority issue that is still in the ‘Doing’? If the majority of tasks are sitting in a preparatory phase, can additional resources or technology be leveraged to help get things moving, or can certain items be given a lower priority? Using a Kanban board can make issues much easier to notice and address.

Prioritization

Something all flavors of Agile methodology have in common is the need to stringently prioritize work so that value can be delivered more quickly. This prioritization refers to the priority the client would place on the item, so that items which matter most to the client are worked on first. Of course, things are not always this simple and, as experts, we know that certain things need to be completed first in order to start other tasks. Dependencies should be a factor you consider when assigning a priority to any piece of work, along with other relevant factors such as the effort/size of the task. The benefit of prioritizing work in this way is not only that the team stays aligned on what everyone should be working on, but also that time is not spent on low priority items which may not make a difference to the client and may not end up being needed.

I recognize that not all types of legal work are able to be prioritized in this way. With many legal processes, for example property transactions, M&A and Litigation, the process is standardized and certain steps must be followed in a certain order. However, the opportunity for prioritization still exists within these processes. I saw a great example of this at an event run by Neota Logic, where Stuart Whittle of Weightmans LLP described how he and his team have used technology to prioritize where research effort should be placed in defendant personal injury claims. Faced with an environment of lower margins, Stuart looked at understanding which piece of information would lead him most efficiently to deciding a case strategy. In other words, which pieces of information would have the most impact on any strategy and, therefore, should be prioritized.

Ask yourself how you decide on priorities within a piece of work or project, or indeed whether you prioritize at all or simply dive straight in. Do you think about value that can be unlocked to the client early or what would make the biggest impact to them? Or are there key pieces of information which can be prioritized as, knowing them would make the largest impact to the client’s decision making and increase the accuracy of decision making early in the matter?

Product Owners

In Agile, the Product Owner is the person who wants or is responsible for the product the Agile team are working to deliver. In the context of the legal profession, this person could be the client. The Product Owner remains in close contact with the project team throughout, and communication and collaboration are guiding principles to the relationship. There is a lot we can take from this concept when thinking about client relationships.

I am a self-proclaimed perfectionist. I understand the tendency not to show work in progress and to wait until I feel I have something polished to show. Also, the high degree of focus on risk mitigation that is prevalent in a Lawyer’s daily work life may prevent Lawyers from sharing information they feel is incomplete. However, wasted time due to clients ‘changing their minds’ can be saved by having conversations early and often and sharing progress to the degree one can safely do so. To model the agile concept event further, think about how you can make information easier to assimilate and more accessible to clients earlier, and what information can be provided in face to face conversations. There are ample opportunities for in-house teams, who are often in the same location as the teams they support, to communicate in this way. This may indeed help in house legal teams to be considered more as ‘strategic partners’ to the business.

Stories

When developing software, the requirements will often be expressed as “User Stories”. In a nutshell, this involves splitting work into tasks and stating what the need is, who needs it and why. I have always found the, why, to be the most useful part of these stories. Since the task of a Lawyer is to understand what the client needs, a thorough understanding of why they need it is fundamental. Splitting work into discrete tasks to frame a problem in the form of a statement that needs to be solved, with the context in which the problem has arisen, is a valuable method, regardless of the subject matter. I encourage you to try it next time you cannot see the wood for the trees!

Lean

Ok, so it’s not really Agile, but it is a complimentary discipline that is often spoken about together with Agile. Lean sets out eight key wastes that can occur in a process. It centres around looking for waste as a strategy to increase profitability by increasing price and/or reducing cost. Whilst I do not intend to go into the eight wastes within this article, I suggest reading further on this topic if you are engaging in any sort of process design or improvement.

Under the banner of Lean, we also find Lean Start Up Mentality. To me, this is all about experimentation. As Tim O’Reilly, CEO O’Reilly Media, puts it: “How can we learn more quickly what works, and discard what doesn’t?”[2].

When solving a novel client or business issue, or embarking on a change or technology program, employing a start-up mentality can make a tangible difference to cost and timescales. Ways to cultivate this mentality include creating prototypes or proofs of concept, producing the simplest possible version of what you need which still delivers value (often referred to as a minimum viable product) and iterating ideas by starting with assumptions and testing them. What is important is that you find a way of measuring if you are going in the right direction or not, and learn something from every action you invest time in. In this way you can channel that inner entrepreneur and experiment with solutions without investing huge sums for time or money.

Starting to Use Agile

From my experience, when introducing agile ways of working, the tone from the top is vital. Although the agile practices you adopt may seem small, the biggest shift is the change in approach and attitude. Agile works best when there is:

  • openness to information sharing;
  • positive attitudes to experimentation and risk taking;
  • willingness to discuss sensitive issues openly;
  • willingness to give people autonomy and support their decisions.

Think about your team culture and current attitudes to these topics. Where do you stand on them and what change, if any, might you need to foster in order to be successful in working in a more agile way? Ensure the leadership team is aligned on any new ways of working and understands the culture that needs to be fostered in order to make them a success.

Stephanie Richards is an Agile Coach and a Legal Management Consultant at Duff & Phelps. For further information and support please contact stephanie.richards@duffandphelps.com

[1] Legal Project Management in One Hour for Lawyers, Woldow and Richardson (2013, p. ix)

[2] http://theleanstartup.com/

View and Download Article