Legal Project Management is a hot topic nowadays, and understandably so. Done right, it can make your legal team the leader among your peers. Clients are also requiring their legal service vendors to prove they know how to manage projects, before they even decide to engage them.
Since legal project management became a fine line between being hired or not, it is very important that you dive deeper into this subject.
In this article we focus on Agile project management method, and you can read the following:
- What is Agile, and how it started;
- Starting Agile terminology, so you can research deeper on the topic;
- What is the Kanban method, why experts recommend it, and how our clients use it;
- How can you and your legal team start with and benefit from Agile methods.
Kenneth drew my attention to very important questions that law firm partners and leaders of legal teams have to ask before stepping into Agile. Paul laid out practical steps that he takes when motivating his legal team to transit to Agile. Antony pointed me to his introductory article on Agile from 2012, where he explained the correlation between value pricing and Agile methods.
I have included their views below, as well as other helpful resources that you may want to explore. Thank you for reading.
How Agile movement started
Fifteen years ago in the Wasatch mountains of Utah, a group of ‘organizational IT anarchists’ gathered. These software professionals had excellent experience in various project management methodologies. With their combined efforts, a unique new method for developing software was created. They called it “The Agile Manifesto.” What they believed is that the Agile approach is all about delivering good products to customers. That’s why they outlined 12 fundamental principles of Agile Software Development.
Today, Agile is a common term used by software engineers. Cisco, Microsoft, Spotify, and Salesforce are just some of the popular names using it. But Agile is applied not only to software development. A study shows that 48% of project managers use Agile solutions for projects that aren’t IT-related.
The legal industry is no exception. In this article, we will go through the main terms used in Agile, and see how they apply to law firms. You’ll read which processes of your law firm can use them, and what are the benefits of implementing Agile.
What is Agile legal project management?
Agile refers to legal project management that encourages continuous improvement, collaboration, adaptation, team efforts and rapid delivery of valuable legal services.
- continual collaboration with clients;
- commitment to flexibility and rapidity;
- direct communication rather than complex documentation;
- continual focus on client goals;
- realistically weighing risk; and
- a strong bias toward simplicity.
Jim Hassett, founder of LegalBizDev, argues the agile approach to project management “starts from the assumption that customers often change their minds about what they want and need as a project proceeds.”
“It replaces extended upfront planning with rapid development of partial solutions which can be tried out on clients and adapted until they meet true needs. Many professionals believe that this will become an increasingly common approach to LPM as it evolves.” – Jim Hassett
One of the easiest ways for understanding the idea behind Agile is to compare it with the traditional Waterfall project management method. Here’s an image describing the two different processes, from a software development point of view.
Agile legal project management definitions explained
Starting working with Agile, you’ll have to get familiar with some IT vocabulary. It will then be easier to understand the whole method and the sequence/flow of Agile project management in law firms.
However, using Agile terminology can be counterproductive when you just start to introduce Agile to your team:
“We tend not to use the Agile terminology at the early stages since that can sometimes turn off people that were already skeptical of the method.
For example, I’ll often refer to Kanban as Task Boards, Retrospectives as Review Meetings, and Scrum Master as project manager. At least initially.
Once the team sees the benefit, I’ll then provide the jargon in case they want to do some additional research to learn more.” – Paul Saunders
What is a “sprint”?
Generally, Agile legal project management process is broken into series of jobs, called ‘sprints’. These are short blocks in the development process. Imagine them as milestones your team should achieve in an estimated period. They usually take between one week or a month depending on complexity. For example, in a transactional legal matter, sprints can be: contract writing, doing a real estate closing, negotiating or drafting agreements.
Sprints are usually a part of Scrum project management method, while Kanban does not have them. Kanban recognizes that work flows naturally from one stage to another, and runs in cycles (development → client acceptance and/or feedback → iteration).
Hence, Kanban seems to be more suitable for those teams that can expect changes and/or additional requests from their clients during the project lifecycle. Since this is usual for legal projects, we feel legal teams will be better off using Kanban.
“When managing a portfolio of matters or trying to close a major transaction at month-end, where everyone is continually working anyway, we felt that grouping the work into sprints could actually be a bit limiting.
What if a client asked for work that wasn’t planned in this sprint? That would have to be done anyway.” – Paul Saunders
What is a “user story”?
User/client stories are the ‘subtasks’ of each sprint. User or client stories’ goal is to provide value to the client. Remember that not every client story has to come from your client, literally! It may come from your law firm colleagues, or a third party that depends on you. Within each story, are placed the individual tasks. Usually, they are written in a sentence or two. Stories should be short and clear. Here’s a quick example:
“As a <type of client>, I want to be able to <explanation of the goal>, so that I can achieve <this benefit>.”
What is a “retrospective”?
After every sprint, your team should hold a meeting, called a ‘retrospective.’ The goal of this retrospective is to diagnose the achievements, failures, and missed opportunities of the sprint. This is an excellent way to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. It drives continuous improvement into your team, and maximizes the chance of success in future sprints.
What are daily standups, and why do you need them?
Definitely, the Agile method encourages communication. Apart from a retrospective, daily standups or scrums are short, 10-15 minute, meetings. The goal is to improve internal communication in your team so that everyone knows the work of others. Members should stand during the meeting to make it quick and to the point.
The standup participants usually have to explain :-
- What they completed yesterday,
- Their goal for today, and
- What might deter them from the goal.
Here’s a great real-world example. Seyfarth Shaw LLP, an 850-lawyer, full-service firm has adopted Agile legal project management. When doing their regular standups, a senior level partner is responsible for leading the discussions.
“We do not believe in holding meetings for their own sake, so we adjust the frequency of scrums over the course of a deal, to meet the requirements of the team and the deal.
These scrum sessions allow the client team and the Seyfarth team to have focused discussions responding to a particular deal’s current reality on a recurrent basis.”
What is a Work in Progress limit?
The term Work in Progress (you’ll often see the abbreviation ‘WIP”) relates to the number of tasks being worked on by your team. The Work in progress limit is an important element of the Agile project management cycle. Basically, it shows the maximum amount of work (tasks) that your legal team should execute, to keep work smooth and efficient.
The idea behind WIP limits is to help your team focus on a specific number of tasks, and avoid multitasking and distractions. A WIP limit will help you identify and highlight bottlenecks, and deliver your legal services to clients faster.
Dr. Sascha Theissen, General Counsel of the international Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, implemented WIP in his legal department. Here are some of the benefits he described.
We began to spend more time with the actual business, and colleagues from other departments, to better understand their needs, and organized lunch & learn meetings to institutionalize this.
This additional knowledge helped us to better prioritize tasks, according to actual business value or risk reduction.” – Dr. Sascha Theissen
On the other hand, WIPs may be be difficult to implement across the board and in a general way:
“It is tough to gauge how much time each task will take to complete. Also, often times the work on the board is just a piece of my team’s work.
They are often working on other work at the same time, so a WIP limit is better dealt with by a team member indicating that they have capacity or not.” – Paul Saunders
What is a Kanban board?
Kanban is a Japanese term used in Agile legal project management. It means ‘visible record’ (such as a billboard, card, label, or sign) in Japanese. To learn more details about Kanban for lawyers, check out this extensive article.
The main goal of Kanban for lawyers is to visualize the workflow of your team easily and identify bottlenecks.
A Kanban board is immensely useful! It consists of columns that represent stages of the workflow (in your case, a Kanban board can be dedicated to a legal matter). Columns are broken into cards that describe every single task. When using Kanban, it’s important to focus your attention and efforts on one task only.
Here’s an example of a basic Kanban board:
It doesn’t really matter what you call these steps. You can use other terms; the important thing is to make sure your legal department follows them.
Where in your law firm can you best use Agile?
Actually, to adopt Agile successfully, you need to implement it in all of your law firm’s processes.
Let’s imagine you have a prospective client. The client is a small privately-held business. The prospect wants to find a law firm that can handle acquiring, planning, and building permissions, and licenses for the company’s new production facility.
In the initial conversations, you’ve found that company’s owners want their legal matter to be done in a specific period, according to their business plan. Agile law can be helpful in this initial stage of the relationship with your client. Your goal is to get the client by convincing them that your legal team is competent, flexible and fast.
What you can do, is write down your client’s desired goals in the form of client stories (like the example above). In this way, you’ll easily identify the exact steps your team needs to complete, in order to reach the client’s goal (benefit/value). Then, break each step/goal into smaller, individual tasks. This collection of client stories is the backlog of the work your legal team will perform.
Now, to visualize the whole workflow for the client, it’s best for you to use a Kanban board. The fastest and easiest way to do so is via a digital Kanban board.
With LegalTrek Project Management module you can use a digital Kanban board that is integrated with your legal team’s budgeting and billing needs. See this video preview and get a taste of how it makes your work very visual:
Having explicitly structured information will help you win the client, and convey the message that you’re capable of handling their legal issue promptly. You will be able to give them a rough estimate of the work that will be done in each sprint, and the matter as a whole.
Your clients will be impressed to see your team’s Kanban boards as well! When you get to the concrete legal work, your team can start actively using the Agile boards. They not only help them visualize the workflow, but also let them work better as a team.
Adopting the new Agile management tools and mindset
If you are already interested in applying Agile to your firm, you should be aware that it will inevitably lead to a change in the business culture. Agile law is all about being flexible, and planning your legal team’s tasks in advance.
This is why some more conservative lawyers might feel a bit uncomfortable to Agile in their law practice. Even more so, if they treat all planning as their non-billable time. Karen Dalton and John Duggan from Seyfarth Shaw have an interesting comment about these concerns:
“Many lawyers feel that thorough planning slows them down, and may not be efficient, due to the many unknowns in legal work. In reality, that is exactly why they need project managers who use the ‘Agile’ framework.” – Karen Dalton and John Duggan
What questions should you ask before starting with Agile?
Kenneth Grady, expert in Lean Law at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, believes that asking a few questions preemptively will make any legal project management implementation much more successful. in our prior conversation on the subject, he commented:
“Lawyers (or the term I prefer nowadays, legal service providers, which picks up all of those who provide client services that are as important or more important than lawyers, but who don’t have the benefit or burden of a law degree) love to jump first and ask questions later.
When it comes to Legal Project Management, waterfall or the agile version that works better with legal matters, asking a few questions before jumping can make the difference between landing with a splash or a thud. I suggest you consider the following questions before you leap:
- Why are you going into Legal Project Management (e.g. for the benefit of clients; for your own benefit; or both)?
- What level of resources are you willing to commit (e.g. a part-time effort by someone who already has full-time responsibilities; a dedicated person; your own time on top of everything else you do)?
- What are your near-term goals (e.g. to do a better job managing legal matters; to make more money with less effort; to reduce the risk that you will miss something and damage your clients)?
- What are your long-term goals (e.g. to build a sustainable Legal Project Management program; or to have some impressive language to throw around when talking to clients)?
- How willing are you to really learn Legal Project Management (e.g. you want a quick tool to implement; you want to become an expert; you want someone else to be the expert while you know enough to be dangerous)?
“Legal Project Management has the potential to revolutionize your practice…” – Kenneth Grady
Or, it can bog you down with seemingly endless constraints that do not seem to add value. What you get out of it largely depends on what you put into it.
If you ask the above questions first, you can tailor your Legal Project Management effort to match your expectations. A small scale, simple, low-resource effort that succeeds will be better than a “boil the ocean” approach that flops.
On the other hand, that small scale effort won’t take you far. If you go beyond that, the larger effort can differentiate your practice in a meaningful way.
Those legal service providers who hit with a thud jumped without asking any questions. Quite contrary, those providers that make a splash knew where they were going before they jumped.”
What should you do after answering these questions?
If you have already asked and answered the above questions, Paul Saunders has some additional advice on starting up Agile method in your legal team. Paul is the Practice Innovation Partner at Stewart McKelvey, and he is in charge of process improvement (among other). He suggests the following:
“Start with a something simple and easy – a minimal solution to acclimatize the group to the new way of thinking. Then iterate that solution based on feedback from the group over time. This avoids the potential issue of spending months building something that no one is prepared to use. The is based on Eric Ries’ Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop from “The Lean Startup”.
What I will often do is first introduce the team to the basics of Kanban and Scrum in an hour long meeting and put together a quick task board on a whiteboard.
The team would map out all the standard stages that a portfolio of matters would proceed through, and place cards within the stages to represent active matters they are working on.
The team would then conduct the equivalent of Stand-up Meetings at a frequency that makes sense for the team with each team member answering in no more than 2 minutes the three core questions:
- What did I do since the last meeting?
- What will I do before the next meeting?
- What’s blocking me or what do I need help with?
I would then schedule Review Meetings (perhaps every month or two) to see how things are going and try to reach team consensus around 3 other questions:
- What’s working?
- What isn’t?
- What should be try differently?
When trying something differently (say, for example, transitioning to a digital Kanban tool), we come back to the minimal solution again. Change something, get feedback from the group, and change it again until it works well for the team.
I’ve found that these methods require one magic ingredient to work well:
“Each team member must have a vested interest in the outcome of the work of others on the team, in order for Agile to work well…”
– Paul Saunders
We’ve run projects applying this method which didn’t work well, where participants weren’t really part of a team but who just did similar work within a similar department or with the same manager.
They found the time spent giving their updates and hearing what others were doing was a waste of their time since they were all working independently anyway.
Managers found it helpful to give them a sense of what everyone was working on, but if the team members themselves don’t see utility in it, it won’t have the desired effect.
However, within groups that did have a vested interest in the outcome of other members and for whom were expected to work together (for example, a project team on a big matter, or the client service team for a major firm client), we have found these methods very effective at eliminating bottlenecks, increasing transparency and creating accountability within the teams to progress their matters in between meetings.
Lastly, the approach we take is to pick and choose big ideas from a number of different methodologies, including Agile, Waterfall, Lean, Six Sigma, Change Management, etc, and use those tools and ideas that fit the particular scenario.
I realize that some people who apply Agile can be a bit dogmatic, where they feel you have to strictly follow the protocol to reap the benefits. We’ve found that starting with the core ideas in their simplest form to be the most effective way to get that buy-in early on, while also being flexible to pivot to other ideas as needed.
For example, I see real value in combining traditional project management methods with Agile, particularly when managing budgets and estimates, setting scope, etc.
“Keep your mind open for all project management methods – they all have their value based on what you’re trying to accomplish…”
– Paul Saunders
The beauty of Agile and Kanban is in its flexibility
Flexibility is one of the key attributes of Kanban, which also makes it more appealing than other Agile methods. Kanban is a framework that you can tailor to your particular needs and specifics that you and each of your teams has.
For example, we at LegalTrek use Kanban with success in our different teams. In addition to our Software Development units, Kanban is used by our Sales, Marketing, Legal, and Administration departments.
Naturally, each of those departments have something unique. We adapted our Kanban boards to suit those specific needs of every single of our teams.
And this is something you can do too, within your legal teams.
For example, depending on the complexity of your matters, you can change the structure of your Kanban boards. Some of our clients prefer to make a board for every legal matter and set one column for the first instance, a second column for the second instance, and so on. Others prefer to make a separate board for every legal team, department or office (especially, if the company has multiple offices).
Litigators find Kanban boards very helpful. In fact, they split litigation in stages, and create a Kanban board for each of those. That way they are able to focus, plan, and budget their legal services for each of those stages.
If you use digital Kanban boards, like the one LegalTrek provides, you will be able to follow how litigation moves through different stages, and see the whole history in your board records. Drop us a line here if you want to see LegalTrek Agile Project Management system in action.
Do you need a legal project manager?
Law firms will have to review their talent strategy and hire more non-traditional legal employees, like project managers. This is one of the interesting points of Deloitte’s report ‘Developing legal talent. Stepping into the future law firm’, Feb 2016. The authors explain that the transformation of the legal profession requires more diverse talent in firms, and project managers will play a significant role in future.
It is up to you to decide whether your team should have a legal project manager, who will ensure they meet deadlines and deliver value to clients. If you decide to hire a specialized PM, be selective!
A good PM should wear many hats. They should have a legal background, deep project management / Agile / Lean knowledge, and good soft skills.
If you have the passion and energy to become an Agile project manager of your team, you can be a self-learner. There are many good resources you can find on the web. Make sure to check out our detailed conversation with an Agile attorney here.
What are the long term benefits of Agile law
The growing popularity of Agile is due to the huge benefits it brings to organizations. There are many advantages teams like yours experience.
“Agile techniques, applied appropriately, help you contain legal service delivery costs within acceptable limits.
Agile can also help lawyers scope better, exercise greater control of effort and collaborate effectively with clients during matters. The latter is particularly important, as this reduces the likelihood of any unwelcome surprises for clients.” – Antony Smith
Here are some of other top benefits.
Agile improves productivity
One of the first changes you will feel is the increased productivity of your legal team. Agile breaks your daily work into small manageable portions. You will get more efficient because you’ll focus on one task (card) only. This will help you and your team finish tasks faster, in a clear and concise manner.
Agile improves communication in your team
As you probably sensed already, communication is essential in Agile legal project management. Effective daily standups will ensure that every person in your legal team is well informed about the work on clients’ matters. There will be no missed information and double work.
Improved delivery time and happy clients
The increased productivity and internal communication lead to a quicker delivery time of your services. Time is one of the most important assets for clients, so Agile will be a powerful method to get more satisfied clients, and consequently win more business!
Remember that, as a law firm leader, you have the power to help your legal team achieve more. Implement Agile legal project management as a strategic method, and your team will overcome the obstacles to productivity, better client relationships, and bigger profitability.
Your law firm will become the Agile law practice organization that attracts clients like a magnet. So start building your Agile team today!