In the past decade, Agile has been embraced by industries outside of software development and IT. Industries such as marketing, finance, construction, manufacturing, and even the legal industry are moving towards a more Agile approach. In this article, we dive deeper into how the law industry is moving towards an Agile transformation and how they are using methods such as Kanban to drive change. Let’s learn more about how Agile law firms are shaping a new frontier for the legal industry.
Why Agile for Law Firms?
As we dug deeper into the world of Agile law firms, we got the chance to talk to John E. Grant. He is an attorney, a legal operations consultant, and the founder of the Agile Attorney Consulting. John started his career in the IT industry before pursuing law. Although he worked in technology during the earlier years of his career, it was only after leaving his tech job that he learned and basked himself of the Agile methodology.
As he was starting his law practice, he always had a lingering thought of how law firms could operate more efficiently and effectively. His former tech company had then started using Agile and he wondered if the same model will work for law firms. In 2014, he pursued his concept “Agile for Lawyers” and soon followed his Agile Legal consulting business.
Asked as to why law firms are pursuing project management methodologies such as Agile, John says:
“Most lawyers and a lot of legal professionals are “accidental project managers” already. There is a whole universe of tools, methods and systems that can help lawyers get their work done better but they are blocked by nomenclature. What lawyers call cases or matters is what the rest of the world calls a project. There are lots of things lawyers can learn from project management basics, whether it’s Agile or not.”
John goes on to share how he would argue that lawyers, at least in the US, are required to learn project management as imposed by the ABA Model Rules for Professional Conduct. “Rules 1.1 through 1.5 have to do with competence, organization, communication, and (managing) resources all of which are fundamental to project management. I argue that understanding basic project management concepts is required by the Ethics Rules.”
As to why law firms are seeking “a better way to do things” with Agile, John has this to say:
“It’s important for law firms to get their work done in a way that’s focused on delivering value to their clients as competently, effectively, and efficiently as possible. And Agile just happens to be a very good methodology to do that. The iterative approach of Agile reflects the ways that lawyers tend to work already. We are not following the exact same plan over and over again when we provide individualized advice to our clients. We try a thing. We learn a little bit either through the due diligence process on the transactional side or maybe through the discovery process on the litigation side. And then we take what we’ve learned through those processes and adjust. And that is inherent in the Agile methodology. That’s really common to how lawyers work.”
It’s safe to say that Agile law firms are here to stay. It’s also a testament of how Agile principles and practices are transferable from one industry to another. Apart from Agile, concepts such as Lean and Six Sigma are also making waves in the legal industry. It all boils down on how you get past nomenclature and see how one thing translates to the other.
Kanban for Law Firms
Our research also led us to learn how Kanban is one of the more preferred Agile methodologies by law firms. We ask John why this is so and what is it with Kanban that makes it “click” as an approach for Agile law firms. John shares three main reasons why.
High-level Steps are Well-defined
Most legal matters are handled routinely. Kanban is a good method for managing work where the process can be repeatable. In most cases, there are also processes governing how cases should be handled. We’re seeing how Agile law firms translate these high-level workflows for managing cases into a Kanban system.
John: “In the US…in Litigation – there are rules of procedure both on the criminal and the civil side where the courts dictate what the high-level workflow is. And you’re just managing your matters as they flow through those individual phases. Each of those phases lends itself really well to a column on a Kanban board. What I love about Kanban is it gives you a really good ability to zoom out and see where all of your matters lie in your total workflow at once. Kanban is great for that.”
Visibility Provides Context
The highly visual nature of Kanban through the use of Kanban boards also provide context that Agile law firms use to make better decisions and strategies on how to drive their matters forward. It also helps everyone get on the same page and is a good communication tool for the team.
John: “Kanban gives the entire team a high-level overview of not only where the case or the matter is but where it’s going. This context helps teach the individual players on a team to see things more strategically. They can make better decisions and deliver better value to the client in those more nuanced behaviors if they understand the big picture. It allows the team to engage in a conversation around the work in ways that are harder to do when you have lists or spreadsheets or running these weekly or monthly case management conferences. It’s just harder to step back and see the forest for the trees.”
Communication Becomes Objective and More Productive
Because Agile law firms have a visual and tangible representation of what’s going on when they use Kanban, communication becomes more objective and productive. This observation comes as John noticed how Kanban cards are allowing teams to shift the conversation from “who didn’t do” to “what can we do.” Instead of pointing fingers as to who has not done a specific task to move the case forward, the conversation shifts to “what can be done so we can move this forward?”
John: “There’s something that I’ve noticed that’s really interesting about Kanban cards. It changes the nature of the conversation of the work and turns it into more of a team effort rather than an individual thing.”
When traditional legal teams get blocked because of a deliverable assigned to a person within the team, it’s easy to go to that person and ask “why is the deliverable not done yet?” It’s this manner of approaching the conversation that makes it feel more accusatory, as John would say. Using a Kanban board and having a card represent the work significantly changes the context of the conversation. Instead of focusing on who’s assigned to the task, the conversation focuses on the task itself and what needs to be done to unblock it.
As John would put it, “The Kanban board is almost like another entity in the room and allows you to talk about the work rather than the workers.” It facilitates more constructive and productive conversations where team members are less guarded and objective.
Level Up Your Legal Firms by Applying Agile Principles
We asked what John usually tells someone who’d like to explore Agile for their law firm. He shared that the first thing he says is, “Before you try to transform your team or practice or law firm, start with yourself.” A better appreciation of the methodology will allow you to experience firsthand what it can do and visualize what it can do for your law firm. You can start by using Personal Kanban to immerse yourself. Once you get into the motions of it, then try to chart a path for your organization. It’s always better to do this with a professional to guide you. You can spare you and your organization from a lot of mistakes and establish a stronger Agile foundation when you have a consultant working with you.
If you’re keen to start your Agile law firm journey, there’s no better time to start than now. Kanban is a lightweight Agile methodology that can help you transform your practice and enable your teams to deliver better value and service to your clients.