The Dawn of the Agile Attorney

A pen, a pack of sticky notes, and a wall: not things most of us would think of as a technology solution in 2015. But with these tools and few hours of training in a workflow management system known as Kanban, immigration attorney Greg McLawsen has made significant improvements in his firm’s ability to process matters more quickly and effectively. The result: happier clients and an improved bottom line.

“I’ve implemented a lot of different technologies since opening the firm,” says McLawsen. “And without a doubt, Kanban has been the cheapest technology we’ve implemented, because it was basically free, but it was also the easiest. In terms of return on investment and energy, it has been hands-down the best thing we’ve done to improve the practice.”

McLawsen’s firm, Puget Sound Legal in Tacoma, WA, is on the forefront of a new generation of lawyers who are looking to technology companies not just to buy the tools they build, but to learn and adapt the methods they use to build them. Those methods, loosely grouped under the moniker “Agile,” have revolutionized the way modern businesses deliver their products and run their operations. They stand to do the same for the legal industry.

Anyone who has followed the tech industry closely over the past 10 years knows that the rise of Agile techniques has significantly improved the way that leading companies manage their projects and deliver their products and services. In 2010, Forrester Research reported that 35 percent of technology companies had adopted Agile methods, but by 2013 another report found adoption rates approaching 75 percent. Moreover, businesses have reported that their Agile projects were implemented more quickly, suffered significantly fewer failures, and resulted in higher customer satisfaction than their traditionally managed counterparts.

Successful players like Google, Facebook, and Spotify have famously used Agile and its many offspring—Scrum, Kanban, Lean Startup, and others—to deliver to customers more quickly, be more responsive to change, empower their workers, and improve their bottom line.

Legal tech firms are no different, with established businesses like Avvo, Clio, and Rocket Lawyer, and up-and-comers like Shake, BanyanRFP, and Legal Trek all using Agile techniques to inform and improve their workflows. It begs the question, if Agile works so well for the knowledge-worker world of software development, why haven’t more lawyers adopted Agile for the delivery of legal services?

“A lot of it is because Agile is so new,” says Alicia Lanier, an operations consultant who specializes in applying Agile techniques to non-software businesses. “Agile as a cohesive discipline only goes back about 14 years, and it has taken some time for it to gain traction in the tech world. Non-technology businesses are only just starting to become aware of its power.”

So what is Agile? At its core, it is a philosophy—one that emphasizes collaboration among customers and team members, a focus on solving customer problems over simply fulfilling requests, and responsiveness to change. A number of tool sets have cropped up under the Agile umbrella to help define and describe customer value, facilitate communication and collaboration among team members, and focus efforts on iterative (rather than sequential) delivery of products and services. In many ways, Agile is the direct descendant of Lean Manufacturing principles, but instead of optimizing the factory floor, Agile is native to the more conceptual world of knowledge work. The original Agile Manifesto centers on software, but its teachings are equally applicable to other knowledge industries.

“Agile techniques have helped us better understand the problems that our customers need us to solve,” says Ivan Rasic, a lawyer and CEO of Law Practice Management startup LegalTrek. “As a result of Agile thinking, especially Lean Startup principles, we are able to move very quickly to implement and improve features that create immediate value for our customers. Also, by defining proposed tasks using the user story framework, we focus our resources on building solutions to real problems rather than just implementing features and hoping they meet a need.”

Another lawyer turned legal-tech founder agrees. After a 20-year career as outside and in-house counsel, Dave Sampsell founded BanyanRFP, a cloud-based platform that helps businesses manage proposals from law firms to make more informed and cost-effective counsel selection decisions. Although Sampsell learned Agile in the software context, he believes it is a good fit for legal work. “So many lawyers struggle to grasp the most basic concepts of project management,” Sampsell says. “But part of that is because the amount of up-front planning required by traditional project management is really hard in the uncertain context of legal matters. Agile methods make project management easier by breaking the project down and rapidly delivering valuable work to the customer. That, in turn, encourages a cadence of communication and collaboration with the customer that allows the project to adjust its course continuously to satisfy the client’s needs.”

One hallmark of Agile practitioners is their use of visual workflow systems like Kanban boards to represent processes and the many tasks the flow through them. “Once I put my workflow into Kanban, I knew I could never see it another way again,” says Jason Gershenson, a solo attorney who counsels technology businesses in New York and Oregon. “I love being able to see all of my work in progress at a glance, and having the steps in my workflow laid out visually really focuses me on finishing tasks and delivering work—work that I get paid for—to my clients.”

“Not only that,” Gershenson continues, “many of my clients use Agile in their own workflows, so it is a competitive advantage for me to speak their language. When potential clients hear that I use Agile to run my law practice, or see the Kanban board in my office, they know that I’m committed to understanding my customer’s value proposition and delivering services that truly work for them.”

Lanier sees 2015 as the year Agile will flourish in industries outside of technology. Her clients have included the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, where she has used Agile frameworks to refine complex workflows and manage projects. “Businesses recognize that Agile techniques help produce better outcomes and lower risks for many types of projects and processes,” she says. “Early adopters can use Agile thinking to gain a competitive advantage today, but in a few years I expect Agile to become standard practice in other industries just as it has in software.”

Sampsell feels the same way, especially when it comes to using Agile for legal work. “It is clear to me, having gone through the process of developing software using Agile methodologies, that law can learn an awful lot about project and product management from other disciplines,” he says. “Lawyers who adopt Agile are going to be in a better position to deliver services efficiently—and deliver a greater sense of client value—than those who don’t.”

A brief glossary of Agile terms:

Agile: A group of product development and project management methods that promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change.

Lean: A building block to Agile, Lean is a process improvement methodology that emerged from manufacturing and which focuses on improving the delivery of customer value by removing as waste any activities that do not add value.

Scrum: An Agile delivery framework that empowers cross-functional teams to deliver working units of incremental value over a series of short (usually 1-3 week) time periods known as Sprints.

Kanban Board: A visual work management tool that uses columns on the board to represent various stages of a system or workflow, and uses individual cards (often sticky notes) to represent individual tasks or work within the system.

Kanban: A delivery framework similar to Scrum but that doesn’t use Sprints to define delivery periods. Kanban’s flexibility makes it commonly used outside of software development for both personal productivity and team workflow management.

Lean Startup: A business and product development framework that discourages long-term development cycles in favor of the rapid creation of a Minimum Viable Product and subsequent iteration of that product. Followers of Lean Startup principles use hypothesis-driven testing of products and processes to gain Validated Learning that capitalizes on positive results and helps avoid repeated mistakes.

User Story: A requirements gathering framework that captures feature requests in the context of customer roles and needs. User stories follow the rough format “As a _______, I need to be able to _____________, so that I can ________________.”

About the Author

John E. Grant is the founder of Agile Attorney Consulting in Portland, OR. He can be reached on Twitter at @JEGrant3.




(Image Credit: ShutterStock)

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