Time is a fixed resource, but creativity and constant improvement are multipliers that let you get more done with the same limited amount. Using an agile mindset and automation in your workflow can help you continually increase your productivity with limited time and deliver better outcomes and value to clients.
What is Agile and Why Use It?
Agile is based on 12 principles set out in the agile “manifesto” that applied the concept of lean manufacturing to software development. Loosely, these are:
- The priority is client satisfaction.
- Embrace changing developments and new problems.
- Deliver work as quickly and frequently as possible, prefer shorter timelines.
- Work should be performed collaboratively throughout the organization.
- Give your team the support they need and the autonomy to get the work done.
- Frequently meet with your team and collaborators face-to-face.
- A positive outcome work-product is the primary measure of progress.
- Sustainable work pace. The workload should be sustainable indefinitely by every member of your team.
- Continuous attention to technical excellence.
- Simplify the work you do, and the work that should not be done.
- Self-organizing teams.
- Regular reflection and iterating or adapting based on that reflection.
Taking these principles and applying them to services is not groundbreaking. Many firms have looked to adopt agile principles to better respond to changing client demands. There is no shortage of articles announcing the death of the billable hour. Every pronouncement of death has a well-reasoned counterpoint. Either way, now is a good time to adopt a system that lets you continue to increase your firm’s productivity, client satisfaction, and profits.
I don’t believe we should fervently adhere to each word of these principles. The agile mindset itself suggests that even the manifesto should be regularly reviewed and iterated on. Nonetheless, these principles capture the core idea of a methodology of constant improvement that can be applied to legal services.
Implementing Agile in Your Office
A roadmap to fully implementing agile thinking in your firm is beyond the scope of this article. Let’s instead look at a few of the principles that can serve as a starting point to redefining how you work and finding the tools to help you do more with your time. I’m only addressing four of the principles, which capture the essence of agile and automated thinking for firms.
In a billable model, there’s an important reason to separate who does the work. The rate you bill is dependent on who does the work. Agile is based instead on getting the work done as efficiently as possible by whoever is in the best position to do the work, without regard to their explicit role. In an agile world, you would instead decentralize into “self-organizing” teams. This essentially means that your teams are largely autonomous, capable of working together to complete related work. In a law firm, this may mean an interplay between an attorney, a paralegal, and an assistant. It could also be a collection of employees, like an intake team, who perform related work. The result is delivering work faster, as well as sharing ownership on important projects.
When you entrust these teams with the autonomy to plan and execute on their work without top-down management you build a culture of ownership, self-motivation, and belonging. This isn’t anarchy, and as a manager, you should design enough structure to keep things sparking, but not smoldering. Even Google, which famously worked without managers, eventually realized that management has its place.
You can automate tasks to support self-organization without unnecessarily forcing your will on the team. Using project-management software and detailed reporting, you can track the pulse of what’s getting done without forcing a strong opinion on how. Reporting and tracking can be useful for overall productivity, but can also be used as waypoints for your teams to self-assess their own performance and focus on continuous improvement. A tool as simple as a VOIP phone system with analytics can show your team how much time they spend on a call, how long calls are on hold, and which clients or sources are taking up most of their time. Other tools that track productivity beyond billable hours, like Hubstaff and others, can offer huge insights, especially as your team learns new workflows. Even if you are a solo, tracking these metrics can help you self-assess and continuously improve. The key is to use these automated tools to empower your team, not to make them feel watched and untrusted.
Sustainable work pace/simplify the work
I’ve lumped these together because flying through deadlines sounds great until you imagine you or your team collapsing at their desks. This is where another concept associated with agile thinking comes in: the Kanban board. A Kanban board is nothing more than a whiteboard with columns that represent different states of work such as “To do, Doing, Done.” If you add sticky notes to that board representing individual tasks, you get the idea. Because Kanban boards offer a way to visualize task management, there are many commercially available Kanban tools. “Kanban,” like “Scrum,” is another buzzword in the lean-agile world. An exhaustive explanation of the differences between these terms is beyond the scope of this article, but a wonderful overview can be found here.
A critical idea in Kanban, and why it’s mentioned here, is limiting the total “work in progress.” Think about the board as a factory floor and each task as a widget. As widgets flow into the “to do” column, there is limited room. To add more tasks once it’s full, a task needs to be moved to the “doing” column. If that’s also full, then nothing can be added unless a task is moved to “done.” Conceptualizing our work as having limits like this is critical whether we adopt an agile mindset or not. This is true for senior partners and entry-level assistants. A significant component of adopting an agile workflow will be identifying how much work your team (and individuals) can have in progress. Once you’ve figured this out, you are well on your way to a sustainable workflow.
If you have more tasks than your team can handle after you’ve achieved a sustainable workflow, you have options, and automation can help.
Constant reflection and adaptation can help optimize your work. Tasks could be taking too much time, turn out to be unnecessary, and maybe often be skipped. One member of your team could be a superstar on a task that’s taking others too long. Maybe you’re accepting the wrong cases. Many problems can be identified if your team is regularly reflecting, and you are willing to adapt based on what you see.
Many Kanban tools allow you to automate your work by setting up alerts when too many tasks are stacking up or when certain tasks are taking longer than expected. You may be able to automatically reassign tasks in real-time to balance workloads. Regularly look at the overall productivity of your team. By automating your reporting and notifications, you’ll be well-equipped to engage in regular reflection and improve your work in progress (WIP).
If you are using a practice-management solution, you may find task management to be antiquated. Few solutions are as robust as dedicated Kanban tools. But, some practice-management systems have APIs that will let you integrate your tasks with a third-party Kanban board like Trello. (You may have to use a tool like Zapier to implement the integration). Despite the additional work, I recommend it, or electing to keep the things you need to know (practice management) and the things you need to do (task management) separate.
Another tool to help maintain pace is document automation. Most practice management software offers basic generation from contact or matter information. Few offer sophisticated generation of complex documents. One popular tool that helps bridge the gap to complex documents is Textexpander, which allows you to create and share snippets throughout your organization. Until a comprehensive tool does both, creating a template that contains usable fields from your practice-management software and leaving the spaces where you need to insert complex passages blank or tagged for insertion will get you most of the way there. If a task is not essential, or doesn’t help deliver for your clients, figure out if you can cut it out.
Regular reflection and change
This is the most important concept in an agile and automated firm. At specific times and specific events, you need to plan and reflect on the work. Agile has some very opinionated concepts for these meetings, called “ceremonies,” but rather than exhaustively discuss and apply those, here is a simple adaptable starting point:
- Monday morning meetings. A brief 10-minute meeting to discuss the week’s work, and whether any work-stoppers or roadblocks are expected to get in the way.
- One-on-one meetings every Friday. How did it go? What can be improved? Once again, these should be shorter meetings. The reason I recommend a mix between team-meetings and one-on-ones is to empower your team members to speak a little more freely.
- Review at the end of every case. Review the outcome, speak with the client, identify what went right and what went wrong. What can be streamlined? What did the client feel had the most value, and what work did you do that wasn’t seen as important?
- Periodic meetings to discuss/implement changes. These should be held as often as practicable. Because adaptation should improve workflow, the sooner you can implement changes the better.
Everyone who does the work should either agree on—or at least understand—why a change is being made. As discussed above, these meetings give you a chance to guide your teams to better organization and decision-making.
If you’re a solo, these concepts are still important. Instead of a meeting, set your goals for the week. This doesn’t mean add tasks to your to-do list, as those should already be on your board. Instead, look at the week and record your priorities and what you need to accomplish your goals. At the end of the week, reflect on the completed work and compare it with your Monday morning goals. Did everything get done? Did you find yourself doing other work instead? What can you do to improve your workflow so you can accomplish more next week? There is no reason to limit this to “billable” work. Instead, this exercise can assist in networking advertising and the other “non-billable” things you do.
Automation and technology can help you with these meetings and reviews as well. Some Kanban tools offer detailed automatic reporting. Incorporating this data into your meetings will help prompt conversation. Additionally, consider having your team “rank” tasks. This can be useful when certain activities are repeated. For example, if you routinely handle litigation that has the same discovery deadlines and activities, you may have set up automation to generate all of the tasks and deadlines associated with that discovery. Have your team record basic info as they complete tasks rather than waiting for the Friday meeting. Tracking this in real-time will save time when reviewing the work. As a team leader or a solo, you should store the insights from each meeting. Periodically review this data for issues that come up more than once and use that to guide further improvements.
Using these concepts together, a lean-agile workflow will let you work smarter and deliver a better product and outcome for your clients. Calling on already available software tools will empower you to keep better track of your work and automate repetitive tasks or entire processes. All of this will let you accomplish more out of the one resource you can’t add: time.
About the Author
Rich Frankel is the managing partner of Bross & Frankel, P.A., a disability benefits law firm, and is the co-founder of Dendri, a software startup aiming to merge automated project and practice management tools in a single platform. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org