We’ve all heard the phrase, “work smarter, not harder”. In theory, teams should always be looking for opportunities to streamline efficiencies and improve processes, but implementing those efforts is a task on its own. Over the last decade, agile methodologies have been making an impact on the way many corporations run their day-to-day operations, and now, the legal industry is taking notice and making changes to streamline legal operations.
Law Practice Today describes Agile methodology like this: “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.”
Why bring agility to legal?
While there are many theories and techniques for implementing agile methodologies in your workplace, they all seem to trace their origins to the Kanban method. In its most basic form, Kanban uses visual signals, as simple as post-it notes on a board, to trigger response actions.
Agile in the workplace is perhaps best known in the software engineering world, where project management is critical to timely delivery of software that works as intended – and iterative delivery is expected and encouraged.
Essentially, agile methodology is a form of project management that involves dividing tasks into short work phases with frequent assessments and change of plans. This ability to adapt to change makes agile ideal for legal projects – which often change as new information is uncovered, strategies evolve, and deadlines are moved.
At its core, agile 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.
Legal inefficiences – solved with agile processes
The legal system is not known for efficiency. In some legal circles, it’s common practice to immediately file for extensions when facing any deadline – whether reasonable or otherwise. Legal project management as a practice is somewhat new, and there’s room for improvement for focusing on process improvement or workflow efficiency.
Legal teams looking to deliver services efficiently and effectively must learn what parts of their workflow deliver the most client value, then reduce or eliminate any activities that don’t meet those criteria. That, in turn, requires listening to your clients to understand their needs and their values. That is very different than “trying to do all of the things more quickly.”
Without truly understanding what clients, need, lawyers can waste activity on things that lawyers perceive as necessary to keep matters moving but that do not result in a noticeable benefit from the client's perspective.
So what does “legal agility” look like in legal operations?
A visual representation of the project timeline promotes transparency, accountability, and collaboration across departments. Whether a team's board is physical or digital, its function is to ensure the team's work is visualized, their workflow is standardized, and all blockers and dependencies are immediately identified and resolved.
Benefits of agile for legal include:
- Planning flexibility. A “Kanban-style agile team” is only focused on the work that's actively in progress. Once the team completes a work item, they pluck the next work item off the top of the backlog. The product owner is free to reprioritize work in the backlog without disrupting the team because any changes outside the current work items don't impact the team. As long as the product owner keeps the most important work items on top of the backlog, the development team is assured they are delivering maximum value back to the business.
- Less wasted time. In an agile framework, it's the entire team's responsibility to ensure work is moving smoothly through the process. When the entire project is visible, team members can provide input on ways to increase efficiencies and prevent productivity gaps.
- Fewer bottlenecks. When teams work on multiple projects, the results are wasted time and inefficiency. A key part of Kanban is to limit the amount of work-in-progress (WIP) items at any given time. Work-in-progress limits highlight bottlenecks and backups in the team's process due to lack of focus, people, or skill sets.
- Cost savings. If your legal team can work efficiently, deliver value for clients, and charge 20 percent less for each engagement, the repeat work and referrals will more than make up the difference in billings per project.