Agile is a project management methodology that is widely used within the software industry. Over time, its use has increased to now be practised within some of the biggest companies on the planet. But, is there a way that it can be applied to legal practice? This article will explore some of the most effective Agile tools that we can use within the legal industry and how they can assist your next legal project.

What is Agile?

In the last few decades, software companies have undergone dizzying growth. In 2008, the largest companies in the world came from a variety of different industries. Ten years later, the five largest companies in the world all fell within the IT industry.

2008 2018
Name Industry Name Industry
PetroChina Oil & gas Apple IT
Exxon Energy Google IT
GE Energy Microsoft IT
China Mobile Telecommunication Amazon IT
ICBC Banking Facebook IT

Aside from drastically changing the way our lives and work unfold, these technology companies have generated an entire alternate ecosystem of project management. Through necessity and intense competition, these project management systems have been designed around several core tenets, including:

  • speed;
  • cost-efficiency; 
  • transparency;
  • client needs;
  • flexibility;
  • simplification; and
  • collaboration.

One of the most famous and effective of the new project management styles is Agile. Developed over fifteen years ago by a group of ‘organisational IT anarchists’, Agile focuses primarily on delivering excellent products to customers through self-organising cross-functional teams which frequently adapt. 

Some of the largest technology companies in the world use Agile, including:

  • Cisco;
  • Microsoft; and 
  • Spotify. 

However, studies have shown that only half of project managers that use Agile methods work in the IT industry. The rest are spread across diverse sectors such as: 

  • marketing;
  • construction;
  • finance;
  • architecture; and 
  • education. 

The legal industry, too, is starting to benefit from Agile project management. We will take you through a number of these different Agile tools that you can use within legal practice.

Sprints

Sprints are one of the most popular tools in Agile. When a large project is undertaken, this process is broken down into a series of iterations, or ‘sprints’. These can be thought of as critical milestones or objectives that the team will achieve within a time period.  

Sprints help teams follow the agile value of responding to change over following a plan. Traditionally, law firms have relied more on the Waterfall project management method, where all required activities in the preceding phases are complete before you move on to the next. 

For example, law firms traditionally follow a linear approach when aiming to tackle the reviews of legal documents. This starts with junior lawyers reviewing all the documents and senior lawyers then checking their work. The client would typically see the work once, and feedback would likely only be obtained towards the end of the review project.

However, organising the workflow into sprints means it is an iterative and incremental process, involving:

  1. planning the task first (i.e. organising who will do the initial review, how will they do it and who will check their work);
  2. testing the process on a sample of documents;
  3. reviewing the process and getting feedback from the client;
  4. adapting it for any required changes; and
  5. running an improved version of it.  

When discerning the level of granularity with which you break down tasks, it is most useful to organise them in blocks of:

  • one hour;
  • two hours;
  • four hours; 
  • one day, or
  • two days.

Anything above these time blocks will begin to lose their effectiveness in your ability to track and allocate tasks.  

Retrospectives

A retrospective is a meeting that occurs after every sprint. The goal of this meeting is to highlight:

  1. what worked;
  2. what didn’t; and
  3. how to improve.

Undertaking retrospectives is an essential step in measuring the quality of legal work that your team has produced. It also ensures that the quality of work improves over time. These meetings can take many forms and may already happen informally across projects. 

The structure of a retrospective can take different forms, but a common example is an exercise known as ‘the 4 Ls’: 

  • liked;
  • learned;
  • lacked; and
  • longed for.

Liked

What did the team really enjoy about the sprint? In particular, what went better than expected?

For example, “we had daily standup meetings, which helped us understand the allocation of resources and timing of the audit project”.

Learned

What new things (technical or not) did the team learn during the sprint?

For example, “we learned how to do lease reviews using our custom-built software”.

Lacked

What things could the team have done better during the sprint?

For example, “we didn’t communicate regularly with the client to manage their expectations when delays occurred”.

Longed For

What things did the team desire to have during the sprint that was unavailable?

For example, “we wish we had dedicated time for reviewing documents with fewer distractions from other legal matters”.

Daily Standups

Implementing a structured method of discussing and acting on feedback will ensure higher standards of output over time. Daily standups are short meetings that aim to improve internal communication between team members. During these standups, teams should cover:

  1. what was completed yesterday;
  2. the specific goal for today; and
  3. any roadblocks that may distract or deter them from their goal.

Daily standups are particularly crucial for complex matters that may benefit from increased collaboration. This is because any potential issues can be raised with the group as a whole. This leverages the creative power of the entire group to find solutions.

Furthermore, within strongly hierarchical environments, there can often be hold-ups based on the availability of a senior lawyer or partner. Since priorities are set by this hierarchy, if a particular supervisor or partner is extremely busy for a number of days and thus inaccessible, a bottle-neck will arise. This means that a graduate lawyer will idly wait by, preventing them from continuing their work and thus contributing to a poor allocation of resources.

On the other hand, if all the members of a legal team that work on a matter participate in daily standups, the information will smoothly flow to the relevant members.

Backlog and Work in Progress Limit

Another key aspect of Agile is the backlog. Typically, in-house legal teams will receive instructions from the business, or work towards the desired goals of the general counsel. This makes up the scope of the work to be achieved, and these goals are known as ‘client stories’. The collection of these constitutes the backlog

To put it simply, the backlog is the client or business’ wishlist. It is crucial to identify clearly:

  1. the different tasks in the backlog;
  2. their order of priority; and
  3. the time involved in completing the tasks. 

The Work in Progress limit (WIP) refers to the maximum number of tasks that your team is expected to execute. By identifying the WIP limit, your team can focus attention on the most impactful actions and eliminate distractions. 

The ineffectiveness of multitasking has been widely studied and productivity researchers suggest that ‘single-tasking’ or ‘deep work’ is far more effective in getting things done. This is the problem that WIP aims to solve. 

An integral part of the WIP is the prioritisation of tasks. Although this may seem obvious, dedicating some thought to prioritisation can be very beneficial. 

After writing down ten tasks for the day, take a step back and analyse what is most important. You may find that completing one task on the list negates the need for other tasks to get done. 

For example, your to-do list might consist of:

  • finalise hiring the new paralegal;
  • finish sorting documents for case X by the end of the month; and
  • organise the delivery of Y by the end of next week.

In this situation, if you finalise hiring the new paralegal, the remaining two tasks can be delegated to this new hire. 

Kanban board

Another game-changer tool in the Agile arsenal is the Kanban board. A Japanese term meaning ‘visible record’, it is basically a communal board (either physical or digital) that tracks all the necessary tasks and their status. The primary goal of this framework is to visualise and centralise the workflow of the team. This tool helps to convey efficiently:

  • what has been done;
  • what needs to get done; and 
  • any issues that exist.

As most people are visual learners, this method of representing and tracking a project allows for efficient analysis of the project.

Each task is symbolised by a post-it or digital card with the title of the task written on it. Extra information can be added, including the:

  • priority (for example: red = high, orange = medium, green = low)
  • person responsible; and
  • due date.

Key Takeaways

Agile is one of the most effective project management tools that currently exist. Over the past fifteen years, its use has spread rapidly amongst the world’s biggest companies. Agile is now used across many non-IT industries and can be applied to legal work. To get started with implementing Agile principles within your legal team, break up projects into much smaller pieces, each with specific aims for your team. If you need assistance with legal process design within your legal team, contact LegalVision’s Legal Transformation lawyers on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page.

About LegalVision: LegalVision is a tech-driven, full-service commercial law firm that uses technology to deliver a faster, better quality and more cost-effective client experience.
Amritha Thiyagarajan

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