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An Agile Law Firm? It Exists, and It's Getting Results

April Runft

Editor's Note: Originally published in late 2016, this interview on living an Agile lifestyle in the legal field still garners views and feedback from our readers. Take a look to find lasting insights that can help you work smarter, not harder.

During our recent webinar “9 Habits of Resilient Information Leaders,” panelists revealed that one of the top habits is to “stay agile”—practicing the Agile methodology’s tenets of failing fast and iterating quickly.

Software companies have been using the Agile mindset for over a decade, and other disciplines have followed suit. But does the Agile movement—which emphasizes iterative work, faster timelines, and more adaptable project planning—have legs in the legal field? At Relativity, we’re big believers in Agile development—and it seems like a strong fit for e-discovery services, too, given the emphasis on flexible responses to rapid change and purposeful project management.

After the webinar, research led us to John E. Grant’s blog about “the Agile Attorney.” John is an attorney, legal operations specialist, and vocal champion for bringing Lean and Agile tactics to the practice of law. He wrote “The Dawn of the Agile Attorney” in 2015. We sat down with John to learn more about the Agile attorney concept.

The Relativity Blog: Why bring Agile to the legal field?

John: There are a few reasons. First, I became a lawyer after nearly a decade in the software industry. When I got into private practice, the inefficiency of the legal system in general—and most often of opposing counsel—was maddening. I recognize that “due process” is inefficient by design—there’s a certain element of the law that is intentionally inefficient to level the playing field. But many lawyers seem to have taken it to an absurd extreme. For example, I know many lawyers who, when faced with a 30-day deadline to make a filing, will immediately file for an extension. To me, that reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of process improvement and flow efficiency.

Second, lawyers generally—and especially in-house counsel—often tell me, “I wish I could spend less time fighting fires and more time on strategic work.” But the problem is that firefighting is a self-fulfilling spiral. Handling urgent tasks gives us a certain sense of reward—it feels good. But the more you do the urgent things, the less time you will have to spend on the things that are strategic and truly important, but not necessarily urgent.

Third, law firms and attorneys often haven’t taken the time to define what “delivering value” for clients looks like. This results in activity wasted on things that lawyers perceive as necessary to keep matters moving but that don’t actually result in a noticeable benefit from the client perspective. I often tell people that efficiency itself is a terrible goal. You can’t achieve true efficiency by trying to do all of the things more quickly. Instead, you have to learn what parts of your 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. Only then can you prioritize the elements of your work-stream so you’re emphasizing the value-added steps and spending less effort on the rest.

Defining value, then shaping operations around delivering it, helps attorneys focus on what's truly important. Tweet this.

What does Agile look like for an attorney?

Lean thinking has resulted in incredible advancements for physical product manufacturing, but those workflows have the advantage of being highly visible by nature. Unfortunately, the nature of knowledge work, including legal work, is that it’s often invisible to ourselves and to others. Agile methodologies create an interface layer that helps make Lean thinking easier to apply in knowledge work environment—it creates a visual analog for that work and allows us to see work in progress.

When I start working with a new attorney or legal team, I usually ask them to start with small steps.

My first recommendation is to try what’s called a “Kanban board” for one day. Invest a few bucks for painter’s tape and a pack of sticky notes, and be willing to make space on a wall of your work area. If you have a white board, all the better. Next:

  1. Mark out three columns, one for each stage of work: “to do;” “doing;” and “done.”
  2. Think about the tasks you reasonably expect to finish today, and write each one on a sticky note.
  3. Stick those tasks in a single vertical “to do” column, with your highest-priority task at the top and going down in descending order. (Tip: You’ll probably include too many tasks at first, but it’s helpful to learn this for yourself.)
  4. Starting with your first task, move it into the “doing” column. Work on that task to completion, then move it into “done.”

This is Kanban in its simplest form. It can go a lot of directions from there, even being built out to include numerous cases and other attorneys. But I try to get people to follow a simple guideline: don’t add complexity until you can articulate a clear need for it. The “KISS” principle definitely applies.

One thing that people often find helpful is creating a column off to the left of “to do” called “brain dump” (if you’re familiar with the “Getting Things Done” methodology, you’ll recognize this tool). It lets you capture the random thoughts and tasks that pop into your mind while you’re working on something in the “doing” column, put them in a designated space, then let them go. It’s totally natural to get distracted, but most people are aware by now that multi-tasking actually hampers productivity.

What kind of results are you seeing?

One attorney I worked with had an immigration practice and averaged 3-5 applications per month, working on a flat fee per application. We set up a Kanban board in her home office, and the next month after making her work visible, she closed 9 files—essentially doubling her throughput. Putting her work on the board let her actually see the matters flowing through her systems. She was able to be more proactive and move away from the common mentality of “start as many files as you can, then deal with the emergencies.” And because her work was all based on flat fees, it gave a nice boost to her revenues.

What’s interesting is that, though the extra money is nice, attorneys I work with consistently say that what they like most about the system is that they sleep better at night. With their work visible and in its proper place, they spend far less time worrying about the state of their matters.

What are the barriers to adoption?

Getting started with Kanban is low cost and low risk. The biggest barrier is challenging the status quo.

With flat fee work, cutting wasteful activity and accelerating the delivery of value makes obvious sense; every additional minute you spend on work subtracts from your profit. In an hourly billing environment, however, improved productivity isn’t as clearly your friend.

But the reality is, since 2008, more and more legal services have become a buyer’s market. The days of “open checkbook” litigation are generally a thing of the past. Clients are asking legal teams to cut spending, setting fee caps, and dictating budgets.

So even if you bill hourly, if your firm can work efficiently, deliver value for clients, and charge $80,000 for what would have previously been a $100,000 engagement, you’re more likely to get repeat work and referrals. Being known as a “Lean practice” holds definite brand benefit. But that notion requires top-down leadership support.

The movement has already begun. Firms like Seyfarth Shaw LLP, Davis Wright Tremaine, and my new firm, Fisher Phillips, are using Lean and Agile methods to drive positive changes for their clients. But firm cultures can’t change overnight. Adopting these new mindsets requires a few influential attorneys with the courage to challenge the status quo. It will mean bringing data to make the case, telling success stories, and admitting mistakes.

One office I worked with started with a basic Kanban course for three attorneys and the marketing guy. They found it immensely helpful, put up their own boards, and word started to get around. By the time they invited me back a couple of months later, there were eight attorneys using Kanban, and when I left that time there were 15. I even wound up giving a special session after a couple of senior partners pulled me aside and said, “What’s this sticky note thing all about? Can you show us how it works?”

What resources do you recommend for someone interested in learning more?

Give Kanban a try for a day. My in-progress e-book Kanban for Attorneys can provide additional detail on getting started. There’s a global Slack group for attorneys implementing Lean worldwide to share success stories and challenges (tweet me at @jegrant3 for an invite). There are also nationwide Legal Hackers groups for those generally interested in bringing innovation to the legal industry.

How might your team be more agile in your law or e-discovery practice? Let us know in the comments below.

April Runft is a member of the marketing communications team at Relativity, specializing in content development.

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