Three Steps to Improved Legal Operations

A few weeks ago I woke up on a Saturday to a small explosion on my Twitter feed (when you write on an arcane topic like legal operations, small explosions seem significant). Turns out Joshua Lenon from Clio was presenting at the LegalLean conference in Toronto, where he was liberally and admittedly teaching from this very blog*. His presentation is great, and you can watch it below.

Stealing back from Josh, I really like one of the things he talks about at the end pertaining to legal process/project management and I want to try to expand on it a little.

First some background: at about 19:15 in the video, Josh very rapidly goes through some Altman Weil bullets on legal project management. The slides are full of “best practices” and “conventional wisdom” on traditional project management, and as a result they have at least three problems:

(1) They are long and boring. Josh knows this and he blows through them pretty quickly.

(2) They represent a level of investment in time, effort, and people that is simply not realistic for most small to mid-sized law firms (and is still a burden on the big ones). Traditional project management has the potential to improve product and service delivery, but it requires a substantial amount of overhead to implement and sustain.

(3) Although the goals behind traditional project management are noble, the methods themselves have been soundly rejected by some of the leading businesses of our time (Apple, Google, etc) as too cumbersome and inefficient. The conventional wisdom has changed, and Agile project management is the future. But as always, there is a lot of momentum (not to mention lucrative turf to defend) in the status quo.

Josh responds to these issues by identifying what he calls “Easy Project Management” (though it probably should be called “Easy Process Improvement.”) He suggests the following:

  1. Find something you’re good at. (Josh uses proper grammar on his slide)
  2. Figure out why you’re good at it.
  3. Use that experience to guide future actions.
  4. Repeat.

These suggestions are 100% consistent with the Retrospective, one of the four main rituals of an Agile approach to project management and process improvement. And yes, Agile is about both. Many people put too much emphasis on the former, and Agile is powerful as a project management and productivity tool. But where it really thrashes traditional project management is its framework for continuous improvement (or kaizen, as the Lean folks call it).

Let me digress a bit further and give a very quick overview of the first three rituals that lead to the Retrospective. The first is the Planning Meeting (called Sprint Planning in Scrum, which is the Agile method Josh describes when he talks about Clio’s own process at about 4:45 in the video), where the Team decides what it will work on. The second is the Daily Standup, a regular check-in meeting where everyone on the team is expected to answer a version of the following three questions: (1) What have you accomplished since our last standup? (2) What do you intend to accomplish by the next one? and (3) What roadblocks are in your way? The third ritual is the Review Meeting (or Sprint Review), where the team meets back with the business owner to show what they’ve actually delivered.

Which gets us back to the fourth ritual, the Retrospective. This is where Josh’s description comes close to the typical Agile practice. Where the first three rituals are mainly about the Work, the Retrospective is about the Process for doing the work. Like the standup, it follows a strict three-question format, and everyone on the team is expected to participate. The questions are simple:

  1. What went well that we should keep doing?
  2. What didn’t go well that we should stop doing?
  3. What should we try that is different?

The team’s answers to these questions should be captured, and ideally displayed in a common area during the next delivery period (I like to post them right next to the team’s Kanban board). That way, if a team member starts to drift away from an acknowledged good practice, or towards an admitted faulty one, you’ve got something right there on the wall to remind everyone what the team agreed to.

Even outside the framework of Agile delivery, these three questions are incredibly powerful tools for checking in with your team (or yourself) to set the stage for improvement. I think this is what Josh was getting at with his four steps (and I’m sure he’ll correct me if it’s not). The bottom line is that for consistent and continuous improvement, it is essential to check in on a regular basis, acknowledge both strengths and shortcomings, and come up with a plan to capitalize on the former and reduce the latter.

And the power of these questions isn’t limited to self-reflection. I ask them of clients, I ask them of vendors and other partners,  and I’ve even used them with my friends and family to check in from time to time. I encourage you to do the same. Again, even if you’re not using Agile (yet), I encourage you to set aside time on your calendar every few weeks to conduct a retrospective, or have one with your team. You’ll be amazed at what you can improve when you give yourself permission and space to work on it. It may not be “billable work,” but I guarantee it will pay off.

As always, let me know your thoughts and/or questions. And if you want to start a conversation about how you can use Agile methods in your delivery of legal services or your legal operations, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

*Answers to common questions I get about this: No, I wasn’t mad, I was delighted. I’ve made it my mission to teach lawyers how to be more Agile, and I’ve got a sign above my personal Kanban board that says “Start a movement.” I truly believe that Agile methodologies provide the keys to unlocking value in legal services and I want the world to know it, so I can’t very well get huffy when someone grabs the ball and runs with it. Besides, I have huge admiration for Josh, he did a great job, and he was more than gracious about it. So please, take my ideas (most of which I’ve borrowed anyway), shape them, advance them, and recruit others to them—the practice of law will be better for it.

© 2015 John E. Grant.

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