Introducing My First Online Course

I’m excited today to launch a new product line, Agile Attorney Learning, and the first product in that line, an online course titled Agile Productivity for Legal Professionals.

Here’s how it came to be:

I was at ABA Techshow a few weeks ago watching Jess Birken & Charity Anastasio deliver a talk about Kanban for Lawyers, which I think is great. My goal has always been to start a movement around Agile tools for legal professionals, so I love that others are spreading the gospel. Jordan Couch was in the room, who has also been teaching Kanban a fair bit lately. 

Here’s the thing: I know I taught Kanban to Jess and Jordan, and I’m pretty sure Jordan taught Charity (or maybe it was Greg McLawsen, I’m not sure).

So I was standing in the back with the amazing Aastha Madaan (also an agile attorney) and I jokingly whispered to her, “I should start a video library of other people teaching my stuff.” Her response surprised me: She jabbed her elbow into my ribs and said, loud enough for a few people to turn around, “You should start a video library of *you* teaching your stuff, you dope!”

I knew immediately she was right. Or rather, I’ve known it for a while (in part because Jess and others have been telling me too). But, as can so easily happen, I’d been blocked on actually getting it out. I have a sticky note on the wall next to my desk that asks the question, “Are you procrastinating to avoid failure?” But even that reminder isn’t always enough.

Aastha’s elbow was my tipping point, however. So for the last couple of weeks I’ve been building lessons and testing content to get ready for this initial launch.

I call it a soft launch ’cause I’m actually building the course Lean Startup style (and eventually I’ll include a lesson about what that means). As of today I’ve generated enough lessons that I’m comfortable launching as a Minimum Viable Product, and I’ve priced the course accordingly. 

Anyone who enrolls now will get locked in at that price—no additional charges no matter how many lessons I add. As I add content, however, I’ll also ratchet up the price bit by bit to reflect the value of the total content in the course.

But I also want to include a special deal for those of you who have been listening and supporting and working with me this whole time, which is why I set up a special coupon where the first 30 people who enroll in the course get it for free forever! In exchange, I hope you’ll engage with the lessons and give me your feedback so that I can continue to deliver valuable content and improve upon what’s already there.

Once those 30 slots are gone (and a bunch of them got claimed from a single tweet I sent earlier today), I’m offering the next 30 slots at a discounted rate, so if that first link stops working you can click this one for the early adopter rate. After that, I’m going to let the course stand on its own for a while to make sure I’ve got the value premise right.

(Crazy as it sounds, one amazing person has told me that they want to pay the full price in order to support my work. If you’re one of those people, you go to the regular course page. Megan Zavieh I’m looking at you ?.)

Special thank yous to Aastha, Jess, Jordan, Greg, & Charity for spreading the word about Agile methods for lawyers. And also to Ernie Svenson for his advice and encouragement, and to Sam Glover, Matt Homann, Aaron Street, and the entire class of the Lawyerist TBD2 (now LabCon) conference for continuing to encourage me to draw the owl!

Finally, you may have noticed that I’ve put my office hours sessions on hold for now. Partly that was due to a crazy travel schedule through February (5 weeks in a row) and partly due to me going heads down in building out this course. I do hope to start them up again, but I’ll be on spring break with my kiddos next week so it will be at least a couple of weeks. 

I’ll likely change the format too; I enjoyed the conversations I had, but demand wasn’t exactly beating down the door so I’m going to re-work a few things before it returns. You can still sign up though and you’ll be the first to know whatever format it takes.

As always, I’d love to hear from you about the course or any other topic. Please don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

Quality Standards Prevent Mistakes

Quality standards prevent mistakes.

As a standalone sentiment it seems like a no-brainier. Lawyers strive for quality: how often have you seen lawyer marketing with claims like “We provide our clients with the highest quality legal work,” or “We do quality work at an outstanding value”?

Of course we strive for quality. It’s why people hire professionals like us, and it’s what we’re trained to do (especially when it is drilled into us by our superiors).

Why, then, do lawyers keep messing up?Continue reading

Handoffs Are Making Your Matters Late

Unless you’re a lone wolf, your project is going to have hand-offs.

Sorry, did I say “project?” I forgot for a moment that this is a legal blog. I meant “matter.” Or “case.” Or whatever else you call that “individual or collaborative enterprise that is carefully planned and designed to achieve a particular aim.”1  For consistency with the rest of the business world, let’s call it a project.

Oh, and even if you’re a lone wolf you’ll have at least one hand-off (assuming you have a client). Unless you’re working on something for yourself and you plan to work it from start to finish in one sitting, every project has some transfer of work from one resource to another. And those transfers are one of the biggest reasons your projects fall behind schedule. (They are far from the only reason, which is why I’m calling this post Part 1).

The most obvious source of a hand-off is when the project (or any task within it) passes from one person to another in order to get something done. But there are many others that are a little less intuitive. Handoffs exist between attorneys and clients, attorneys and supporting professionals, attorneys and other attorneys, and even one person and that person’s future self (as when you put down one project to pick up another, and eventually have to get back to the first one).

Why are hand-offs so problematic? You probably have an intuitive sense of some reasons, but let’s dive in a little and see why they are so fraught with peril.

1. Boolean Logic

Okay so this might be an esoteric place to start, but it really is the simplest. There is a simple logical rule that says that for every new dependency in a project (hand-offs, by definition, involve dependencies), your chances of the overall project being late doubles. This was articulated by Agile mentor Troy Magennis at his 2015 Agile Alliance talk and echoed by Dominica DeGrandis in her excellent book Making Work Visible.

Think about it like this: For every dependency necessary to deliver a project, there are two possible outcomes for the timing of the project’s delivery: On-Time, and Late. (Theoretically you could deliver early, but when was the last time that happened?)

For a single dependency, then, there are just two options, and (for now) let’s assume each has a 50% likelihood.

What happens when you add a dependency? Well, each one has a 50% likelihood of delivering their part of the project on-time, but the likelihood of the overall project landing on-time gets cut in half. Why? Well in one possible scenario it is easy to see: if both dependencies are late the overall project will be late. But what happens if one resource is on-time while the other is late? Of course that makes the overall project late too (baring heroics from the on-time resource). Only in one of the four possible scenarios will the project deliver on-time, and that’s when both resources deliver on-time. That means the project has a 25% chance of being on-time (half of what it was with a single resource).

Add a third resource and the likelihood of delivering on-time drops to 12.5%—just 1 in 8. This starts to get a little harder to hold in your head, but the picture below illustrates the possible outcomes.

Add a fourth resource, and the chances of delivering on-time halves again (6.25%), and again, and again, until getting something out the door on-schedule starts to look pretty bleak.

2. The Planning Fallacy, Optimism Bias, and Parkinson’s Law

Of course the model above is a simplistic one. Surely you and your team are experienced enough at what you do that you all can deliver on-time more than half the time, right? Just because you’re capable of delivering on-time, however, doesn’t mean that you will.

Three cognitive biases conspire to rob you of your on-time delivery even under the best of circumstances.

The first is the Planning Fallacy. First articulated by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and his research partner Amos Tversky  Kahneman defines the bias as the “tendency to underestimate the time, costs, and risks of future actions and at the same time overestimate the benefits of the same actions.” This is true even when you’ve worked on similar tasks before, because we tend to see the successes of our past behavior as a normal part of the work but we view any shortcomings as one-off occurrences that are unlikely to recur.

That last part is known as the Optimism Bias, and it is wrapped up in our very egos. We tend to overestimate our own abilities (while simultaneously underestimating the abilities of others), and we also tend to want to present ourselves in a favorable, capable light. That’s all well and good when it comes to social signaling, but it is a handicap when it comes to estimating how long it will take you do get things done.

Let’s say we’re hip to our own lesser instincts though, and we recognize that we need to give ourselves more time than we think to get things done. Maybe you go with the conventional wisdom and double or triple your gut instinct in order to avoid delivery. Or maybe you’re even geekier and you’ve joined the “multiply by π” bandwagon. In any event you’ve left yourself plenty of cushion to make sure you don’t fall behind schedule.

Unfortunately that’s where Parkinson’s Law kicks in, the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time allotted for its completion.” Now this one doesn’t have quite the scientific backing as the others, but as a rule of thumb in the business world it is probably better known.

There are a couple of things that come into play with Parkinson’s Law. For one, when we have a long time in which to complete something, we have a tendency not to start working on it until the deadline feels imminent. When we delay starting, we delay learning—especially learning whether the assumptions we’ve made about the project length and complexity are any good. If things proceed more or less as we expected them to then the delayed start may not be a problem (more on that in a sec), but if any unknown unknowns rear their ugly head then the timeline is at risk.

The true sense of Parkinson’s Law is that we all have a tendency to stretch out the work itself. Need to do some legal research? With a longer deadline you’re more likely to dive down some rabbit holes. Drafting a contract or a brief? You might spend a little more time than necessary noodling on the TPS clause, or making one extra argument, or reading through it an extra time or two to second-guess yourself check for errors. Expand the work too-early in the process, however, and you become susceptible to surprises in the latter part of your work that can still cause delays.

Let’s say you know all about these biases and make a good effort to prevent them; unfortunately, as I said before, they are nasty conspirators. Take the Optimism Bias: You take it fully into account and give yourself the exact right timeline. But the flip side of out optimism about ourselves is our pessimism around the capabilities of others. So you’ll tend to give your assistant, or your client, or your partner, a little extra time to do their part.

But when the task lands on their desk, then their own optimism bias kicks in. They think your deadline is way too long, so they’ll have a tendency to delay their own start, expand the work, etc. Even when you’ve done your part (say you’re resource 1 in the graphic above), it is really hard to control for the dependencies.

3. Queues

The third killer stems from the fact that hand-offs are rarely hand-to-hand. More often they are hand-to-inbox, or worse, hand-to-flung-over-the-fence. When a hand-off is anything but instantaneous, it inevitably becomes part of a queue—a limbo state—while it waits for the needed resource to become available.

Queues are a silent killer of productivity, especially in a profession that pays an inordinate amount of attention to metrics like utilization and then designs its incentives accordingly. Queues are a funny thing, simultaneously weighty and invisible; important yet neglected. And they have strange properties.

Take Little’s Law (a component of Queueing Theory), which teaches us that the length of time a single item will spend waiting in each part of a queue actually grows longer for every additional item that is also in queue. It is a remarkable finding backed up by empirical evidence: even the item that is next-in-line will wait longer in that penultimate state if there are lots of items lining up behind it than it would if it were the only thing in queue.

Think about all of the different queues most of us have controlling access to our attention: email, voicemail, appointments, to-do lists, productivity apps like Slack or Asana, and unproductivity apps like social media. Each of them demands our attention and queues up items for us to process. Little’s Law tells us that each of those additional items has a cost, and that’s before the additional effort needed to review and prioritize everything.

The proliferation of queues makes it hard for anyone to find a single source of truth as to what they should be working on next. Some queues simply become black holes while we spend our time and attention on other inputs, while often those inputs are actively hijacking your attention to impose someone else’s priorities upon you.

Those queues, in Lean parlance, are pure waste. Investment without benefit, neither to the customer nor to you, the provider. From the customer’s point-of-view, they do nothing but delay the delivery of value they’re paying for. And for you, they add nothing to the bottom line while taking time and attention and resources to manage. The project itself is WIP, or work-in-progress, that dreaded state where investment has been made but can yield no returns. It is a necessary evil, but one that should be managed and minimized.

One last thing about queues: they form even if the resource you are handing work off to is your future self. Every time you finish part of a project and put it down with the intention of finishing later, it goes back into queue. Once in queue it waits, and forces the other things in queue to wait, for your attention to return. In fact, you could go back up to the graphic in section 1 of this post and insert your “future self” as any of the resources you are handing-off work to; something that even lone-wolves are prone to do.

4. What to do about it

I’ll dive deeper into solutions in future posts, but for now a few things for you to try to minimize the effects of hand-offs in your workflows:

1) Eliminate unnecessary hand-offs. If your project gets initiated by Alice, gets worked on by Ben whose work is reviewed by Alice before going back to Ben for more processing, consider whether you’re passing things back-and-forth more often than necessary. Maybe Alice can do a little more up front so that Ben can do all of his tasks at once. Or maybe she can wait for her review until Ben has finished both chunks of work. Remember, any hand-off you can eliminate doubles the likelihood that your project will be delivered on-time.

2) Make deadlines, even arbitrary or artificial ones. If the work is in your court, give yourself a timebox for completing it. If it is passing to someone over whom you have authority, set an actual deadline. Or if it is someone you can only hope to influence, give them a deadline anyway—especially if that someone is a client.

And make the deadline a little shorter than you might think is needed (but consider giving people an opportunity to ask for an extension). You want to encourage the resource to engage with the work as soon as possible, not just to get it done but to expose those unknown unknowns that so often pop up. We often think we are doing people a favor by giving them more time to work on something, but in reality we’re usually just delaying their starting it. We’d be doing them more of a favor by setting the right conditions for them to get it off their plate completely.

3) Work the project until it is done. Whenever you put the work down, it enters a queue. Not only that, when it hits the front of the queue you need to re-boot your brain around the parameters of that particular piece of work. Taking something out of your queue only to have it re-enter that same queue does nothing to improve the speed of your line. Better to power-through and move it on to completion (or the next necessary hand-off to a new resource).

Have questions about hand-offs or any other element of legal project management or team productivity? Join one of my weekly office hours sessions and I’ll do my best to talk you through it. Just fill out the form below to get notified when I’m going live.

Trigger goes here

1. Google’s definition of “project.”
Post 2019-2

A Better Approach to Flat Fees

I’m a big fan of flat fees. They do a much better job (than hourly billing) at aligning the interests of the client and her legal team. And, when done correctly, they can simultaneously improve profitability of the work and allow the legal team to scale-up to serve more clients (at that improved profitability).

One of the dumbest less informed comments I hear from lawyers when I talk about flat fees is “We’ve flat fee’d a few matters, but we got killed on one of them so I’m suspicious of using them again.”

Here’s why that attitude is a problem:Continue reading

Harvard Business Review on Enterprise Agile

For anyone who has been following the Agile movement, it is no surprise that Agile has grown far beyond its roots in software development to encompass business processes of all sorts.

McKinsey consulting has a step-by-step guide for Agile Marketing. Leading Agile trainer Steve Denning talks about Agile for Human Resources in Forbes. And a growing segment of respondents to the annual State of Agile survey come from outside of technology teams.

More recently, Harvard Business Review featured Enterprise Agile as its cover story, Continue reading

Being Lean > Doing Lean

It’s been awhile since I made a blog post out of a Twitter thread, but this seemed like as good a topic as any. (Oddly enough, the last one also had to do with the concept of waste).

I recently re-published an old post on “The Seven Wastes of Lawyers” which I readily admit is the most click-baity post I’ve ever done. Who doesn’t like to think of lawyers as incredibly wasteful? In the four years since I originally wrote it, however, my thinking has evolved a bit, and I still plan a more detailed post on that.

In the mean time, I had an interesting exchange with Peter Connor, who is doing some great work helping his clients improve their legal operations. Here it is in 7 tweets:

Want to talk about how to begin a Lean/Agile transformation in your legal team? Don’t hesitate to start a conversation with me. Or, if you’re not ready for that yet, you can always join the Agile Attorneys Slack Group.

A SMART Approach to Goal-Setting

Before I dig too far into the importance of setting goals, and setting them the right way, let’s get this out of the way:

The Goal of any business system, process, or workflow is to derive Profit for the business by delivering Value to the customer.

This is undeniably true. Now Profit, as I explained in one of my earliest posts, isn’t just about money. But in the broadest sense, you need to be deriving some Profit from your practice or else there’s no point in having one.

(This notion of “The Goal” is taken from a book by that name by seminal Lean thinker Eli Goldratt, father of the Theory of Constraints. I’ve written lots about that theory, and will certainly do so again. Also, it’s the basis of the book The Lean Law Firm that I recently reviewed).

So while earning a Profit is “The Goal” for your practice, you still need to be able to articulate some other goals to help you know whether you are on track to finding (and maximizing) that Profit.

Let’s also touch on “the money thing” before we get too far. Yes, there are many types of Profit, and many of them are more important than money. But not all of them are going to pay your rent next month.

So yes, I get that money is important, and we’ll account for it. But if making more money is your only goal, then my concepts probably aren’t for you. It’s a little like trying to see a shooting star—if you go looking specifically for one they can be elusive. But if you put yourself in the right situations, with the right attitude, then a number of them will become apparent to you.

That said, let’s start with a money goal. How about “I want to have a $500,000 a year law practice.” That’s a fine goal, and one that is totally achievable for many lawyers in many markets. Some of you may have already blown past it.

There’s just one problem with it: It isn’t really a goal, it is an aspiration. Or maybe a hope, or an intent. But it isn’t a goal, at least not by my definition.

Here’s why: In my experience (drawn from the teachings of many intelligent folks before me), a goal isn’t a Goal unless it is a SMART goal. Which is to say, it contains the following elements:

Specific

Measurable

Actionable

Realistic

Time-bound

Let’s evaluate that half a million a year law practice in light of those criteria (note: there are other answers for some of the letters, but this is my blog and I like these).

Is it Specific? Kind of. The number is finite, but what do you mean by your law practice? Is it just you? Is it 10 people? What types of products and services are you selling? Where? To Whom?

I’m not saying you need to go deep into the weeds (that’s what sub-goals are for—more on that in a minute), but having at least a high-level sense of where that money is gonna come from would be better. Maybe “I want to build a $500,000 a year family law practice with just my current team.” (Could be Immigration, or Estate Planning, or Employment Litigation—you get the idea).

You might also be missing an important part of the picture with a straight revenue goal—will that practice be profitable? Generating $500k in gross revenues and reaping $250k in net profits are very different goals. You can’t just assume that one will necessarily lead to the other, so better to be clear about which is more important to you.

Is it Measurable? Again, kind of. Yes, you can calculate your revenue per year pretty easily, and for this high-level goal that is probably enough. Here too, however, we’ll want to develop some sub-goals that will help you gauge whether you’re on track to this big one.

Is it Actionable? That’s a little less clear. One does not simply go out and find half a million a year, at least not in most industries. Part of this depends on where you are today. If, for example, you are already grossing $20k/month ($240k/year for you math-phobes), then maybe you can get there, but the goal itself, as stated, doesn’t show you the way.

What if instead you set a goal to grow those $20k revenues by 3% per month? That means finding another $600 in month one; that seems like something you can do, right? And then another $620 in month 2, $640 in month 3, and so on. Now you’re not going to hit those numbers exactly—some months will be a little over and others will full short.

But, through the miracle of compounding, if you average that 3% monthly growth over the course of a little less than two years you’ll have doubled your revenues to that $500k/annual target.

How about Realistic? Again, depends on your starting point. If you hung your shingle last week fresh out of law school, then you probably want to find a smaller interim milestone to shoot for. If you just left your big-law gig after 10 years with a $500k book of business, then it should be a softball.

But other factors come into play too. If you‘re projecting 30% growth out of a rural practice in a community with 18% unemployment and a couple other lawyers in town, you may want to reconsider. If you have a national profile evaluating cryptocurrency ICOs for SEC compliance risk, then your projections might make more sense.

(As an aside, strong growth is possible in both of the above situations, even the less likely one. Just not necessarily with your current business model. More on that in a future post).

Finally, is it Time-bound? For the $500k/year goal as originally stated, the answer is no. Sure you want that kind of revenue, but by when? Establishing a deadline is the key difference between a goal and a hope.

Setting a time limit is also important to setting the context of the other parts of the SMART framework. Is $500k/year realistic next year? Sure, if you booked $450k last year, but not if you’re new to practice. Same goes for Actionable. For that newbie, a goal of hitting $500k/year by year 5 of your business might make more sense (although that kind of long-term forecasting is hard to make actionable in the short term).

One final thought on timing: whatever your long-term plans make sure you break them down into sub-goals between 30 and 90 days long? Why? Some experts believe there is something about the human psyche that makes it hard to have an actionable plan for something that will happen more than 90 days in the future.

The problem is that for short-term goals then we can imagine our current selves being in that future state. But beyond 90 days we tend to think of that future-me as another person entirely, therefore it is harder to relate to that person.

Which is a great segue into sub-goals. This post is already long, so I won’t dive down too many rabbit holes, but know that you need to nest some sub-goals in under your main goals if you want them to be truly actionable.

Going back to my 3% monthly growth example, where is that growth going to come from? If you currently make your money on the back of 20 in-progress matters, (giving you an average monthly revenue of $1,000 per matter), perhaps your sub-goal is to add one high-quality matter to your mix above your replacement rate in the next month (meaning if you close 2 matters in that time, you need to pick up 3 new ones).

Can your team handle that increased volume? If not, perhaps you need to set a productivity goal to make sure you have the necessary capacity. Fail to improve your productivity and you may need to add resources (like hiring someone) in order gain the capacity to hit your target.

Is your marketing able to deliver enough high-quality leads to bring in that extra matter? If not, you may need to invest in an upgrade. Or maybe you don’t have a strong sales technique to convert your existing leads to clients, or your intake is so sloppy that you’re not able to realize revenue from those clients as quickly as you ought to.

(This, by the way, is getting back into Bottleneck Theory: Once you have a goal, you need to find the single bottleneck in your system (and there is only one) that is preventing you from meeting that goal.)

I’ll leave it there for now, but hopefully you get the idea.

Those last ideas, by the way? They’re not really goals, they’re strategies. Improving productivity, enhancing marketing, increasing conversion: all are techniques you can try to help you hit those high-level goals. Put another way, they are experiments you can (and should) run to find out what is going to work. And, as experiments, they should have their own measurements and targets, but more on that in my next post.

In the mean time, think about what you are trying to accomplish this year as a firm (or team, or with your specific practice) and try to frame them in the context of some SMART goals. The process of thinking through them will clarify things for you and help you develop a realistic action plan for hitting your specific, measurable, and time-bound targets.

Want help? Need someone to bounce your ideas off of, or even to hold you accountable to your progress? That’s what I do. Don’t hesitate to reach out and start a conversation with me.

Someone Just Beat Me To My Book Idea

The Lean Law Firm Cover

Greetings from ABA Techshow 2018, where today I learned that Larry Port and Dave Maxfield have just published the book that I’ve been thinking about writing for years. It’s title: The Lean Law Firm.

Honestly, the similarities between what they’ve produced and the outline I generated are uncanny, right down to the idea of using bicycle manufacturing as the parable for teaching lawyers how to build a Lean practice.

I have to admit, my heart sank a little when I saw it. It’s not like I didn’t know it was a possibility—Larry and I had a great conversation about Lean for Lawyers a couple of years ago and he told me straight up what he was gonna do. But lots of people say they’re going to write a book but don’t actually follow through (? I’m startin’ with the man in the mirror ?).

Here’s the thing: It’s fantastic.Continue reading

Case Study: Optimizing a Small Family Law Practice

Case Study: Optimizing a Small Family Law Practice

A quick tangent from my Domains of Activity series, I’m putting together some case studies of firms I’ve worked with and the improvements they’ve made. Here’s the first one:

Case Study: Optimizing a Small Family Law Practice

The Situation

A family law firm consisting of two attorneys and three staff struggled with workflow optimization and task balancing among staff. In order to keep track of the tasks and cases that were in process the head attorney (and firm owner) had put elaborate checklists and a rigid schedule in place. This approach had left the support staff disempowered and limited their investment in the completion of each case.Continue reading

MGST Part 2: Articulating your Mission.

In Part 1 of this series I laid out the four domains of activity for your law practice (any human enterprise really). If you haven’t already, you might want to read it first.

The Mission domain, sometimes expanded to Mission, Vision, and Values, should be the North Star of your operation. It is why you have a law practice to begin with—your declaration of purpose—and it should both encapsulate and permeate who you are as a business.Continue reading

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