A Brief History of Agile for Lawyers

History of Agile for Lawyers

Agile as a comprehensive methodology is fairly new. Although many concepts that are now considered Agile predate the term, we can trace the unified theory to a gathering of software developers and technology managers in early 2001. Frustrated by traditional methods for managing software projects, they gathered in Snowbird, Utah to adopt a Manifesto for Agile Software Development:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
Working software over comprehensive documentation;
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation;
Responding to change over following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Agile adoption spread rapidly in the tech sector and is gaining traction in other business settings. By 2016, 94 percent of respondents to the annual State of Agile Survey reported using Agile in their enterprise. Those companies credit Agile for improvements in their:

  • Ability to manage changing priorities (88 percent of respondents);
  • Project visibility (83 percent);
  • Team productivity (83 percent);
  • Delivery speed (81 percent); and
  • Team morale (81 percent).

The cover story of the May 2018 Harvard Business Review highlights how Agile has spread throughout the enterprise to areas such as “product development, marketing, and even HR.” And a 2016 Lexpert magazine article highlights successful Agile implementations in law firms and corporate legal teams.

Today, there are a number of specific methodologies that fall under the Agile umbrella. Some are primarily software and technology focused; examples include eXtreme Programming, Crystal, and DevOps. Others – like Scrum, Kanban, their hybrid ScrumBan, and the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe – are often used throughout an organization.

I first became interested in applying Agile methods in a legal setting shortly after earning my J.D. in 2007. Before law school I spent nearly a decade in the technology sector, most of that with a single company, Getty Images. Over that time I participated in a number of technology projects, all of them using what we now think of as traditional, or waterfall, project management techniques.

Agile for Legal Practice

My first legal job working for Getty Images as in-house counsel, a company where I’d spent over seven years before going to law school. It was great to be working again with many of the same teams and people I knew well. While I was away studying, however, Getty’s technology managers had shifted from a traditional, waterfall project management style to Agile management methods. I’d been vaguely aware of Agile prior to then (my wife works in technology), but being back at Getty was the first time I’d seen it in action. I quickly recognized one thing: it was WAY better.

It wasn’t perfect, of course, but the teams were delivering their projects more quickly and with less back-and-forth among constituents (who also seemed to get along better). It yielded results, too: Getty at the time was responding to the rise of social image sharing and a corresponding shift in the photography marketplace. Agile development helped the company to adapt its strategies and stay ahead of shifting customer expectations.

When I transitioned to private practice, I experimented with Agile methods in my own IP boutique. I wrote my first article on Agile for Lawyers for the ABA’s Law Practice Today in 2015. Eventually I began to teach Agile methods to other legal professionals informally, then professionally. In the process, I’ve learned how to translate and adapt Agile concepts so they work well for legal teams.

Today I’ve taught Agile – plus complementary management methods like Lean, Jobs To Be Done, Lean Startup, and Design Thinking – to thousands of legal professionals on teams of all types and sizes. Over the course of my work, and of observing Agile’s evolution in other industries, I’ve come to recognize four core principles for an Agile legal practice:

  • Empower People;
  • Focus on Customer Value;
  • Optimize for Quality;
  • Improve Regularly with Feedback.

Stay tuned for additional posts diving into each one of these principles in more detail.

Note: This article is adapted from a chapter I contributed to the ARK Group book, Tipping Point: Transformation and Innovation in the Legal Department.

The whole book is $195, but you can now get my entire chapter for free by clicking here.

HBR on Your Firm’s Purpose

When I ask law firm leaders about their mission, they often try to shake me off with something like “Oh, we already wrote up a mission statement as part of our marketing work.” News flash: If you think your mission is something that is only supposed to attract customers then (1) it probably isn’t working and (2) you’re missing the point.

A recent Harvard Business Review Article sums it up nicely:

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Steinbeck on the Emotional Impact of Contract Signing

Lawyers who spend our days squinting to foresee tragedy—usually by cataloging historical harms—tend to grow comfortable with the weight of such dire (if remote) risks.

We might forget, then, that our parade of portents can pack a punch for people who are unaccustomed to considering such calamity.

John Steinbeck captures it vividly in The Log from the Sea of Cortez. He and Doc Ricketts are chartering a vessel in Monterrey for a six-week scientific expedition in the Gulf of California. Upon agreeing to terms in principle, it is time to put ink on the page.

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Is Revenue Growth the Right Goal?

Quick Take:

Clio’s 2019 Legal Trends Report introduced their Law Firm Maturity Model, an interesting framework for evaluating a current state of your firm and how it might improve. Maturity models in general can be an effective tool for reinforcing strengths, illuminating shortcomings, and suggesting opportunities for improvement. But I wonder whether that the Clio model focuses too heavily on revenue growth instead of the business fundamentals and strategies that are needed to drive that growth.

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How I Lost My Laptop Full of Client Data and Barely Broke a Sweat.

Note: This Post originally appeared on Lawyerist.com in 2017 but has since been deprecated. The information below was current in 2017 but has not been updated since.

It was a normal Thursday evening in early January, a relatively nice day for Portland considering the snowmageddon storm we’d had the previous week. I’d decided to work form home that afternoon in part because it was my first chance to have the house to myself after being snowbound with my kids, and I’d perched myself at my favorite spot on the kitchen island where natural light hits from all four sides of our open floor plan.

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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: Continue reading

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.Continue reading

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

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