Staying Agile: How Law Firms Can Benefit from This Tech Startup Methodology

7 min read

The gears of the legal industry turn slowly — which is why being Agile can help you run circles around the competition.

Whether deserved or not, the legal industry has a reputation for being slow to adapt to change. While the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted more law firms to start enacting digital transformation, managing that change in a way that capitalizes on emerging opportunities while minimizing risk is far more complicated than simply adding a new tool to your toolbox. Things happen fast in the digital era, and that means in order to stay competitive, your law firm needs to be able to move quickly in response to market changes.

And when it comes to adapting to changes, launching new services, or capitalizing on new opportunities, you can never be too Agile.

The Agile methodology is a school of thought that comes from the world of software development. It’s a system of principles and practices that are designed to reduce costs, save time, foster collaboration, and enable faster and more successful adaptation to changing circumstances. And forward-thinking law firms are already using it to boost revenue, improve productivity, and create better outcomes for clients.

So how does Agile work, and how can you use it in your law firm to drive better business outcomes? Here’s what you should know about how the Agile methodology can keep your firm at the top of its game.

Agile Methodology: What it Is and How it Works

The Agile methodology is an invention of the software development industry that has since crossed over into industries like food, music, aviation, pharmaceutical development, construction, marketing & advertising, finance, and yes, law.

Put simply, Agile is a project management system that focuses on hitting a series of small milestones over time. In software development, companies that use an Agile methodology will eschew the major project launch and instead focus on creating and launching iterations of software.

In 2001, the Agile Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting Agile methodologies worldwide, published its founding creed, the “Agile Manifesto”. This document established the core values that dictate how the Agile process works. According to the Agile Manifesto, the Agile process is designed to prioritize:

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

In practice, the Agile methodology involves managing projects in a way that prioritizes iterative, collaborative work. Processes and procedures take a backseat to people.

In the software development world, projects can regularly fall into a state known as “development purgatory”, where a project will spend far more time stuck in development than is necessary or advisable. This could be the result of perfectionism, an inability to pivot when something doesn’t work, or an obsession with following a specific set of steps. The Agile methodology is one strategy for solving the problem of development purgatory.

Under the Agile methodology, the top priority of a project is to create and implement a solution as quickly as possible, and then improve upon it over time. Work happens in short sprints, ranging from 1 week to 1 month, and each sprint has its own separate goal.

This stands in contrast to a more traditional (and common default) type of project management, Waterfall. In the Waterfall methodology, a project is divided into separate segments that must happen in a specific order. Waterfall is linear and rigid in nature. Under a Waterfall framework, the deliverables from each phase feed into the next one, and each phase of work must be completed before the next phase begins. This means that under Waterfall, a delay in any phase will hold up the rest of the project. It also means that Waterfall projects tend to progress slowly and gradually.

One 2020 report by Standish Group found that Agile project success rates are more than 3X higher than Waterfall project success rates. The average Waterfall project succeeds without major challenges only 13% of the time; Agile projects succeed in 42% of cases.

How Agile Law Drives Better Outcomes

Agile may have originated in the software world, but several other industries have since adopted it — law included. Emerging evidence is showing that lawyers, partners, and support staff who follow Agile practices create better results for their organizations than those who follow more traditional ways of working.

In an interview with e-discovery software company Relativity, lawyer and author of The Dawn of the Agile Attorney John E. Grant said that Agile practices enable law firms to maintain a better sense of their business processes, which helps identify bottlenecks. And when you can see the bottlenecks in your own business processes, you can remove them and expedite casework.

In one case, Grant provided operational consulting to an immigration attorney who worked on a flat fee arrangement. By implementing an Agile principle known as Kanban, this attorney doubled the number of files she could handle.

In this attorney’s case, the practice of visualizing her processes made it possible for her to take a more active approach to case management. Instead of starting several new cases all at once only to spend most of her time putting out fires, she could systematize her approach to cases and move 9 files through to closure in the time it used to take her to close 5 files. And, because this particular attorney uses flat fee pricing, she doubled her revenue as a result.

How to Implement Agile Practices at Your Law Firm

There are several Agile tactics and techniques that lawyers and partners can easily incorporate into their law practices.

A kanban board is a great way to get started with the Agile methodology. Kanban boards consist of a series of columns that show task statuses. Typical statuses include “To do”, “In progress”, and “Done”, but you can also add statuses like “Pending” for tasks that are waiting on some kind of external input or “Stuck” for tasks that have fallen by the wayside. You can use a project management system like Asana or Trello to implement kanban boards for all manner of internal and external tasks.

Another effective Agile technique involves breaking complex transactions into simpler, easier-to-understand steps in the form of workflow visualizations. If you’re working on a complicated transaction like executing a merger or forming a trust, tracking and managing all of the various documents, signatories, beneficiaries, and other elements of the transaction can quickly become overwhelming — especially if your organizational system relies on paper files, plain digital folders, or other non-visual formats.

A transaction management and document automation platform like Appara can help you plan and execute multi-step transactions with ease. By mapping out your transactions in a digital flowchart where steps are represented visually, you can easily track the status of your transactions. When you pair this transaction management software with a Kanban-based project management system like Asana or Trello, your firm can track all of its tasks in an intuitive visual form that enables remote collaboration, facilitates response to changes, and helps you analyze your firm’s performance to spot bottlenecks and improve productivity.

The Agile methodology isn’t just for software companies anymore. Law firms are already using Agile to increase their throughput, identify roadblocks in their processes, reduce time wastage, and more effectively manage projects. It’s also a highly effective way of finding efficiencies in more traditional law practices, which can help your firm boost its revenue when paired with a flat-fee arrangement. If you’re looking to make your law firm more competitive or profitable, becoming an Agile firm can help you run circles around the competition.

Agile law firms know that the best way to drive results is to test and learn on a continuous basis. Join our newsletter today to gain access to useful insights, practical advice, and other resources to help your law firm stay competitive in a changing world.

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