Dima Gadomsky🐸
May 8, 2016 · 7 min read

Not flexible enough to be Agile

“It’s easy to manage a flock of sheep but much harder to manage a flock of cats”. — no idea, who said that. I heard it from.

my friend Zhenya Rozinsky at ITEM conference

Information technology now generates 3–5% of the Ukrainian GDP, which is larger than the chemical and car manufacturing industry together. The newly born industry created its own business-specific values, management approaches and principles like Lean startup, Agile, holacracy, wikinomics and the sharing economy. If you stay aside of these new streams, you will be kicked-out of business in the long run.

Lawyers are conservative and cautious. The legal society secures the entrance to our abbey, guards the good old principles and methods of our profession against outsiders.

But, surprise-surprise, top-tier law firms are rethinking the way they deliver services and the way they manage projects. Agile is the most commonly used neologism on the legal market. Bird&Bird has recently issued a brochure on Agile contracts. Eversheds provides new agile legal services — flexible lawyers. Smaller legal billion-worth startups like Axiom and RocketLawyers have been employing Agile principles since their very launch.

Agile in Software Development

This is how Agile software development is defined in Wikipedia: “a set of software development methods in which requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between self-organizing cross-functional teams. It promotes adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, continuous improvement, and encourages rapid and flexible response to change”.

To understand what is behind the Agile movement we need to look at the Agile bible — the Agile Manifesto. In it there are only four commandments:

  • individuals and interactions: self-organization and motivation are important, as are interactions like co-location and pair programming (pair-programming, yeah, i will talk about it below).
  • Working software: working software is more useful and welcome than just presenting documents to clients in meetings.
  • Customer collaboration: requirements cannot be fully collected at the beginning of the software development cycle, therefore continuous customer or stakeholder involvement is very important.
  • Responding to change: Agile methods are focused on quick responses to change and continuous development.

These principles may sound all too obvious. On any law firm’s website we see that the firm is open to changes, professional lawyers work as one team and lawyers closely collaborate with the clients. I want to be honest with you (and with myself): in all companies I worked for, deadlines were rarely met, lawyers could not play as one team by default, clients had no idea what was going on with their projects.

Agile-based delivery of legal services

Usually, processes in law firms look like this: the client asks for assistance with legal due diligence of another company. The law firm requests initial information, agrees the scope of work and fees, and makes a calendar plan of the work (i.e. commits to deadlines). And after a few days in the data room and several interviews with C-level there comes an understanding that instead of one target company there are five; the main target’s assets are under permanent court disputes and all the company’s assets are under a tax lien.

This is called “waterfall project management” — when you collect data at the beginning of the project, set rigid scopes, timeframes and fees and (hope to) deliver the results on the day before the deadline. You cannot be sure that all three essential conditions (time, scope and fee) stay unchanged — says the Agile manifesto!

I haven’t heard of many DDs being performed in time with no changes to the scope. But usually you have to renegotiate deadlines due to new circumstances and obstacles, or widen the scope and increase the fees accordingly. Or if you don’t, you miss the deadline and lose the reputation.

Again, let’s be honest. Projects are never done as they are planned. Chaos is a very good definition of what is going on in the back office of any law firm. Sleepless nights, missed deadlines, poor drafting and frustrated staff are the result of the management’s belief in the total linearity and controllability of the project.

Providing IT services is very similar to providing legal services. And hi-tech companies have successfully implemented Agile in both their internal processes and project management, as well as externally — to service delivery.

With Agile, the above example project would be run differently.

At the beginning we would ask the client what is his/her priority: preserve the scope, the timing or the fee. Depending on the needs of the client, we could agree that, for instance, we must meet the deadline no matter what and it would also be good to stay within the agreed fees. This means that once we discover that there is not one but four target companies, or there is a serious deal breaker like ongoing litigation or a tax lien (not known at the beginning), we immediately renegotiate the scope.

Our work is divided into a few short periods, say weeks. We finish each week by delivering a part of the DD report. Thus, the client reviews and comments on the report while we continue to work on it. Agile methodology protects from a situation when we receive a million comments from the client after the data-room is closed and the deadline is at the door.

Agile-based management as a step to holacracy

There is another interesting use case for Agile principles. Usually, lawyers are simultaneously involved in different engagements. Moreover, there are urgent issues which occur at 6 pm and need to be done by 9 am the next morning. Lawyers are constantly under stress, the quality of services drops and clients repeatedly experience delays.

In our firm we employ scrum (one of Agile-based project management tools). Instead of defining scrum, I will explain what we do with our project flow:

  • Each Monday morning we conduct a planning meeting. During 1–2 hours we gather all tasks and issues in all engagements into a long list called a “Projects backlog”.
  • Each issue and task is assessed and prioritised. Note that it is the lawyers themselves who do the assessment and prioritizing, and not the senior lawyers or partners.
  • When we are able to see the entire list of tasks we assign each of them (1) a deadline, (2) an estimation of work time and (3) importance. Then we can simply count how much work time in total our team has in a week and thus how many tasks we can manage during this week.
  • We choose the tasks to work on during the week based on their importance and deadlines. We call the list of tasks for the current week a “Sprint backlog”.
  • Tasks that did not make it into the “Sprint backlog” remain in the “Projects backlog” and are done during the next sprint (next week). Yes, this isn’t easy, since the client usually needs work to be done immediately, or by yesterday if you know what I mean. But we understand that we cannot do everything immediately: we will either die or make a poor delivery.
  • Then lawyers in a team distribute tasks from the “Sprint backlog” among themselves. The rule is to take no more that 3 tasks per day.
  • Each Friday evening we do a retrospective of what has been done and what has not.

And now I must respond to the most common question — does this somehow makes the work in a law firm more productive?

There are offcorse pros and cons of Agile for us.

What is bad:

  • It takes much time for planning (2 hours on Monday and 2 hours on Friday for the team of 10 lawyers = 40 hours of working time);
  • Need to explain what our weekly sprints mean (non IT companies has no idea what is that) and need to put new urgent tasks into current sprint;
  • Need to explain to other departments in the company why they have to wait a week for their task to be done (all other departments except IT law of our departments works in waterfall mode).

What is good:

  • Each team member is engaged in everything what is going on: every junior lawyer knows exactly what the rest of lawyer do this week;
  • All lawyers are involved in fee quotation and timeframes of each new engagement. Quality of work is really much better when junior lawyer set deadlines and fee by himself;
  • Lawyers work more as a team: they talk instead of writing senseless emails, they do not argue with seniors.

Still, I could not measure the outcome of scrum. Till one day we missed a planning meeting. On Monday a few lawyers were busy in the field, junior lawyers were in the attending classes in their university and we missed a planning meeting. On Tuesday and Wednesday I understood that we are close to missing two deadlines and have already missed three.

In that particular moment I understood to what extent scrum organized our chaos.

I know many non-IT companies which tried to implement Agile principles but failed. Usually, top managers are not ready to delegate a part of their authority to the team.

There is another neologism which will be put into our vocabulary soon — Holacracy. It is a social technology or system of organizational governance in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a holarchy of self-organizing teams rather than being vested in a management hierarchy.

This “no managers” approach is really hard to imagine and even harder to use. But I am sure that this is how the companies of the future will look like.

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Dima Gadomsky🐸

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Dead Lawyers Society

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