What did you do yesterday? What are you doing today? What’s in your way? If you can quickly answer these three questions, you’re on your way to transforming your law practice into a lean, mean, Agile machine.
If you are a law practitioner, mistakes can be fatal. Even the most well-intentioned attorneys can lose their licenses because of errors. The software industry shares this single-point-of-failure characteristic. A big enough bug or problem with a product can cause a software company to go down in flames in one fell swoop.
The difference between the legal and software industries is that in the case of the latter, consultants and managers devised elaborate techniques to control quality and reduce the risk of catastrophic errors. Quality Assurance, commonly known as QA, sits between product development and consumers to ensure that as few things as possible go awry. And the overall lifecycle of software is driven via a discipline called project management.
What Is Project Management?
Project management is a specific area of expertise in which teams organize resources to bring about the completion of specific goals. People are paid professionally to serve as project managers and can obtain certifications in dozens of different areas.
In legal terminology, matters or cases are projects: they have start and end points, have to be martialled through a series of phases, and have a desired goals.
There’s no reason why law firms cannot embrace some of the techniques borne out of the trials and tribulations of high-tech companies. Many ideas in software project management derive from practices in the automobile industry. If quality control mechanisms can leap between industries, then anyone engaged in professional high-wire acts, including attorneys, should be able to use them as well.
Agile Project Management
An increasingly popular methodology in the software industry is Agile Project Management. Its evolution and history is beyond the scope of this article, but in essence, Agile is a reaction to heavy-handed, document-intensive product manufacturing techniques. Its spirit revolves around open and clear communication, interative processes, and continual improvement.
Agile’s rise is due to its simplicity and its effectiveness. It allows companies to measure progress, identify dependencies, build individual accountability, and create work rhythm with comparatively little administrative overhead. Agile itself has several different varieties of project management that share the same core philosophy. The one we’ll look at is called Scrum.
In Scrum, you’ll need a team with a leader called a scrum master. Scrum masters are managers that know how to run the Scrum meetings and keep them moving. Teams are limited in size from two to eight people. If you have more total people than this upper limit, think about dividing your team into two distinct Agile teams along functional lines. In legal, the division could be along specialities or practice areas. Make sure your teams include supporting legal professionals, such as paralegals and administrators, in addition to the attorneys.
In Scrum, work is divided into one-, two-, or four-week cycles called sprints. At the beginning of each sprint the team holds the Planning meeting, where they prioritize the work to be done during the course of the sprint. Then, every day in the morning, the team holds a special meeting called the Daily Standup, which we will explore below. At the end of the sprint, the team reviews the work of the sprint and takes an introspective look to see what’s working and what’s not working. These meetings are respectively called the Review and the Retrospective.
Implementing Agile Project Management correctly takes time, commitment, and often the outside help of people who’ve done it before. But the Daily Standup is something you can commence right away. It’s easy, has its own benefits, and serves as a gateway into a larger, firmwide implementation of Agile.
The Daily Standup
The Daily Standup is a mercifully short meeting conducted every day come hell or high water. The rules of the Daily Standup are quite easy, yet rigid. The team gathers together at the beginning of work. Ten o’clock is usually an ideal time, as it allows for stragglers and people to go through their morning email.
The Daily Standup must be sacred. It must happen every day, and no one should be late. Some companies have a money jar where latecomers must add a dollar for each minute they delay the meeting. This money is then commonly used for some sort of team-building activity, including (but not limited to) happy hour.
The Daily Standup takes its name from the position of the attendees. No one is allowed to sit. When people stand, meetings are shorter. Each person must take a turn and answer three questions:
- What did I do yesterday?
- What am I doing today?
- What’s in my way?
As an example, let’s use a go-getting young associate named Alice. When it’s Alice’s turn, she says, ”Yesterday, I drafted a letter for the Hernandez matter. I filed a motion, reviewed comments on the Berkely case with the client, and answered a bunch of emails. Today, I have to follow up with opposing counsel on the Hernandez matter, draft a pleading for the Smith matter, and put together my notes for the deposition on Friday. In my way: the copy machine still needs toner.”
If you note from this example, what people did yesterday and today is pretty straightforward. Team members should come to the Standup with accurate written notes about their activities. This simple meeting keeps people accountable. When someone keeps saying the same things over and over again at the Daily Standup, odds are, that person is wasting time or is inefficient. And it’s this snapshot view of your firm’s activities that will uncover the kinds of errors or brewing problems that could lead to disaster.
The “In My Way” portion is used to identify something that’s blocking progress toward the firm’s objectives. Whatever dependencies exist are laid bare in public for the team to see. The leaders of the team must then remove the obstacle from the firm’s path. In this case, they must lean on the office administrators to get the copy machine fixed. Things in your way don’t have to be limited to physical barriers. They can be anything that prevents the team from moving forward, such as “I still haven’t heard from the judge,” or “the trial graphics people haven’t delivered the material.”
Any conversations spun up during the Daily Standup must be swiftly diverted until after the meeting. When two people begin talking about an item, the Scrum Master should dispatch it quickly by saying, “Let’s resolve this after the Standup.”
Moving Beyond the Daily Standup
Once you gain momentum from the Daily Standup and see the benefits of rhythm and accountability in your firm, you’re equipped to embrace other important ideas in Agile. Next, you can move to cordoning off your schedule into one-, two-, or four-week sprints. You can incorporate Planning to give your company vision during the course of the sprint and see your progress during the Review and Retrospective meetings. And at that point, you’ll enjoy the same insight, quality control, and high-level view that keeps software companies from running into sticky situations.
Larry Port ( www.rocketmatter.com/blog) is the founding partner and chief software architect of Rocket Matter. A speaker and writer at the crossroads of the legal profession and cutting-edge technology, Larry frequently discusses efficiency and quality techniques in the software industry that can be leveraged by law practitioners. He has published extensively in legal publications, including Law Technology News, Law Practice Today, ILTA's Peer to Peer, FindLaw, Chicago Lawyer, and others. Larry also conducts free monthly webinars on emerging topics for attorneys and speaks at bar association CLEs around the country.
© Copyright 2010, American Bar Association.