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March 30, 2016

Agile vs. traditional approaches to LPM

By Ed Burke, Jim Hassett, and Michelle H. Stein, LegalBizDev

 

As more and more law firms have begun to adopt LPM to increase client satisfaction and their own profitability, a number of experts have begun to discuss the potential value to law firms of “Agile” approaches to project management.

The traditional approach to project management (also called the “waterfall” approach) is based on a sequential series of steps, such as:

  • Initiating
  • Planning
  • Executing
  • Monitoring and controlling
  • Closing

In this model, a project starts by creating a plan, and you then work your way to the end, one sequential step at a time. Agile speeds up the process with an iterative approach that gets client feedback more quickly.

The Agile alternative first emerged in software development, when programmers found that the old saying “Perfect is the enemy of the good” was delaying many technology rollouts. The goal of getting a complex, diverse collection of needs correct on the first try was getting in the way of rolling projects out in a timely manner.

This alternative iterative approach was first described in the Agile manifesto written by a group of influential software developers in 2001. Under Agile, technology firms:

  • Develop programs as quickly as possible
  • Try them out on users
  • Make changes based on feedback
  • Then try them out again

Rather than starting out by defining the perfect requirements document, they recommended developing release after release until they had a product that truly met user needs. Anyone who owns a computer or a smartphone has seen Agile in action. Regular updates are common, delivering incremental improvements that benefit the customer while giving the company feedback quickly. Today Google, Facebook, Twitter, and thousands of other technology companies rely on Agile.

But what is the exact definition of Agile project management? Unfortunately, as Alan Shalloway has noted in an article written for Eric Verzuh’s Fast Forward MBA in Project Management (Fifth edition, p. 57) , “There is a lot of confusion about the answer… a movement was created around the term agile but the movement is not governed by a single body and agile methods continue to evolve.”

Shalloway defines the essence of Agile as focusing on the following questions:

  • “How do we deliver value quickly to our customers?
  • How do we discover as early as possible what is needed?
  • How do we accurately gauge the progress we’re making in our project?
  • How can we accelerate the learning of the development team?”

These questions hit the nail on the head for many areas of the law, so it is not surprising that a variety of experts are now working on ways to apply Agile to LPM. To date, this has had the greatest impact as a general mindset rather than as a particular collection of well-defined techniques.

In one sense, almost all of the LPM work we’ve done over the last several years is more closely based on an Agile mindset than a traditional LPM approach. Instead of urging lawyers to develop a complete, end-to-end plan for an ongoing matter, we urge them to “look for low hanging fruit,” try out promising techniques as quickly as possible, to build on what works and discard what doesn’t. This approach is also the defining element of both our individual coaching and our “just in time” training workshops, which focus on providing just enough training to benefit individual lawyers quickly.

The Agile approach runs counter to the “committee decision process” at many law firms, which would prefer to have a five-year strategic plan in place before taking the first step. This type of overthinking has doomed many LPM programs to death by old age before the committee made its first recommendation.

Seyfarth Shaw, which has been working on legal project management longer than any other firm, initially found that in many cases the traditional approach was not “well received or effective” with lawyers. In the article “Agile: A Non-traditional Approach to Legal Project Management”, Kim Craig, SeyfarthLean’s global director of legal process improvement, and Jenny Lee, a senior project manager with Seyfarth, explained that:

Traditional project management focuses on robust, comprehensive, mandatory project documentation with lengthy project charters, detailed project plans, complex status reports and rigorous, formal change control logs… [But] the world of legal service delivery is fast-paced and unpredictable. In legal matters, we cannot possibly know everything that will be involved with litigation at the outset. Developing an overall strategy is generally common practice, but detailed, cradle-to-grave planning is impossible.

Their solution was to incorporate Agile concepts and techniques into their work. Once Seyfarth embraced Agile, it led to many changes in procedures, explained Heather Eskra, a senior project manager at the firm, in an interview. Seyfarth began to improvise more. The typical two- to three-page static project plan—which in many cases had been ignored by lawyers—was replaced by dynamic bulleted must-read emails sent out as needed. Clients were involved earlier and more often in meetings that in pre-Agile days would have been purely internal. This investment of time actually sped up the process by unveiling misunderstandings or changes in direction much sooner than in the past.

Seyfarth even began collaborating with opposing counsel in an effort to speed up a deal, for example by letting the other firm use some of its software, sharing task lists, and housing both sides’ documents on a single platform. This sped up the process on both sides because the other firm did not want to be seen as falling behind. The process also affected the outcome, in the sense that it could help both sides reach “yes” more easily.

Seyfarth lawyers and staff frequently hold joint “lessons learned” debriefing meetings after a matter closes—indeed, sometimes after every phase in large matters, adjusting approaches and tactics based on what worked and what didn’t in the prior phase. Some lawyers who once complained about the debriefings are now pushing to have them earlier, Eskra says.

These days, Seyfarth transactions that are complex, fast-moving, and/or likely to change often take the Agile approach. The program has proven to be a significant step forward in the firm’s pioneering, decade-long focus on improving client service.

Thus, Agile is becoming an increasingly effective approach to LPM, both as a general mindset and in terms of specific techniques, some of which will appear in the fourth edition of our Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.

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