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October 12, 2016

Accelerating legal progress with Scrum

By Paul Saunders

In addition to using Kanban to increase efficiency, reduce costs, and enhance responsiveness to clients’ needs, Stewart McKelvey is also experimenting with Agile management techniques known as Scrum.

Scrum provides a framework for team members to organize themselves and conduct team meetings in relation to any project. Scrum originated in the software development world and has been defined as “a simple framework for effective team collaboration on complex software projects” and as “a management and control process that cuts through complexity to focus on building software that meets business needs.”

Scrum can be easily adapted to legal projects, which often have many moving parts that need to be coordinated frequently.

In Scrum, teams engage in periodic meetings in which team members are asked to give short and focused status updates. The frequency of these meetings is based on what makes the most sense for a particular team. For example, when working on a complex and time-sensitive corporate transaction with a looming closing date, meetings may be scheduled every day or second day to keep everyone on track. For a portfolio of litigation matters with less time sensitivity, meetings may be scheduled once every week or two based upon the needs of the team.

Regardless of the frequency of the meetings, each team member takes a turn answering three questions in two minutes or less:

  1. What did I do since the last meeting?
  2. What will I do before the next meeting?
  3. What is blocking me and/or what do I need help with?

Meetings are often held with everyone standing up, to keep them short. A critical aspect of the meetings is to ensure that the updates remain relevant to all team members by focusing on these core questions.

One of the essential aspects of Scrum is that every team member, no matter how junior or senior, must report his accomplishments and what is blocking him from proceeding to the next step. This creates accountability. Everyone on the team knows that he will need to report progress, or lack thereof, on a specific topic at the next scheduled meeting.

If the senior partners are not getting what they need, this technique gives them an easy forum to say so. By the same token, if a junior team member finds that he is blocked by something that a senior partner did or did not do, this gives him the chance to make it clear. It enables juniors to manage upwards. This is very effective, because the person is saying that it’s not me or you, it’s the requirement of what comes next.

When Scrum is used in combination with Kanban, when people provide their updates, each team member moves any cards that have progressed on the Kanban board and updates their capacity flags to indicate what they’ll be working on before the next meeting. Meetings are expected to last no more than two minutes multiplied by the number of people attending.

Everyone has attended meetings where one or two attendees wasted meeting time by discussing issues with little or no relevance to the rest of the group. However, requiring team members to stick to the three questions can sometimes be challenging, particularly where more senior team members are accustomed to directing to the discussion.

To address this, Scrum calls for a Scrum Master role. This is often someone who is not expected to carry out work on the project but instead is responsible for managing the process and ensuring that team members are properly adhering to the protocols. This person must have the authority to ensure that all team members answer their three questions and ensure that no one person is monopolizing the floor.

In our law firm’s culture, mid-level personnel, including senior associates and junior partners who aren’t expected to complete substantive work on the matter, are ideal Scrum Masters. In certain cases, the lead lawyer on a matter or alternating individuals can also serve the role, provided that she is able to ensure the team sticks to the protocol and isn’t afraid to intervene if the rules aren’t being followed. In other law firms, different individuals might be more effective. The key is that the Scrum Master has some influence over partners. Since he isn’t accountable for project deliverables he can serve as a more independent enforcer of the rules to keep everyone on track.

Scrum works best when the team also periodically conducts a lessons learned or after action review, often called a retrospective. These typically occur at the conclusion of specific projects or at set intervals (perhaps once every month or two). These meetings could run longer than the daily stand-ups (approximately an hour), but still involve all team members speaking an equal amount of time. The discussion would focus on reaching team consensus around the following three questions:

  1. What is working well?
  2. What is not working well?
  3. What should be tried that is different?

Based on the outcome of those discussions, the team would agree to fine-tune their approach and incorporate lessons learned that could be applied to future work.

Scrum can be seen as a laboratory in which a law firm applies the scientific method. If a series of steps has not worked and you haven’t made progress, it will quickly reveal the lessons learned and let you modify your plan to find a new series of steps.

Stewart McKelvey has seen immediate and significant results in its pilot tests of Scrum. The pace at which matters progressed through the various stages and were closed was significantly improved. This was largely caused by the discipline and transparency that was brought to the process. Team members were committed to move matters along each week and were held accountable for results in the meetings. Many of the participants remarked that they had never seen so much progress on so many matters in such a short period of time.

In addition, the process made it easy to see that some time entries were being rejected by the client because they weren’t sufficiently detailed to meet requirements. As a result, the firm developed a standard set of time entries to conform to each of the stages identified on the Kanban board and created text expansion codes in its time entry system. Now all lawyers and staff are able to type in pre-determined codes, and pre-approved and detailed time entry narratives appear automatically.

Scrum, Kanban, and other Agile techniques are not magic cure-alls that fit every legal process, but they can make a significant difference when they are used properly in the right situations. In the next few years, we expect the use of Agile techniques to grow rapidly at our firm.

This post was adapted from the recently published fourth edition of the Legal Project Management Quick Reference Guide.



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