Agile for Attorneys, Part I

Today’s attorney can be overwhelmed by the different theories and buzz-words and the trendy topics including discussions of project management (PM). Luckily, the PM discipline has been around for decades and many other professions, particularly software development, have perfected various approaches. However, juggling projects and deadlines can be challenging for any professional. Agile is a popular PM approach and one that our company has successfully adopted in 2017. I interviewed some of our LegalShield team to extract the lessons learned from our Agile experiences to help your practice.

Lawyers often are bombarded with software solutions to help manage their work. Like any decision, it’s important to have a solid understanding of your process prior to any purchase. We will first look at the agile methodology and next time discuss project management implementation and software options.

What Agile Is Not

Historically, software development was linear, specifically built using a process called “waterfall.” In this waterfall situation, usually one department was solely responsible for a project and there was zero overlap between the various project stages as follows:

  • Gather requirements
  • Create a design
  • Write the code
  • Test and implement the system
  • Maintain

This approach is phase by phase and once you complete one stage, you move onto the next, never revisiting the prior stage. Also, as the solution is locked in after design and not revisited; any new ideas must wait until the next project. As we will see below, the waterfall approach is also used for projects outside of software development. With waterfall, you run the risk of creating something that is obsolete before it’s finished.

The Agile Approach

Contrast the waterfall approach with the “agile” methodology, a non-linear and cross-departmental process. Amy Stinyard, our VP of Program & Project Management and Consumer Engagement, explained further, “Agile is a process by which decisions and software solution requirements are determined iteratively through teams working in a collaborative environment.” Amy is a PM professional with agile credentials and her mission at LegalShield is to implement agile for all projects, not just software development.

Dave Coffey (DC): What are some of the advantages of agile over other approaches?

Amy Stinyard (AS): The magic in agile is that it is done collaboratively, there are no hierarchal decisions. It is a one for all and all for one type of work environment. Agile requires that the business work closely with their development partners. Another advantage is that agile is time-boxed, usually with a two-week delivery. The teams will break up their work into small pieces and deliver that work (fully tested and bug-free) every two weeks. Not every company can say they deliver working code to their customers every two weeks. The time boxing increases the focus and the motivation of the team.

For example, last year we wanted to create a National Plan in all 50 states. While this work was very complicated, we completed it in 8 weeks.

Before LegalShield adopted agile, we used a waterfall approach and Linda Brown, our Vice President of Member Services Department, commented on a previous implementation, “prior to agile, we saw less productivity from our IT programming staff. Instead of working in smaller sprints to push more technology out in smaller bites, we were attempting to rewrite the platform all at once, which created bottle becks and roadblocks.” Linda continued to express her preference for agile techniques, “As end users, we see much more productivity and closure for things we need to make our jobs easier and more efficient.”

DC: Does agile just apply to software projects?

AS: Agile can be used for any goal. It is simply a way to break up the work into actionable items that are small enough to complete in a day or less, and these small successes accumulate into a quicker result. The time-boxing of two-week “sprints” of work ensures that the group maintains focus. An agile approach can be taken with any goal or business endeavor. Just set daily goals in small steps, then at the end of the two-week time-box, you will be surprised what you have completed.

Because the agile methodology can be applied to non-technology projects and to a team’s daily routine, lawyers in-house and at firms can use the technique not only for new systems but as an approach to project and case management. Finally, at the core, agile is about collaboration and being open to change. We will explore more on the project management next month. All feedback is welcome on twitter @Gundog8 on this and other issues.

Stay tuned for Part II as we shift our focus to how to get started with the agile method and project management.

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