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Gray Rule
March 2017 | VOLUME 18, NUMBER 2
Gray Rule
The Agile Lawyer - Project Management that Really Delivers
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The Agile Lawyer - Project Management that Really DeliversBy Don Philmlee, Legal Technology Consultant, Washington, DC
Traditional project management methods often require heavy upfront planning and can be difficult to apply to legal matters. Agile Project Management (Agile) methods may be better suited to the fast-paced change seen in legal projects, and is a great way for law firms to deliver value to their clients more quickly and with less risk. Learn about the Agile approach, and it's uniquely-named key components like Sprints, Scrums, and Kamban!

Faster and Better! More Bang for the Buck! Less is More! These are all catchphrases for today's service industry. But beyond such slogans, how do you really deliver value to clients faster and with less risk?

A new method of managing projects, called Agile, is revolutionizing project delivery with a simple stack of sticky notes, a pen and a wall. Agile projects are faster and more nimble. Agile projects can deliver the value of a project very quickly and interactively manage new risks as they come up. Agile use self-organizing and iterative techniques to achieve success. At its core, Agile is focused on faster delivery and responsiveness to change. Since Agile itself is flexible, each organization can adapt its own methods to implement Agile management that best fit their needs.

Agile generally uses the following core ideals:

1. Define the project into smaller deliverables

2. Delivery of services is iterative rather than sequential

3. Allow iterative delivery so requirements can change on the fly as needed

4. Continually adapt the project as problems arise rather than planning out every detail in depth

5. Use smaller teams to work on deliverables simultaneously

6. Collaborate constantly and inclusively with the team

7. Solicit rapid and constant feedback from all levels

8. Address risk quickly in the iterative process

How does Agile work?

To start an Agile project, the team members and the team leader (called a product owner) meet to develop a list of what needs to be done (called a backlog). This backlog is a prioritized list of features or outcomes, each with a short description of what it is. The backlog is a living document and will grow and mature as the project progresses.

Team members are divided up into small teams of 4 to 7 people (called a Scrum team1).

The backlog is then divided up into smaller projects (called sprints) that are typically only 1 to 2 weeks of work each. Each Scrum team is assigned a sprint. There may be several sprints operating at the same time, all with different teams. Each Scrum team is self-contained and capable of completing and delivering each sprint.

Each sprint is a lively and fast small project that typically follows this lifecycle:

  • Sprint Planning—an initial planning meeting to determine what the sprint will accomplish.
  • Daily Scrum—a short 10 to 15 minute meeting, that is the absolute core of a sprint and is critical for the Scrum team to stay in synch. These meetings absolutely NEED to be fast and short to remain effective—typically no more than 15 daily. Each team member should be prepared to report: 1) What was done, 2) What will be done, and 3) Are there any risks or obstructions?
  • Sprint Demo—a sharing meeting where the Scrum team shows what they've accomplished in that sprint.
  • Sprint Delivery—a meeting where the team shows the clear value that is delivered at the end of the sprint.
  • Sprint Retrospective—this is a post-sprint "lessons learned" meeting to review what worked and did not work.
  • Next Sprint Planning—the Scrum team plans its next sprint.

A project may have multiple sprints and when all sprints have been completed the project is done. The diagram below shows a single Agile sprint:

Kanban Boards

One very simple and extremely useful technique used by Scrum teams to stay on track is a Kanban board. Kanban2 is a visual project management system that allows you to organize your work and effectively communicate tasks with the Scrum team. The board has multiple columns and each column has a heading. These columns can be customized to meet project needs. A simple example would be:

  • Backlog—a list of all the tasks for the project
  • Work In Progress—tasks that are currently being worked and must be done by the end of day
  • Under Review—work that is done, but being checked
  • On Hold—tasks in progress but something is holding it up
  • Completed—tasks that are done

To start a sprint with a Kanban board, all work items are added to the Backlog column of the Kanban board. Each work item is a task that can be completed in one day. As work progresses, items are moved out of the Backlog to other columns. You can also have various horizontal "swim" lanes for different types of work.

A Kanban board can be done on a whiteboard, a wall, or by using software. In its most basic form, a Kanban requires nothing but sticky notes and masking tape. Tape the columns on a wall where everyone on the team can see it, add a sticky note for each work item in the backlog, and you have a Kanban board!

Below is a simple example of a Kanban board:

The Kanban board is used in every meeting and fast becomes the core tool to manage each sprint. It is collaborative as each Scrum team member can move tasks forward, so it is critical the purpose for each column is clearly understood. Kanban boards provide transparency into the project progress and allow the Scrum team to quickly reveal and address any potential bottlenecks.

Kanban boards are a highly useful tool for Agile, but can also be effectively adapted to almost any process.

Agile as Change Agent

Adapting to Agile project management can be quite a challenge for project teams who may not be used to concentrating on iterative smaller projects, with daily status meetings that involve intense collaboration and constant communication with the Scrum team. In this way, Agile is an agent of change. Because it moves so quickly, Agile motivates team members to take more responsibility, communicate often, work quickly, and concentrate on quality and delivery.

Agile in the Law Firm

Agile project techniques can significantly improve how law firms deliver services. Agile has a long track record of success in delivering value to clients quickly and responsively. It can allow legal teams to work in close collaboration and easily adapt to projects small and large and to situations that require a rapid service delivery.

Traditional project management usually requires too much upfront planning and can sometimes be difficult to apply to legal matters. Agile methods, however,

1. elicit a fast-paced cadence of communications

2. create a collaborative environment that helps quickly define what is needed

3. flexibly adapt to changing client requirements as the work is being done, and then,

4. rapidly deliver value to a client.

This is all better suited to the fast-paced changing environment of legal projects. Further, as more and more law firm clients embrace Agile project management, there will be a corresponding demand for law firms to embrace the same techniques.

In today's high paced market where everything must be done "faster and better," Agile project management can help meet that need for your clients. Agile projects typically have a better, more predictable outcome with fewer risks. This is a competitive edge that can't be ignored.


1. The term "Scrum" is not an acronym for anything. It is a term borrowed from the sport of rugby. In rugby a Scrum is when team packs together tightly and jointly works to move the rugby ball down the field.

2. Kanban is a Japanese term that means billboard or sign.

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