A Brief History of Agile for Lawyers

law practice strategy Feb 02, 2020

Agile as a comprehensive methodology is fairly new. Although many concepts that are now considered Agile predate the term, we can trace the unified theory to a gathering of software developers and technology managers in early 2001. Frustrated by traditional methods for managing software projects, they gathered in Snowbird, Utah to adopt a Manifesto for Agile Software Development:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools;
Working software over comprehensive documentation;
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation;
Responding to change over following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Agile adoption spread rapidly in the tech sector and is gaining traction in other business settings. By 2016, 94 percent of respondents to the annual State of Agile Survey reported using Agile in their enterprise. Those companies credit Agile for improvements in their:

  • Ability to manage changing priorities (88 percent of respondents);
  • Project visibility (83 percent);
  • Team productivity (83 percent);
  • Delivery speed (81 percent); and
  • Team morale (81 percent).

The cover story of the May 2018 Harvard Business Review highlights how Agile has spread throughout the enterprise to areas such as “product development, marketing, and even HR.” And a 2016 Lexpert magazine article highlights successful Agile implementations in law firms and corporate legal teams.

Today, there are a number of specific methodologies that fall under the Agile umbrella. Some are primarily software and technology focused; examples include eXtreme Programming, Crystal, and DevOps. Others – like Scrum, Kanban, their hybrid ScrumBan, and the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe – are often used throughout an organization.

I first became interested in applying Agile methods in a legal setting shortly after earning my J.D. in 2007. Before law school I spent nearly a decade in the technology sector, most of that with a single company, Getty Images. Over that time I participated in a number of technology projects, all of them using what we now think of as traditional, or waterfall, project management techniques.

Agile for Legal Practice

My first legal job working for Getty Images as in-house counsel, a company where I'd spent over seven years before going to law school. It was great to be working again with many of the same teams and people I knew well. While I was away studying, however, Getty’s technology managers had shifted from a traditional, waterfall project management style to Agile management methods. I’d been vaguely aware of Agile prior to then (my wife works in technology), but being back at Getty was the first time I’d seen it in action. I quickly recognized one thing: it was WAY better.

It wasn’t perfect, of course, but the teams were delivering their projects more quickly and with less back-and-forth among constituents (who also seemed to get along better). It yielded results, too: Getty at the time was responding to the rise of social image sharing and a corresponding shift in the photography marketplace. Agile development helped the company to adapt its strategies and stay ahead of shifting customer expectations.

When I transitioned to private practice, I experimented with Agile methods in my own IP boutique. I wrote my first article on Agile for Lawyers for the ABA's Law Practice Today in 2015. Eventually I began to teach Agile methods to other legal professionals informally, then professionally. In the process, I’ve learned how to translate and adapt Agile concepts so they work well for legal teams.

Today I’ve taught Agile – plus complementary management methods like Lean, Jobs To Be Done, Lean Startup, and Design Thinking – to thousands of legal professionals on teams of all types and sizes. Over the course of my work, and of observing Agile’s evolution in other industries, I’ve come to recognize four core principles for an Agile legal practice:

  • Empower People;
  • Focus on Customer Value;
  • Optimize for Quality;
  • Improve Regularly with Feedback.

Stay tuned for additional posts diving into each one of these principles in more detail.

Note: This article is adapted from a chapter I contributed to the ARK Group book, Tipping Point: Transformation and Innovation in the Legal Department.

The whole book is $195, but you can now get my entire chapter for free by clicking here.

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