30 August 2018

The legal innovation event Lexpo was a good reason to visit Amsterdam again in May. We found one of its key themes, "Legal Project Management", as the most striking topic.

Law firms put a lot of effort into providing a customer with the best possible price estimate for a new assignment. Often, there is much less focus on ensuring that the actual cost matches with the given estimate. The final invoice is essentially affected by project management skills of the responsible lawyer. In the worst case, the overrun of the agreed price cap is only noticed in the invoicing stage.

At Lexpo, several speakers emphasized how the legal industry could apply lightweight project management methods, already used by many other professional service industries. However, very few law firms still seem to list project management as one of their core advantages.

Agile project management with Scrum

Agile project management methods, like the Scrum model we use in our own software development, could easily be adapted to support also law firms’ assignment process. Since each assignment is somewhat different, it is impossible to predict in advance all the activities required to complete a new assignment. From project management this requires flexibility, which is natural for agile methods.

Where traditional waterfall models split the work into phases that rigidly follow each other, agile project management methods offer better sensitivity to the situation. For example, the Scrum model initially determines the objectives and tasks of the project, after which the required work is carried out in similar repetitive periods, in one-week or two-week "sprints". Each sprint is allocated a suitable amount of tasks, based on available knowledge resources and the scope and requirements of tasks.

The backbone of Scrum consists of good status monitoring, change management and transparency towards customers. Daily 10 to 15 minute follow-up meetings focus on what was completed yesterday, what we are doing today and how much work is still left. It ensures progression of the tasks and a quick response to changing needs. Each sprint ends up with an evaluation on how its goals were achieved and with planning the content for the next sprint. A customer is closely involved in the project, participating both in the planning and the ending sessions of the sprint.

Legal Scrum cuts assignments to manageable parts

The Scrum model’s main elements can be easily adapted for law firms as a Legal Scrum, covering the entire assignment but breaking its long task list into manageable entities.

To facilitate the work, an assignment can be divided into smaller phases or sub-assignments, each of which is assigned its own goals, schedules and tasks. The actual work is performed in sprints, for which – based on the resources available – it is possible to select tasks from multiple phases or sub-assignments. This enhances the use of the company’s valuable expert skills and enables parallel progress of different phases. Sprints are repeated until all the work required by the assignment has been completed.

As in spite of all good planning it is often impossible to take into account all variables, change management is an integral part of Legal Scrum. The whole assignment team needs to know how to act, for example, when an assignment expands from the original plan or the nature of the services being provided clearly changes during the assignment process. Having a customer involved both in sprint planning and ending ensures transparency and facilitates change management.

Good assignment closing is another crucial element of the process. The overall success of the assignment is evaluated, taking into account both the outcome and the process itself. The evaluation covers also the future usefulness of the information that has accumulated during the assignment process.

Legal Scrum eliminates conflicts

When considering the benefits of the Legal Scrum, the first thing coming to mind are assignments where the overrun of the cost estimate is only noticed in the invoicing phase. These are unpleasant surprises both for the law firm and for the customer. Unless a customer has been informed about the situation in advance, the final invoice rarely goes to payment without complaints.

If the problem is resolved by cutting the final invoice it affects both the profit and the motivation of the assignment team. Particularly, if there is a rewarding model based on invoiced hours, it is hard to decide whose hours are left uninvoiced.

A customer's participation in the assignment project naturally eliminates unnecessary work. At the same time, it keeps the customer informed of cost accumulation, allowing any price overruns to be discussed and agreed immediately. A well-managed assignment project also enhances the law firm image and strengthens the customer relationship.

Legal Scrum documents tacit knowledge

Employee turnover is a common phenomenon also in the legal industry. Lawyers leaving a law firm may leave with critical tacit knowledge, which is slow and hard, sometimes even impossible, to gain back.

As a by-product of project management, tacit knowledge is documented at least partially. Unified project management and documentation enhance transparency not only towards the customer, but also in assignment teams and throughout the law firm.

The resulting documentation facilitates introduction of new and particularly novice lawyers to their work, too. It ensures that new employees learn unified practices that support the law firm’s core processes.

Legal Scrum promotes continuous development

In the fierce competition of the legal industry, the best-performing firms have continuous development in their DNA. By neglecting project management, the opportunity to develop and streamline processes is lost.

The ultimate idea behind Scrum is to improve the quality and efficiency of work through continuous learning and development. For example, if an assignment’s time entries are properly classified, the information about total hours worked and actual prices can be utilized to estimate the workload and calculate pricing of future assignments. Similar tasks do keep repeating, for example in all mergers.

An assignment’s final analysis, providing information on how the assignment succeeded both economically and from the point of its results, helps identify any challenges and develop the process to avoid the same problems in the future. This will gradually improve the accuracy of the price estimates given to customers, as well as enhance the processes and the use of the knowledge resources to maximize the result.

Legal Scrum is worth giving a try

There are already many law firms swearing in the name of good project management. Appropriate light and agile project management methods are available. The benefits of project management, such as elimination of conflicts, documentation of tacit knowledge and continuous development, are undeniable. Still, Legal Scrum has not hit it through, yet.

I believe that its success requires two things. First, a law firm’s management must be strongly committed to project management development, which also needs to be reflected in all communications, metrics and remuneration systems of the company.

Secondly, lawyers need to be offered the simplest possible project management model that guarantees a better result without requiring unreasonable additional work. It will be easy to get the naturally pedantic planners involved, but achieving company-level benefits requires commitment from the whole team - including those who now handle their assignments relying purely on their intuition and experience.

Mikko Hämäläinen

CSI Helsinki, Sales Director, Partner

Gets motivated by meeting new customers and finding solutions for their problems. Passionate about reading, and believes in continuous self-development.