Agile 101 for Legal Departments: A System for Stress Relief

As a legal operations system, Agile offers in-house legal departments improved collaboration and communication. Learn how it can work for your legal team.

The myriad moving pieces of any legal project – who’s doing what, when, what’s next – are hard.

Today, lawyers are more frequently working from a mix of home and work office locations and the meetings (formal and informal) that previously kept legal matters moving in the office have been replaced with Zoom/Google/Teams conferences. In-house legal departments who are displaced run greater risks of missed deadlines and derailed matters.

Teams that invest some time and energy into organizing their legal operations management can manage the hybrid home/work office set up with minimal chaos – and position themselves for success. This is where Agile comes in.

If you're looking for an opportunity to streamline efficiencies, improve processes and collaborate better, consider Agile for your in-house legal department.

What is Agile?

Agile is a way of working that’s being used by more than 70% of our business colleagues, according to the Project Management Institute’s Pulse of the Profession. Agile methodologies have been helping many organizations around the world run their day-to-day operations more efficiently and it can do the same for your legal operations.

Agile is a style of project management created by software engineers in 2001. At its core, it emphasizes collaboration and expedience through a framework of frequent communication and discrete tasks.

(If you find Zen calm when you cross items off a to-do list, Agile may be a good fit for you).

While it was created for software development, as a legal operations software system, Agile offers in-house corporate Legal Departments a host of benefits: collaboration, expedience and communication among them. And don’t be intimidated by Agile's software origins; instead, focus on three principles that can be applied to any in-house Legal Department:

  1. Visualize your work
  2. Communicate often
  3. Engage with stakeholders

Agile can provide your legal team with a framework for mapping each member’s backlog and work-in-process, and a consistent communication rhythm that ensures progress. (For a full briefing, download our complimentary white paper - Agile 101: A Guide for Lawyers).

If you find Zen calm when you cross items off a to-do list, Agile will be a great fit for your in-house Legal Department.

How can in-house legal teams use Agile?

In its software roots, Agile moves stages of programming toward product launch. How does it work for the far less straightforward world of in-house law? The principles for in-house legal agile implementation remain the same: discrete tasks are charted and completed. Communication is frequent and efficient. Customer happiness is the end goal.

1. Visualize your legal work

The key phrase for your Legal Department? Discrete tasks.

If, on your list of team projects, you list “Acquisition of ABC Company,” so much can get lost. There are too many components, too many players, too many deadlines, too much guesswork.

Instead, break your work down into discrete, individual tasks. Consider the phases of the Acquisition of ABC Company:

  • Letter of Intent
  • Due Diligence
  • Purchase Agreement
  • Closing
  • Integration

From there, break these down even further:

  • What is every task involved in this phase?
  • Who will handle it?
  • When must this be done?
  • Think about sequence: What must be done before this task can be done, and what future tasks rely on this one?

agile for in-house legal departments

Some Agile teams literally map their tasks with Post-It notes on blank walls. A more high-tech approach is to use a cloud based legal matter management system, like Xakia's Card View, which can automate this process: it's legal operations made simple. (This is especially helpful now, when on-the-cloud is more accessible than on-the-wall.)

Tip: Not sure what cloud is? Check out our blog to learn Cloud 101 - a guide for in-house lawyers.

In-house legal teams using Agile build master task boards, or legal Kanban boards, that show the total queue of work. Every legal matter is represented by a card – if done manually, this is a Post-It note; if done with LegalTech, the digital equivalent – with the matter name and some critical information, such as business unit, project type and deadline.
From there, corporate lawyers can classify the work by its stage of completion, for example, sorting the work into four queues:

  • Not Started 
  • In Progress 
  • Awaiting Action (i.e., client review) 
  • Complete

This exercise is helpful in multiple ways. First, it lowers your stress (and heart rate) just by getting all of the work into one central place. It provides satisfaction when work moves from “Not Started” to “Complete.”

Above all, it provides critical visualization, so you can spot backlogs and bottlenecks – a close to impossible task when work is spread among multiple documents or inboxes (or colleagues’ brains!).

Distilling your work down to this level provides visibility into your matters – legal department intelligence that is helpful in the best of times and critical in crises. You will have greater clarity into your deadlines, individual workloads and progress.

This exercise will be the biggest mind shift for your in-house Legal Department’s shift into Agile. Your task list will be the centerpiece of your Agile communications – you will visit it in short, daily “standup” meetings or calls where the team charts out work for the day. Once complete, tasks can be evaluated to ensure business client objectives were achieved.

2. Communicate often

Your legal matter management Kanban board is a great place to start and can become a focus point for team communications. Whether it’s physical or digital, the board becomes a critical visual aid: with full knowledge of the Legal Department’s tasks and priorities, colleagues are better positioned to scout chances to help one another and avoid duplicating work.

Many legal teams using Agile set regular meetings to review the board, adding new cards for new projects and advancing existing matters through the work queues.

A daily or weekly 5-15 minute "stand-up" meeting (depending on your team size) provides transparency on how everyone is tracking and clears up any confusion. The aim of these short regular meetings is to check in on how your in-house legal team are progressing and discuss any challenges/roadblocks.

The Legal Team Agile agenda includes:

  • What are you working on today/this week? (no laundry lists permitted!)
  • Are there any blockers?
  • If so, how can we remove these?
  • Are we focused on the highest priority and most impactful legal work?
  • Could we be doing anything better?

3. Engage with stakeholders

Regular updates to your stakeholders about progress on discrete tasks will help to ensure:

  • Frustrations about a lack of visibility are kept at bay
  • Instructions are updated in a timely manner
  • The in-house legal team remains close to the 'action'

A side benefit of Agile - by having a clearly prioritized list of legal matter work, you can quickly communicate with your internal clients how their work sits within the context of other legal requests. This can help manage expectations around delivery.

The legal Kanban board is a great tool that can help with your external communications, too.

First, because an Agile approach breaks down every project into discrete tasks, and then into “cards,” it lends itself well to a client-friendly ticketing system. Modern matter management software, like Xakia, can further automate Legal Intake and Triage, collecting important matter data from the requesting business client upfront; creating the matter card for the legal team; and providing updates to the client throughout the progression of the matter. On the back end, the metrics captured can be applied to find countless new efficiencies.

Second, whether physical or digital, the Agile approach eases the reporting process, as it provides a real-time snapshot of the Legal Department’s workload. With an up-to-date Agile board, lawyers can quickly show the organization leadership what Legal is up to – and where it may need additional resources.

team meeting - laptop

4. Make continuous improvements to existing processes

In addition to helping you get things done, holding a retrospective meeting is a great opportunity for your legal team to look back and analyze performance and identify what can be improved.

Consider holding a retrospective meeting at the end of each week or every month to discuss:

  • What went well that the team should keep doing?
  • What didn’t go well that the team should stop doing?
  • What can the team do differently?

This will help you to acknowledge your strengths and shortcomings and help improve processes moving forward.

What are the benefits and why implement Agile for in-house legal teams?

When is the right time to introduce an entirely new way of working? For a legal team working remotely, there are many benefits Agile can bring immediately, including:

1. An organized task list

If your legal team is feeling overwhelmed by the sheer size and scope of a legal project, break down the work into short discrete tasks to make it more manageable.

Short, discrete tasks are easier to understand and tackle when you are overwhelmed with work. They also are faster to finish, and it eases stress to see tasks land in the “complete” column.

2. Frequent communication

Separation from one’s colleagues through remote working can have its drawbacks. Providing live, reliable communication can boost camaraderie and morale.

3. Increased client satisfaction

Checking in with your business clients will maintain and strengthen your relationships throughout the organization – and give you invaluable insight from the front lines.

4. Ability to adapt

Your in-house legal team will be more responsive to changes to legal instructions from the business with minimal disruption.

5. Make your work visible to your team

Utilise the Card View in Xakia’s matter management software to ensure visibility of legal matters across the whole legal department (Not Started, In Progress, Awaiting Action, Completed).

Agile for small in-house legal departments

Small in-house legal teams often have more responsibility and fewer resources. How can a system like Agile provide structure and efficiency? Lawyers who work in small in-house legal teams – or by themselves – must be masters of the pivot. Agility (pun intended) is a critical, must-have skill.

With fewer resources available to assist in the execution of the work (whether it's legal operations staff, legal operations software or the budget for external help), small Legal Departments are spending more time on more tasks. Every day, new legal matters emerge from various and sundry fields of the law, from compliance to privacy, human resources to real estate, finance to ESG and insurance.

(Oh, and there’s a supply chain crisis on line two.)

When the to-do list starts overflowing with many types of projects from many different corners of the business, the potential for risk multiplies, whether in the form of missed deadlines, rushed reviews or lost opportunities.

A somewhat unique risk for small teams is the capture of legal matter information, priorities and deadlines to protect against key-person risk. When the team is small - perhaps a single legal counsel - and that person becomes unavailable, it is crucial that a legal operations software exists to quickly pick up the work and ensure that nothing falls through the cracks.

More than ever before, it’s important to have a system. And more and more small Legal Departments are finding that Agile can be that system.

Download the Agile 101 white paper to get started

In technology organizations, specifically, a study by Harvard Business Review found that Agile “super-users” achieved 60% higher revenue and profit growth. For in-house lawyers, Agile may instead translate to a failsafe for deadlines, more effective communication and stronger client relationships. That’s life-changing – even for a team of one.

If you’re ready to get started on Agile for your Legal Department, download our complimentary white paper, Agile 101: A Guide for Lawyers. If your team needs help right now with a matter management solution, contact the team at Xakia today.

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