Project Management: Is Your Law Firm Ready For Scrum?
Successful players like Google, Facebook, and Spotify have famously used Agile project management and its many offspring—Scrum, Kanban, Lean Startup, and others—to deliver to customers more quickly, be more responsive to change, empower their workers, and improve their bottom line. Legal tech firms have joined the Agile and Scrum party, with established businesses like Avvo, Clio, and Rocket Lawyer, and up-and-comers like Shake, BanyanRFP, and Legal Trek all using Agile techniques to inform and improve their workflows. Lawyers and law firms are slowly awakening to the advantages of Agile project management for the delivery of legal services in a market in which clients are demanding more value for less cost. In our boutique commercial law firm, we have found the implementation of Scrum increased the velocity of our work, the quality of our work product, and the collaboration between team members. We have found that using Scrum sets us apart from our competition, who are stuck in traditional, siloed modes of interacting with clients and delivering legal services.
What is Scrum?
If you are a fan of rugby, then perhaps you are familiar with the word scrum. In rugby, a scrum is a method of restarting play whereby all players are closely huddled together with their heads down and concentrating on gaining possession of the ball. In legal project management, scrum describes the legal team trying to go the distance as a unit, passing the proverbial ball back and forth between cross-functional team members.
Falling under the broader umbrella of Agile project management, Scrum contrasts sharply with the more traditional waterfall approach most people and lawyers think of when referring to project management. The waterfall approach fixes the project scope upfront, requiring the extensive scoping and planning from beginning to end before any work can begin. Delays and budget overruns are common, and the failure to prioritize the work often results in work product that may not match client expectations or overloaded in a manner that the client does not actually want.
In a project management sense, Scrum is a lightweight process framework that embraces iterative and incremental practices. Scrum has been used in software development companies for the past few decades with huge success because it helps those organizations deliver working software more frequently. Agile attorneys are now successfully adapting scrum to fit the legal environment, and we have had early success, especially in the small to mid-size firm segment.
Scrum embraces the opposite of waterfall, allowing for analysis and work to begin as soon part of the scope is defined. The process is iterative with each iteration consisting of gathering of client expectations, some analysis to develop the scope of work, and some work product development for review and revising. Whether it is preparing a single motion or preparing for just one hearing in the grand scheme of a larger and more complex legal matter, each smaller piece of the broader complex matter is handled as an iteration.
Scrum typically uses three roles: (1) Product Owner, (2) Scrum Master, and (3) Project Team. These roles are largely the same in a legal environment except I would rename the Product Owner role as Case or Matter Owner.
The Case Owner is the individual ultimately responsible for the relationship with the client for the individual case or matter.
The Scrum Master is key to the Scrum process. Typically, this role is filled by a trained Project Manager, but anyone can learn to serve as Scrum Master. This individual is responsible for enforcing Scrum and Project Team rules – she is basically a referee. She is also tasked with removing identified impediments so the project can continue to move forward
The Project Team typically consists of 5 to 10 members. In a small law firm like ours, this may be everyone on staff. Most important, the team should be comprised of members from a multitude of disciplines: attorneys, paralegals, support staff, etc.
The ethos of simplicity is central to scrum. There are three scrum ceremonies that support this simplicity in a law firm environment: sprint planning meeting, daily scrum or stand-up meeting, and sprint retrospective.
Sprint Planning Meeting
Scrum relies heavily upon what are referred to as a sprint – a time boxed iteration that usually lasts between 1-4 weeks. At the start of each sprint a planning meeting is held to discuss and prioritize the pending work. The Case Owner and the team members meet to discuss the highest-priority items on the case backlog. Team members figure out how many items they can commit to and then create a sprint backlog, which is a list of the tasks to complete during the sprint. Sometimes the priority is dictated by the client (through the case owner), and other times it is dictated by procedural rules or other external constraints.
Daily Scrum or Stand-up Meeting
The daily stand-up meeting is just as it sounds. It is a meeting held by the project team members without chairs – everyone stands. It occurs each and every day, without fail, at the same agreed upon place and at central location. Our daily scrum is held in front of our project board, but if you do not have a project board, then a hallway will work. These meetings are time boxed to no more than 15 minutes, and with no chairs there’s motivation for everyone to stick to the agenda and get off their feet!
Daily scrums serve to synchronize the work of team members as they discuss the work. In our firm of 10, every person attends the meeting, from legal assistant on up to the partners. Synchronization is achieved by having each team member answer the following questions (referred to as Scrum’s three questions).
What did you do yesterday? This shows progress and allows team members members to hold each other accountable to commitments made the previous day.
What do you plan to do today? This is forward thinking and what you commit to accomplishing before the next stand-up meeting.
What obstacles are in your way? These are your impediments or obstructions; it might be input or answers you need to work, or time one someone else’s schedule to discuss. More forward planning! It also helps identify immediate risks.
The agenda of the meeting is laser-focused and the daily check-in is critical for the immediate course corrections that could become costly if not discovered until much later.
Time is money – especially in law firms – and the daily scrum is so important that Scrum requires late-comers of its meetings to pay a nominal $1 fine: at various points throughout the year fines are donated to charity (or used for some other general purpose). You may find this slightly humorous, but it does focus the mind and prevent meetings from dragging on because of late-comers. We have all been in meetings that have to start over because of late-comers, right? Late-comers are simply told to pay their fine, and the meeting continues without further ado.
At the end of each sprint the team participates in a retrospective meeting to reflect on the sprint that is ending and identify opportunities to improve in the new sprint. This is the time for our firm to identify three things:
What worked well? We should keep doing that!
What did not work well? We should stop doing that!
How can we improve? We should start doing that!
Start by Starting
It sounds circular, but the best way to start using Scrum is to simply start. Remember that Scrum centers around simplicity and iteration. So start small with the simplest ceremony – the daily scrum. All it takes is a few minutes each day with a focus on the prescribed agenda to start reaping the benefits. Once you have full commitment to the daily scrum, introduce sprint planning and retrospectives in due time.
What are you waiting for?
Amanda Braun is Salazar Jackson's firm project manager, spearheading its in-house project management platform SJ Agile. A certified project management professional and Florida attorney, she oversees client projects and guides project scoping, budgeting and resource allocation. She is a member of the Military Spouse JD Network (MSJDN). She can be reached at Braun@SalazarJackson.com.