When law students are in university one thing they are rarely taught is project management.
While it is hard to teach in a classroom setting, (the best practice of legal project management comes from internships and clerkships) it is a skill that all the top lawyers possess.
At the same time, while these traditional internships and clerkships may shape young graduates into terrific lawyers in a law firm, they put legal counsel at a disadvantage when they find themselves trying to apply a law firm’s ‘best practice’ to an in-house Legal function.
On the other hand, their peers in other business functions tend to graduate fully equipped with a range of project management tactics up their sleeve.
Terms like agile project management, scrums and sprints should not just be exclusive to IT teams. These tactics are tried and tested business best practices and are just as suited to in-house legal projects as they are to in-house technology projects.
What is Agile project management?
In its simplest form, Agile project management is a process of delivering project objectives in incremental steps, also known as sprints. The process, originally developed for software developers, allows the team to break down the larger project into realistic and meaningful sections that promote velocity and can be adapted at the start of each new sprint as a project needs changing.
This differs from traditional project management methods where the final objective remains static and isn’t typically given an opportunity to be revised with learnings that arise during the project lifecycle.
Agile project management does not end once a project is complete. The process incorporates a follow up of the project and gives those who worked on it the chance to provide feedback and learnings which can be applied to future projects.
For the Agile framework to be successfully applied to a project, the project owner (or scrum master) requires a detailed understanding of all stakeholders who will be needed throughout the project’s lifecycle. They need to ensure all of them are onboard with the process from the beginning. The project owner also typically runs regular ‘stand up’ meetings for the whole team. While it might seem to be a lot of extra work, including stand ups to check in on the progress regularly actually finds team members completing commitments as projected more often because more thought was put into how much they could feasibly produce in a shorter time-frame during each sprint.
How can Legal leverage agile project management?
Ultimately, in-house Legal functions are a part of the business, not a Law Firm. The processes that work for other business functions are built around moving the business forward as a whole, rather than just that particular team.
Many in-house legal functions have begun to adopt agile for their project management. This helps them to understand how their client – the business – works. It also gives them the opportunity to communicate Legal impact and value better to the business.
While much of what Legal does is subjective and difficult to measure with exact figures, the basic framework of Agile project management can still be applied such as:
Keeping meetings short and regular
Agile framework typically includes daily 5-15 minute stand ups depending on the team size. This provides transparency on how the team is tracking, where someone might need extra help, and clears up confusion as it is happening, rather than down the track where more effort may have been put towards incorrectly executing a task.
While this might not be appropriate for all in-house legal functions, sprints are useful if workloads tend to fall within a predictable pattern. By dividing the Legal support tasks or contract lifecycle into sections (e.g. draft, review, approve, execute) lawyers are likely to increase the speed at which contracts move through Legal and the business.
Set aside time for the team to review the project process upon completion. Here is where any major red flags or bottlenecks to execution can be identified and shared. Once you identify exactly what went wrong it will be easier to understand how to work through the problem more successfully in the future. Similarly, the parts of the project that ran smoothly or better than expected will be highlighted at this stage. Store these learnings for future projects. Legal might even find they have a thing or two to share with other business functions.
Backlog and Work In Progress limits
Legal will always be in high demand, and while it might feel like the only answer to a request for support is ‘yes’, realistically putting too much on the Legal team’s plate leaves the function with unsatisfied, overworked lawyers and a frustrated business wondering where their contract is. By placing ‘limits’ on how many tasks Legal can be working on at any given moment, the team and the business will be forced to understand the capacity of the Legal function and where different tasks sit within the wider business priorities. An overwhelming backlog of tasks might even indicate that the Legal function would benefit from a secondee to ease the strain.
Over to you
The Agile project management framework was initially designed for efficiently progressing IT projects. But since its inception, this management method is spilling over to all areas of the business, including Legal. Progressive in-house lawyers globally are adopting these tactics to increase their efficiencies and work with the business towards generating better outcomes across the board.