Kanban For Lawyers: Getting Started

Recently the ABA’s Law Practice Today Magazine published my article The Dawn of the Agile Attorney. In it, I profile several lawyers, some practicing attorneys and others who have gone on to legal tech careers, who have adopted Agile methods in their work and lives.

Reception to the article has been great, and several people have asked me for resources on learning more about Agile. One the one hand, there’s no shortage of information online about Agile and its subsets like Scrum, Kanban, and Lean Startup. On the other, much of the available info is specific to the needs of software teams and developers.

I’m working on a backlog of article ideas for Agile techniques that I (and others) have specifically adapted for use by lawyers, but I want to get started by discussing the Agile methodology that I think is often the best and easiest-to-implement entry point for attorneys (and other professionals) who are new to Agile: Kanban.

To that end, I’ve started writing a book titled, wait for it, Kanban For Lawyers. As I mentioned in my previous post, the book—though only about half finished—is currently for sale through Leanpub, a Lean Startup inspired self publishing platform. You can read the first three chapters for free (click the “download” button under “Free Sample”), and I’m also going to publish them on this blog. I also promised in my last post an explanation of why I think you should buy my unfinished book, and I’ll get to that soon. For now, however, I want to make the first chapter available.

I’m looking for as much feedback as I can get on this, so please don’t hesitate to send me your comments, criticisms, or questions—I can take it! And if you like what you see, maybe head over to Leanpub and drop a dollar or so to get the next 6 chapters now.

Also, please consider joining the Agile Attorneys Community on Google+ to connect with other legal professionals who are using Agile tools in their work (and personal!) lives. You can also subscribe to my newsletter in the box below this post to receive updates on using Agile in a legal setting. And, of course, don’t hesitate to contact me if you want to discuss any of these ideas further.

Without further ado…

Kanban For Lawyers, Chapter 1: Do this Now

Most books begin with a bunch of “why” statements, or a history of the topic, or some other bunch of words designed to convince you that buying the book is or was a good idea. We’re not going to do that.

You’ve started reading—that means you’re at least minimally interested in using Kanban. That’s good, but the best way I can get you really interested in using Kanban is for you to start using Kanban. We’ll get to some history and why stuff later, but starting with Kanban is so darn easy that it simply makes no sense to delay.

The number one thing I hear from people who have started using Kanban to visually manage their work is that once they have seen their work this way, they can never unsee it. And they love it.

So if you are ready to commit to improving your productivity, your delivery of client value, and the way you feel about your law practice, I ask you to do the following:

1. Grab a pad of sticky notes. Any shape or size. (If you honestly don’t have sticky notes, some paper and tape will do.)
2. Find a pen.
3. Look around and identify a wall with some empty space.

Great. Now you have all the tools you need to start Kanban.

I’m dead serious about you physically doing this. Kanban is participatory, not conceptual. If you just scanned the above list and thought to yourself “Ok, I’ll go get those things in a bit after I read some more” then stop. Go back. Now please actually do those three things right now. Thank you.

Okay. Now write on a sticky note “Build Kanban Board.”

Look at your wall. Mentally divide it into three vertical columns. Take the sticky note you just wrote and put it in the left-hand column.

Now write each of the following on three more stickies:

* To Do
* Doing
* Done

Put the “To Do” sticky at the top of the left-hand column on your wall, above your “Build Kanban Board” note. If you need to move your existing note around a little to accommodate the new one, please feel free to do so.

Now put the “Doing” sticky to the right of the “To Do” sticky. Then do the same thing with the “Done” sticky, to the right of the “Doing” one. The spacing is up to you—make it feel right.

Then take your “Build Kanban Board” sticky and move it into the “Doing” column.

This next part is very important. Do not skip it!

Step back from your wall and look at it. Take a moment to appreciate that there is one thing right now that you are doing.



I’m sure you have lots of thoughts in your head about things that you could be doing, maybe even should be doing. We’ll deal with those things very soon. But right now, at this moment, you are doing one thing: Building your Kanban board.


Now take your “Build Kanban Board” sticky and move it to the “Done” column.

This next part is also very important. Do not skip it!

Step back from your wall again and look at it, especially that item in the “Done” column. Appreciate that you have just taken something from start to finish. It took very little time, almost no financial investment, and not a lot of effort. But it is done. Finished. Complete. So savor the accomplishment! It is a small accomplishment so a small savoring will do: maybe a deep breath or a quick sip of tea. But savoring accomplishments is essential to your success with Kanban, so make sure you do it.

Nicely done. You have started, and that is the most important thing.


[Edit: Want more? Click here for Chapter 2!]




© 2015 John E. Granthttps://platform.vine.co/static/scripts/embed.js

  • I’ve been a praciticing attorney for twenty years. I started my very first solo practice in January of this year. Before I was a lawyer, I spent ten years as a production planner and master scheduler for, in order, a cutting tool manufacturer, an manufacturer of industrial and commercial electrical and electronic products and systems, and a nationally known manufacturer of consumer hygience products. In my former life, I learned about MRP, ERP, and other, earlier types of operations management systems. I was involved with implementation of three different mainframe operations software packages, none of which actually worked very well. The main reason for the failure was the lack of buy-in by the end-users. When I left the field in around 1989 to go into law, the concepts of “just in time” and Kanban were in their infancy.

    I bought your book today, and hope you finish it soon! I have tried a number of different techniques and practice management systems over my legal career but was never able to get any of my colleagues to learn them, much less use them. Now that I’m solo, I have my own hybrid system, but I think that using Kanban will give me a real advantage. I’d love to talk to you about this sometime. In any event, thanks for what you’ve done so far.

    – Kristi

  • This sounds like a really fascinating project.
    Are you familiar with Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry’s Personal Kanban: Mapping Work, Navigating Life which seem to cover a very similar ground than what seems to be described in your “Kanban for Lawyers” LeanPub book in progress.
    What do you see as the main differences between the work of Lawyers and what other knowledge workers do?
    Are you planning to look at how value stream mapping can help define standardized work, as this may well be a way forward worth exploring?

    • Hi Pascal: I am familiar with the Personal Kanban book and think its great. Frankly there aren’t a whole lot of special needs for the work of Lawyers, especially in the early phases of Kanban, but there are some. And sometimes people (especially lawyers) will respond better to a concept if you speak directly to them. My overall approach does have a few differences from Jim’s and Tonianne’s, but those are minor. Probably the biggest difference is my approach to writing–I have a more conversational style that hopefully will resonate with a certain group of readers (though I’m sure some will prefer the more clinical approach). My hope is to add to what Jim and Tonianne are doing by offering a complimentary perspective.

      I do plan to get into value stream mapping, though probably not in detail in this book. I actually get more excited about that part of Kanban than I do the personal productivity aspects of it, but for most people I think personal productivity is a more accessible starting point. Thanks for your comment and your interest, and let me know if you ever want to compare notes.

  • […] Kanban (kudos again to John Grant) – no, Kanban is not a hip sushi dish but a word to describe the visual representations of process and project flows. Actually, the word in Japanese means “visual card” and that’s exactly what you get — a visual board that can reveal to you how you can make your work flow more productive. Learn more about it here. […]

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