What is Agile (for Lawyers)?

One way to think of Agile is as a set of practices that a team engages in to achieve a desired result. I’m a child of the 1980s so I think of this as the “wax on, wax off” part of the Karate Kid training sequence. If your actual delivery team is working under an experienced Agile coach or other practitioner, that might even be how you get introduced to Agile. In that case, you wouldn’t get to decide whether to have a daily standup (more on that later), it would just be something your team does.

Examples of Agile practices include those daily standups, plus weekly planning, weekly review, backlog grooming, time boxing, paired programming, user stories, WIP limits, retrospectives, and a whole lot more. Don’t worry, I won’t quiz you on this part, but you will get to know many of them over the next few lessons.

My guess is that if you’re in the legal industry, you’re not going to learn Agile by starting with individual practices. The Miyagi, Esquires are still few and far between.

Another way is to think of Agile as “a set of methods and methodologies that help your team to think more effectively, work more effectively, and make better decisions.”* Now who doesn’t want that? I think this definition gets closer to the core of what Agile is about, but it still runs the risk of scaring away lawyers and their teams.

One of the problems is nomenclature; Agile methodologies tend to have strange names like Scrum and Kanban and Extreme Programming (XP) that can scare legal professionals away. Although, of course, you’re going to learn about them too.

For me, the most important part of learning Agile is striving to have an Agile mindset. If given the choice between doing Agile and being agile, I’ll take the latter every time. For one, there is no one way to “do Agile.” In fact, even though I call myself the Agile Attorney, I borrow a lot from concepts like Lean and Systems Thinking and the Theory of Constraints (and more) that aren’t strictly Agile. Who cares. They’re all distillations of fundamental human wisdom that can help the way that you and your team deliver your work.

There are, however, a few key components that all of these methods have in common; I’m going to explain them through the lens of the Agile Manifesto.

Yes, there’s a manifesto. It is pretty software-centric (Agile got its start in the tech industry), so I’ve replaced a few words to make it more broadly applicable. The thing that software and legal have in common is that they’re both knowledge work, and that kind of largely invisible work leads to some common problems whether you’re writing code or writing motions.

The Agile Manifesto (adapted)

“We are uncovering better ways of delivering knowledge work by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Valuable deliverables over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.”

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let me point out a few things.

1. Note that these are all “we” statements. The “we” here refers to the signers of the original manifesto, but it also reflects that Agile is a team sport. No one person is going to be successful implementing Agile methods if others on the team aren’t at least directionally on board.

2. The manifesto reflects a “learn by doing” attitude. I can tell you a lot about Agile, and you can scour the internet to learn far more than I could ever explain. But nothing will teach you more about Agile than simply trying some of these things on your own.

3. The four bullets are “yes, and” statements, not either/or choices. Yes, processes and tools are helpful. Just not as helpful as individuals and interactions. And good luck telling a bunch of lawyers to completely abandon their CYA instincts (but collaboration is generally the path to superior results).

Over the next several posts I’ll dive into the 12 principles that accompany the original manifesto.

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