Photo: Daniel Bock
Of Counsel - Florida Law
Becoming a more agile Florida law firm
Some firms are scrapping traditional approaches to case management.
Every morning, at 10 sharp, the staff of Salazar Jackson huddles around a white board for a 15-minute meeting known as the “daily scrum.” No one sits. Latecomers are fined $1. The agenda is focused. All nine people at the firm — from the partners to the paralegals to the administrative support staff — report on what they did the day before, the tasks they’re working on that day and potential obstacles.
The ritual is part of a project management methodology known as “agile” that was popularized by Silicon Valley software developers. As the Harvard Business Review recently noted, companies ranging from John Deere to NPR have embraced the approach, and the legal industry is taking notice, too. Salazar Jackson, a Miami-based firm that specializes in commercial cases, believes the agile technique saves time, cuts costs and drives efficiency.
“It keeps the entire firm marching in one cohesive direction,” says Amanda Braun, who spent seven years as an IT project manager before getting a law degree and joining Jackson Salazar to spearhead the project management platform, which she calls “SJ Agile.”
Since adopting agile methods 18 months ago, the firm has been operating quicker with less waste and more predictability, says Braun. The firm can offer more competitive pricing to clients, including more flat-fee arrangements. “Because we have a better idea of how long an item should take to complete, we can assume the risk of completing it on time, and it makes us more efficient — so a number of our tasks are billed out now as per-item charges or completed phases,” she says.
At the firm, legal projects are broken down into “sprints,” oneto four-week time frames during which a series of specific tasks are completed. A typical task might be writing an introduction to a brief or preparing a motion, but it should take no more than a day to finish.
Each work item is tracked with notes on a “kanban” board. Uninitiated tasks go in a “backlog” column; works in progress are tacked to the “hot” column, and completed tasks are moved to a “done” column. At the end of each week, finished tasks are tallied so the firm can get a handle on how efficiently everyone is working.
Multitasking is discouraged. “There’s so much lost mental energy that goes along with that,” says Braun.
The firm’s office design also plays a role in the process. At its new offices in Coral Gables, there are no assigned desks or offices; most staffers work side by side on laptops at what looks like a big kitchen table. The atmosphere fosters “real teamwork,” Salazar says.
Agile also lends more predictability to legal work, helping clients make better decisions. “We had a client that was in a contract dispute and on the fence about whether to go to the trouble and expense of a lawsuit.” Using agile methods, Salazar’s team was able to “segment the lawsuit into different parcels” and estimate the value they’d get from each action.
John Grant, founder of Agile Attorney Consulting in Oregon, says at least a dozen law firms around the country have incorporated agile techniques into their practices. The approach, he says, is well suited to “knowledge work” and may serve as the “missing link” to help solve some of the law industry’s woes.
“As much as lawyers hate to admit it, a growing number of legal services are becoming commoditized. That means more pricing pressure, and firms will need cohesive methodologies for improving their delivery of those services in order to remain competitive,” says Grant. “Even in areas of law that still tend to be ‘open checkbook’ work, clients are starting to demand cost consciousness.”
At its core, Grant says, “agile is about orienting teams around the delivery of customer value, which is exactly what legal clients are saying has been missing from the industry.”
The Agile Approach
Under the agile approach, complex projects that might take months or years are broken down into smaller units that can be completed in days or weeks. Key tenets of the approach include flexibility and collaboration, along with continuous assessment of progress and ongoing revision. Luis Salazar says the agile method helps his firm get its work done on time and often under budget. “Old-fashioned, rigid timetables didn’t work for us.”