The Agile Law Firm: a book review
by Chris Marston, chief executive of LawNet
Some lawyers may have seen job adverts seeking a ‘Six Sigma Black Belt’, or a ‘scrum master’, with expertise in Lean and Agile. Perhaps even an experienced Kanban practitioner. What’s this all about? What on earth do these people do, in these recently made-up roles? Businesses seemed to cope for years without needing people carrying these strange cultish job titles – surely another passing fad.
Very few of these job adverts will have been from law firms. And thank goodness for that! The legal profession doesn’t get involved with temporary infatuations like this, and lawyers are artists, not engineers, after all. Lawyers solve problems for clients by applying their intellect and knowledge to the issue and finding a resolution. Sometimes that can take a long time. Every case is unique. Let’s leave all this management-speak to car manufacturers where it belongs.
In his new book The Agile Law Firm, published by Globe Law and Business, Chris Bull argues that law firms should engage with the Agile philosophy, not least because that’s what corporate clients want them to do. He asserts that by embracing Agile Principles, law firms can delight their clients, win more and better work, achieve better financial outcomes, build, and maintain competitive advantage.
It is clear that the book is informed by the author’s observations from his interactions with larger law firms – and for context I mean really large. In England & Wales terms, the top half of the top 1%. So, I began reading this book with a degree of scepticism about how the messages might translate into the world that members of LawNet inhabit. Firms of SME size, based largely in county towns and market towns throughout the UK & Ireland. Firms who don’t, as a rule, have much to do with General Counsel in large corporates. Firms serving private individuals and SME businesses in their local and chosen markets.
And yet as I progressed through the book, it became clear to me that the Ten Attributes of an Agile Organisation can – and should – be applied to any business. Clustered around the three key areas of Clients & Service, People & Teams and Strategy & Organisation, these ten attributes represent a virtuous circle of understanding and supporting your customers and your people, and thereby getting better outcomes for that third key stakeholder, the owners of the business. Critical thinking, boldness, reflection, and humility all play a part.
It seems to me that smaller (that is, most) law firms have something to gain by adopting a curious, rather than a dismissive approach to these ideas, and a good starting point is to avoid getting too bogged down in the somewhat eccentric lexicon and nomenclature that accompanies this movement. Rather, they should identify how best the ten Agile attributes could be incorporated into their own business.
In no particular order, I have set out below some of the thoughts and ideas that jumped off the page from my perspective.
- Innovation doesn’t need to be revolutionary. Just making things simpler is good.
- Insight is currency. Sector knowledge, understanding the client viewpoint, business performance data - it is all valuable. How do you generate, curate, update key insights that will help you do a better job for clients, and to get the right fee for the job?
- Have a structure for decision-making. Gut instinct will only take you so far, and not always in the right direction.
- Build change teams that combine people with different skills, specialisms, life experience and levels of seniority. Make them non-hierarchical and empower them.
- The job may be a marathon, but you can do it using teams to achieve a series of sprints, either sequentially or concurrently.
- Always start everything with the customer in mind. Be prepared to fail. Fail fast, reiterate, and try again.
- Collaboration is powerful. With clients, with other business leaders, with peers. Nobody has a monopoly of good ideas. Chris Bull mentions networks, including LawNet, which can provide a safe space for collaboration.
- Use Non-executives to help your firm make better decisions. A critical friend from another sector with different experiences and insights. I’m surprised at how few SME law firms do this.
- Above all else, understand what your purpose is and don’t do anything that doesn’t fit with that. Can everyone in your law firm articulate the firm’s purpose equally clearly?
The challenge for law firms in the £2m-£25m turnover range is that they lack the resources available that larger firms have at their disposal to engage deeply with these concepts, while envying the ability of smaller firms to effect changes with great rapidity. Nonetheless, I would certainly encourage the leadership teams at the firms in our network to consider how well their firm stacks up against the Agile attributes and consider what they can do to introduce them.