Agile or flexible working?

What is agile?

According to the dictionary:

  1. Able to move quickly and easily / able to think and understand quickly.
  2. Relating to or denoting a method of project management, used especially for software development that is characterized by the division of tasks into short phases of work and frequent reassessment and adaptation of plans.

What is flexible working?

According to the dictionary:

  1. A situation in which an employer allows people to choose the times that they work so that they can do other things, for example spend time with their children.

Agile working seems to be hot topic for most businesses but not yet so much for law firms. Law firms do talk about it and there are many articles about the topic in the context of “the next law firm” or “law firm of the future”. I do believe however that the concept of agile working within law firms is misunderstood and I will explain why.

My husband is an agile expert, having worked in the banking industry for over a decade he has advised numerous digital transformation project teams on the implementation of agile work processes. The reason banks see benefit from implementing agile work processes is not efficiency, but to ensure that they deliver products that fit their customers’ needs. This concept really resonated with me and made me think about the way agile working is translated into the legal sector and wider professional services industry. I would like to think that we could change the way we see service delivery for law firms and apply agile working methodology with the same aim: to add even greater value to our clients together with the solutions to the questions they have asked. A nice benefit of agile working is that it would also improve efficiency, but we should see this as a nice benefit only and not the main aim.

Agile working in law firms is still seen as “flexible working” which means that one should be able to work from wherever and whenever one would like to. The “wherever” bit of this is something that is more broadly accepted across law firms, from what I hear from peers at least, and most fee earners can work a day from home or “wherever” they want to work. The “whenever” bit is still a difficult one, even though output is measured (billable hours), it is not broadly accepted to login to your computer or come into the office “whenever” it suits you. Most responsible fee earners would come into the office whenever they want to, knowing that their billable hours won’t lie and they have a target to achieve. Does it really matter that they come in late and finish late or come in early and leave early?

My answer to this is that it really shouldn’t matter but that is because I truly believe that the concept of agile working for law firms is misunderstood. I believe that, just like the example of my husband implementing agile working principles at the bank to increase value for their customers, as one of its benefits, law firms could also look at ways to implement agile working as a means to add even greater value to the client rather than looking at it as a means to control “flexible working”. By changing the way we work, how can we increase the value we add to our clients even more?

When I discuss the concept of agile working with my husband, the most important thing that I take away from our conversations is the importance of client listening. Especially in digital transformation projects where software delivery to enhance customer experience is important, client listening is crucial. I believe that this concept can be transformed for it to be applied across the legal sector as well. When a client turns to you with a problem, we tend to rush into finding a solution, but before we actually do that, there should be a few important questions to ask your client in the process. What is it that the client actually needs? Have they had the problem before? What was the solution to the problem at the time? What worked and what didn’t work? Are there any other existing solutions to the problem? If you handle this matter for your client, what value do they get over sending this to other lawyers? If you ask these questions before you start to work on finding the solution to the problem, you will likely get more information which will result in a more focused approach and limiting your research as you will know what you will be looking for. The various tasks deriving from this “client listening” can then be put on a so called “Kanban board” and you can allocate resource to each of these tasks. Agile working in principle knows three different stages:

  • To do
  • Doing
  • Done

The idea is, that all tasks will move across the board from “to do” to “doing” and once finished to “done”. The advantages of this way of agile working is that for each process and as you move them along the board, you can check in with your client to ensure you are on the right track. This in contrary to what many people think would show some form of insecurity, it shows efficiency. It will help to visualise work, limit work-in-progress, and maximize work flow.

Why focus on tasks that are no longer important and can be removed from the task list instead of completing tasks for the sake of doing these and as a consequence write off your billable time? 

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