A lean or similarly called agile law practice is one that prioritizes the delivery of a valuable project or service early and often. In order to do this, a law practice must create a system that improves time efficiency by removing excess waste. When a lawyer applies these lean processes to his or her workflow, they create services for which the client is happy to pay. But what does it mean to “remove excess waste”?
In this episode of New Solo, Adriana Linares interviews John E. Grant, an agile attorney consultant, about what it means to have a lean practice, how businesses have soared ahead of law firms in this way, and things every lawyer can do to add value to their services. Grant, a solo practitioner himself, discusses his move from the business world to the legal world and how he has seen the agile manifesto change the way that businesses work. He mentions ways lawyers can effectively streamline workflow processes and gives some specific suggestions of books and articles to read in order to learn more. Tune in for more details on how to make your clients happy by increasing your practice efficiency.
John E. Grant is a solo lawyer and runs Agile Attorney Consulting, a consulting company that works to make lawyers more productive, please clients, and increase revenue. He spent ten years in the business world working for a software company before he went to law school. Grant is an author, speaker, coach, consultant, and lawyer who practices on a lean workflow.
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New Solo: Agile and Lean: Methodologies to an Efficient, Better, and More Profitable Practice – 4/28/2015
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Adriana Linares: Hello and welcome to New Solo on Legal Talk Network. I’m Adriana Linares, I’m a legal technology trainer and consultant, and I’m your host for this show; I help lawyers and law firms use technology better. But before we get started today, I want to make sure and take a moment to thank our sponsor, Solo Practice University. Make sure to check out their website, it’s a great resource for solos – new and long time solos. I want to welcome John E. Grant from Agile Attorney Consulting to the show today. On today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about ways that solos can use modern business methodologies in the dangerously old school world of running a law practice. Hey, John!
John Grant: Hi.
Adriana Linares: It’s really nice for you to come on the show. I think it’s really cool that we met on Twitter.
John Grant: We did, I know, I’ve been loving Twitter lately.
Adriana Linares: Yeah, that’s a funny thing. For a long time I just didn’t pay a lot of attention to Twitter, and couldn’t pay a lot, didn’t pay. And then last year, for some reason, I super started getting into it and it’s become such an important part of my business and keeping up to date with what’s going on and of course, finding, following, meeting, and at some point interviewing very cool and interesting people like you. So since I don’t know that much about you and maybe our listeners aren’t going to know that much either, tell us a bit about yourself.
John Grant: Okay, well I am a lawyer. I am right now a backend solo practice. I’ve spent a little bit of time in and out of in-house counsel and solo practice and small firm practice. I spent about ten years in the business world before I went to law school. So I had a business background, and frankly, in a lot of ways, I went and got my JD as an alternative to an MBA, which isn’t the most common path, but I don’t think it’s an unusual one either; I know of some other people that have done something similar. But then you catch a lot of momentum and I wasn’t sure if I would ever practice law and now I’ve been at it for a while.
Adriana Linares: That’s very cool. And aside from just deciding to go to law school because you’re in the business world, what has pushed you in this direction of doing consulting also for lawyers as far as trying to understand what agile law and lean law means, which has become a pretty hot term out there on Twitter. Give me the basics, I don’t really know what that means?
John Grant: Yeah, well let me give you my background a little bit and it ties into the agile piece in particular. So before I went to law school, I worked for a software company and at the time – this was in the late 90’s, early 2000’s – the way that we developed software was what would now be called traditional or waterfall project management. And it’s funny, a lot of lawyers I don’t even think are familiar with traditional project management techniques, but it’s the Gantt chart. So if you use Microsoft Project or some other tools, it’s this idea that you spend a bunch of time in the early phases planning the project – or in the case of software, it would be a release – and you would go through a lot of exercise with your business stakeholders trying to figure out what the important features are and then you’d go to the developers, and everyone would hum and haw about what was needed and how long it was going to take and what the cost would be and resources and all the rest. And then you go away and build it and it would take anyway from 6-24 months to get this thing out the door. And the problem was that a lot of times by the time a piece of software or product would launch, a lot of the original business justification behind the features was passed and new things had come up. And this was something that the software world in general struggled with. I left in the early 2000’s to go to law school, and while I was in law school, the agile revolution started in the software world. And when I came out, I actually went back and was in-house counsel at the same company for about a year speaking to a lot of my old colleagues and friends. And they had gone completely agile while I was away.
Adriana Linares: And you were like, but I’ve been in law school and that term means nothing to me.
John Grant: That’s right; well not entirely, actually. Because my wife is a user-experience designer. So she also was moving on to more agile workflows with the teams, but this was early; this is still in the early 2000’s. So agile was relatively new, I think the agile manifesto – and yes, there’s a manifesto.
Adriana Linares: And so what’s the 123 of the agile manifesto, what are the basic concepts behind it?
John Grant: It’s the idea that you need to prioritize the delivery of valuable product early and often in your workflow.
Adriana Linares: Well that sounds like something a lawyer should need to know how to do.
John Grant: Should certainly know how to do, and a lot of the concepts from agile overlap with the concepts from lean, which is what you started to ask about. And I think that in a lot of ways, they share about 98% of their DNA. The easiest difference for me that I draw is that lean originally comes from the manufacturing world, and it’s especially well-suited to a physical manufacturing environment. Now that isn’t to say that there aren’t some really great lean implementations in the knowledge worker world and specifically speaking of Twitter, Ken Grady from Seyfarth Lean has been on an incredible run of just great, great content on there. I think he’s at lean law strategy and I truly believe that every lawyer should follow him. Agile is native to knowledge work. The agile community struggles a little bit because it initially was very native to software work. In fact, a lot of the terminology is still sort of slanted to software. But what I and some others are doing is really trying to help expand agile methodologies into other parts of business and other parts of knowledge work, including the law.
Adriana Linares: So knowledge work might be a term that business people understand and people who study knowledge management and knowledge workers. But lawyers, that’s not a term they use a lot, and talking about things, you are not just walking into a law firm saying, I’m going to make your law firm agile and we’re going to streamline your legal operations, we’re going to start implementing project management and we’re going to figure out how to make your knowledge work more valuable. So what do you say to them in lawyer terms that makes all that stuff clear?
John Grant: So my promise is basically this: the clients that I’ve worked with report that they have happier clients, that they’re making more money and that they sleep better at night.
Adriana Linares: Okay, so how is that happening, what are they doing?
John Grant: So the first thing that I tend to do is I use a specific toolset out of the agile world known as Kanban, and that actually comes from some lean methodologies originally, but the idea behind Kanban is you take work in a knowledge work environment, so people that use their brains, that don’t make physical things. And one of the problems is that we have a hard time understanding the scope and volume of knowledge work, of brain work. When you’ve got widgets on a factory floor, you can see where they are and you can see if you have too many at one station and not enough on another. With knowledge work that’s really difficult, and so one of the things that I like to do with Kanban is help people make things visible and make their work visible. So a lot of times I’ll sit down with a sharpie and a pack of sticky notes and say, tell me what you’re working on this week. And for every matter that comes up or every task that goes up, I’ll write something about that matter on a sticky note and I’ll stick it, maybe just set it aside. And then we’ll spend a little bit more time and I’ll say tell me, in your overall process, where is this, where does it fit. And we’ll put it on the wall in a relative, chronological order for handling a matter. So I’ve worked with immigration lawyers or family law attorneys and they’ve got a pretty regular process. Although I’ve also worked with other attorneys that have a more generic process that are maybe doing a business formation one day and a shareholder dispute another and it might be a little bit more scattered. But we basically try to make the work that they’re carrying around in their head visible and visual.
Adriana Linares: And then, the idea behind lean, which you’re using them a little bit interchangeably, you said they’re about 90, 95% the same is that you study a process and you remove any waste, anything excess. So you’re trying to become as streamlined as possible, getting from A to Z in 20 letters instead of 24, or making it super simple. So how are we tying that also into this process?
John Grant: It’s the thing that most people know about lean is that if you’re going lean, you’re eliminating waste. But what most people don’t understand is what the definition of waste is, and the definition of waste is any activity or process – or even part of a process – that is not adding value to the customer.
Adriana Linares: So in a law firm environment, give me an example of something you’ve seen where you’ve said there’s some waste, you’re doing this thing, you’re not bringing value, but you’re still billing your client for it. So why don’t we figure out how to remove that wasteful step or process and replace it with something where both you will feel good about charging your client for, but they will be happy that you charged them for it because you just added more value. Give me an example of something like that.
John Grant: One of the worst forms of waste that I tend to see – and I should add that I actually don’t focus a lot on waste from the get go. I really try to establish what I call a smooth flow, and again, this is a lean and agile concept. But I want matters and client work to be flowing smoothly from the client intake stage to the matter resolution stage through a fairly predictable set of stage gates. And the biggest form of waste for me is when a lawyer thinks that something’s advancing but then realizes that they’re missing something and they have to take it backwards. And in lean that would sometimes be called rework or backflow, and it’s this idea that you think that you are making progress on something but then because you didn’t actually prepare adequately or have the right tools and systems in place to understand that this matter was ready for you to do work on it right now, you wind up having to backtrack. And either get some more information from a client or from opposing party or do a little more research or whatever it is. And that idea, that problem where people will pick up a matter, do a little bit of work, realize they need something else, put it away, and then pick up another matter. That is a highly inefficient way to work and it causes a few different problems. Number one is there’s a lot of mental switching costs. One of my most recent blog posts has to do with the insidious harms of multitasking. And there’s a lot of research that has come out and it’s been a big topic of the internet in general, but trying to do too many things at once – and too many things is usually defined as more than 2 or 3 – doing too many things at once is really harmful and ultimately very counterproductive. One of the funny things is that people who self identify as good multi taskers are typically the worst at productivity.
Adriana Linares: That makes sense, that’s very interesting. And I think most people like to say I’m a great multitasker, I can work on all of these things either simultaneously or in order and I know that I’m getting a lot of work done. And it sounds like maybe a lot of attorneys have to take a step back and really analyze whether or not that’s what’s happening to them. Before we move onto our next segment, we’re going to take a quick break to hear a message from our sponsors.
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Adriana Linares: Welcome back to New Solo, I’m Adriana Linares and with me today is John E. Grant. John is based in Portland, Oregon, and he has a consulting company. He’s a solo attorney as well; his consulting company that he really enjoys running and helping other attorneys which is called Agile Attorney Consulting. Before we left off, before the break, we were talking a lot about understanding what running your law firm under the concept of an agile or lean law firm comes down to and we had just left off on a term that I really liked that you used, John, was mental switching harm, which is this sort of side effect of believing that we’re really good multi taskers. So when you’re trying to get an attorney, or even yourself as a solo attorney, to not suffer from mental switching harm and put into practice agile practices and be much more streamlined in getting from client intake to matter resolution without having to do a lot of backtracking. What are the tips that you give them? How can this project management concepts that we know attorneys are not necessarily familiar with outside of maybe reading stuff or articles that they’ve heard of, what are a couple of tips that we can give our listeners on how to become better project managers to just get a matter from A to Z a lot quicker?
John Grant: For me, for my personal Kanban board which I use-
Adriana Linares: Wait, there’s a board? There’s a Kanban board?
John Grant: Oh yeah, so here’s part of it is-
Adriana Linares: Yeah, tell us about the board. Can I make one?
John Grant: You can make one, it’s very simple. And in fact I’ve got a Vine, so it can be done in 6 seconds in making a Kanban board. And the idea is that the most basic Kanban board is basically 3 columns on a wall: to do, doing, and done. And the idea is that it functions a little differently from a checklist because a checklist has an infinite capacity and it is relatively difficult to reorder. But if you just write the tasks of the matter that you’re working on on sticky notes and put them in the to do column – and this is the most basic Kanban board and I usually very quickly will expand out and have more than just those 3 columns – but conceptually, if you wake up in the morning or when you get into work in the morning and you come up with the 5 to 10 pieces of work that you hope to accomplish today-
Adriana Linares: Which we all do.
John Grant: And instead of putting those on a list you put those on stickies, and you can then order the sticky notes vertically. So the thing that’s on top is your most important thing, the thing that’s on bottom is your least important thing. And as you work on things, you move the one thing into your doing column and you try to keep that doing column from getting crowded. This is an oversimplification, and the idea is that by only allowing – in this example one thing, sometimes we will allow more than one thing in – but by only allowing a finite number of things in your doing column, that forces you to actually finish one thing before you can start working on another.
Adriana Linares: So one of the things – I want to backtrack just one second – because one of the things that you mentioned earlier was if you think you’ve made progress but then turns out that you don’t have either the information that you need or the documents that you need and you have to go back, obviously moving or keeping that task in the doing column becomes harder. So how often do you find that or how can you help lawyers prevent that thing that they need to kepe progress happening on a matter because of someone else? Let’s say their secretary or their paralegal hasn’t prepared something or another attorney that they’re working with, what kind of control or maybe I don’t have control but what kind of processes can I have to put in place to help with outside forces that keep things in my doing column?
John Grant: There’s two different ways. The simplest way and again, the way that I work when I’m doing a personal Kanban, is that I establish another column called waiting. And in that waiting column, when something goes into the waiting column, it gets either sometimes right on that sticky note or sometimes I’ll put a smaller sticky on top of stickies. I’ve got a pretty good collection.
Adriana Linares: You’ve got a meta stickies. A sticky on a sticky.
John Grant: Yeah, I’m very meta with stickies. But what I make sure is when something goes into the waiting column, I need to capture two pieces of information: on what and since when. Usually I like to do on what more than on who-
Adriana Linares: Shouldn’t you have a who? Yeah, I was going to say you’ve got an on what but I feel like there should definitely be a who there.
John Grant: But when you’re dealing with the who – and this is part of good productivity techniques is you should be making a concrete ask of that person, and that’s where the on what comes from. So if you need the opposing party information from your client, you need to make that concrete request to your client and say I’m waiting for opposing party information. So you don’t care who it comes from, you just need the information that you’ve asked your client and so that’s the way that you’ve gone about getting it. But I think that what’s key is to think in terms of the need rather than who you’re going to get it from.
Adriana Linares: And do you encourage attorneys in law firms – solos specifically – to have some sort of technology or software or project management tool that helps them with that? Because I noticed that you mentioned the old school stickies and I thought we were going to talk about modern business methodologies.
John Grant: Yeah, well here’s the dirty little secret. So Kanban boards are a feature of a few different agile methodologies. One of them is Kanban and another is that they’re very common in a methodology called scrum. And I guarantee you that if you walk into the software development floor of the hippest startups – and I’ll say in Portland, Oregon because I’ve walked around a lot of them. You will see – these are very accomplished technologists and software designers – they are all using physical boards. I would say probably 80% of them are using physical boards. And there’s some attributes of physical boards that are really useful, particularly when you’re learning these new methodologies. Number one is that they’re really easy to change. So one of the other concepts that I like to teach is the lean startup. And the lean startup comes from an excellent book by Eric Ries, and the idea is that every business decision that you make should be seen as a little experiment. And so if you’re going to do something, if you’re going to invest in a new process or a new piece of technology or anything else for that matter, you should form a hypothesis about what is the return that you’re going to get on that investment. And you should have some way to measure whether your guess was right or not. So when you’re implementing something like Kanban or scrum, you can go out and invest in a piece of technology – and actually, frankly, there are lots of free technology tools that are out there. Trello is one that is becoming very common, but Kanbanize and others are out there as well. But I like to prototype and even really get early adaption in the physical world because I think that it’s so much easier to change and also you can do it in a way that doesn’t force you to have to learn something new. Everyone can work with sticky notes and walls, there’s a very low learning curve.
Adriana Linares: And there is definitely a lot of learning to be done when it comes to – I mean you threw out every big business buzz term that could be had out there today. So we talked about lean, specifically lean law, we talked about being an agile law firm, and then you threw in scrum at the end, so I know a lot of attorneys are going to be listening to this going, “What? This is so foreign!” But I agree that just understanding even how these concepts and ideas work can be helpful to a solo practice and definitely bringing value to a client and of course in the end, running a successful law practice. So can you give us just recap? You mentioned a couple of good sources. First of all, your blog of in and of itself is amazing and has really well-written articles describing how a lot of these things and much more can be applied to law. So why don’t you rattle off for us your website and your blog? Tell us again, 3 or 4 good sources or books where these terms – and people to follow which you also mentioned – that specifically talk to lawyers.
John Grant: Good, I made a list so I’ll read from it. But my business website is AgileAttorney.net, I’m working on the .com, I actually have paid a guy for it but it hasn’t been transferred to me yet. So AgileAttorney.net, my blog is called Legal Value Theory, and it’s linked from AgileAttorney.net or also LegalValueAttorney.com. My Twitter handle is @JEGrant3 and I think that’s enough about how to contact me.
Adriana Linares: That’s important though.
John Grant: The things I think are really important concepts to know – and you actually hit on one good point which is one of my earliest clients does business law and he helps with startups. And his Kanban that he has in his office has been a competitive advantage to him because there are clients that will walk in and see his board. Or if he goes and meets with a client and says oh yeah, Kanban, I use one too. All of a sudden, these clients know that they understand their language, or he understands their language. So as far as modern business concepts that I think every lawyer should know about but most have never heard of: number one is The Lean Startup. I think for new solos, I know Foonberg is the bible and there’s lots of great information in there, but it also is very much the old way of working. And I think that using lean startup methodologies to make minimum investments and minimum viable products and come up and get in the habit of developing and testing hypotheses about what works and doesn’t work in your business is incredibly important. And a lot of it is agile business advice repurposed for this new book, but it’s good advice and I really strongly recommend that anyone who is going out on their own in a new business – regardless of whether it’s a law practice, read The Lean Startup.
Adriana Linares: Okay, good one. What else?
John Grant: Another one is there’s a couple of related concepts that the business model canvas and the lean canvas; there’s a great book by Alex Osterwalder called Business Model Generation, and then there’s a related book called Running Lean by Ash Maurya. But both of them have this model – and again it’s this very visual model – you print out or even convert your whiteboard into this canvas. It has about 9 squares on it that basically helps you think through what your business model is and help you even – again, I was on a webcast just the other day with the lean canvas folks and they said you really need to fill these things out using sticky notes because they’re meant to be fluid, they’re meant to be dynamic, they’re meant to change. You want to get lots and lots of them and play with it because it’s the process of building these canvases that gives you insight into how best to serve your ideal customers.
Adriana Linares: That’s great. Well, unfortunately – and this happens to me every time we do a podcast – looks like we’ve reached the end of our time together. This conversation is just so interesting and I want to make sure that our listeners go back and either listen again or write all those things down and visit those resources because I think these are great concepts that where everybody is slowly pushing into the entire legal profession and I know it’s just going to raise the level of everything that’s going on up there a little bit better. So I want to make sure and thank you John E. Grant very much for stopping by and chatting with us. Tell us one more time real quick how our listeners can keep an eye on you on the internet or get a hold of you if they would like to.
John Grant: Again, I tweet a lot so @JEGrant3 on Twitter, I’m [email protected], or you can just go on the website, there’s a contact us or contact me form that actually follows one of the agile rituals asking 3 very pointed questions with the idea of starting a conversation. And I love to talk about this stuff so I really encourage anyone if you’re at all interested, pick up the phone and call me or go to the website or send me a tweet or whatever because I could do this all day.
Adriana Linares: I have a lot of topics that I have the same problem with. Well thank you, John, I really appreciate it.
John Grant: Thank you, thanks for having me.
For all you listeners who’d like more information about what you’ve heard today, make sure to visit New Solo at LegalTalkNetwork.com. Of course, you can keep an eye on us through iTunes, RSS, Twitter and Facebook. So that brings us to the end of our show. I’m Adriana Linares and thank you for listening. Join us next time for another great episode and remember: you’re not alone, you’re a new solo.
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