Scrum vs. Kanban – Suitability and opportunities of agile methods for legal work Part 1 – Scrum for legal experts

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Agile management is increasingly attracting the attention of a broad public. However, such approaches are by no means new. It is its special suitability to the digitization of business processes and models that makes agile management so relevant. In the following and the upcoming article in GoingDigital issue 01/2021, the most important approaches are presented and discussed with regard to their suitability for legal work.
Agile methods are now used for almost all kinds of projects, organizations and organizational units. Scrum and Kanban are used most often. These agile methods have as many differences as similarities. With the help of an example, central elements of Scrum are introduced followed by a brief discussion on how and why this method enables such extraordinary increases in productivity.

The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time

The future of agile methods in the legal field
In view of Legal Tech, i.e. the increasing digitization of legal work, it is time to question whether and how agile methods can be used in law firms and legal departments and what effects can be achieved with them.Agile approaches assume that projects and organizational plans are often too complex to be described from the beginning with the help of an all-encompassing and perfect plan. The perfect plan is replaced by an incremental and iterative approach. Therefore, the empirical character of agile methods is often referred to. Instead of milestones, i.e. content-related goals, there are fixed time periods (time boxes or sprints) – at the end of which the achievements are measured.
Measuring and presenting these results at the end of a time box is characteristic for (almost all) agile approaches. The term agile comes from the fact that at the end of a time box a new prioritization and planning is done and therefore it is possible to react better and faster to changing conditions and customer requirements. Scrum can be described as a very well-defined set of rules that specifies clear roles with tasks and responsibilities.

Timeboxes instead of milestones
In the legal field, Scrum works and is helpful for projects like larger mergers and acquisitions on which a bigger team is working, but can also be used in the daily work of a law firm.
For instance, a team of ten lawyers works on cases from German and international corporate law. The team reports to a partner or team leader and is expected to handle 25 cases. The time box consists of five working days, which results in a sprint length of one week. The partner functions as the Product Owner, the team sees itself as a Scrum Team and a colleague takes on the role of the Scrum Master. Ideally the role is filled by an experienced lawyer.
The sprint planning takes about two hours. One hour is spent on the assignment and one hour on the actual planning. The time box of one hour forces you to only assign the case and not to anticipate the solution. In addition, empirical studies show that team meetings lasting longer than one hour are highly inefficient.

Assignment and complexity estimation
The Product Owner will review each individual case and ask if the task is understood. Experienced teams always clarify immediately whether the case can be processed (Ready to Do/RtD) and what has to be done so that the case is considered to be processed (Definition of Done/DoD). As soon as all cases are clear (RtD and DoD), the Product Owner must rank the 25 cases, i.e. determine an order according to their importance.
The Scrum Team then works without the owner and discusses who will take over the individual case, how it will be processed and what complexity the case has. The Scrum Master moderates this process and ensures the result.

At the end of the planning meeting, at least one person responsible for operations and one sparring partner for quality control (Pairing) is determined for each case. In addition, the team jointly agrees on the complexity of the individual case. Experienced teams usually know up to what complexity they can take on a case. If the complexity is too high, the case is split into two or more cases within the sprint or treated in two or more consecutive iterations (Sprint).
At the end of the sprint planning, the team commits to a certain number of cases, more precisely to certain points of complexity, within the sprints to be processed. This amount of cases is called a sprint backlog or commitment. The cases that did not make it into the sprint are placed in the product backlog and will be considered for the next sprint if necessary. Once the owner and team agree on the sprint backlog, the sprint is opened.

Simple tools: Daily and visualization
The team now meets daily (Daily) for about fifteen minutes and all team members report on what they worked through the previous day and what they plan to work through today. If a case hangs while being processed, this is discussed in the daily and the case is marked as “blocked” if necessary.
The task of the Scrum Master is to remove the blockages and to ensure optimal work. Boards and charts are often used for visualization during daily meetings (Scrum Board/Burn Down Chart).

Recognizing potential for improvement: The Review Meeting
The daily is now repeated until the sprint (time box) is over. At the end of the sprint, the team meets with the product owner and reports on the procession of the cases, the complexity estimate, the working conditions and the potential for improvement. The partner or product owner gives feedback on the work results. The review should also be completed in one to two hours (time box is one week). This procedure can now be repeated every week.

First effect: Owner, team and master jointly develop a metric that can be used to measure and evaluate the legal performance of the team. The quality of estimations (complexity points), assignment (backlog refinement), formulation of the requirement (DoD) and visualization increase quickly and will continue to improve in the long run.

Second effect: The number of complexity points processed per sprint team and team member increases significantly and the performance of the team becomes more stable. Experienced teams can quickly and effectively compensate for the absence of team members and fluctuation.

  • Extensive autonomy of the team: Discussing, estimating, dissecting and assigning cases together is a good way of knowledge processing and knowledge transfer. Pairing also enables direct exchange and cooperation. The implicit knowledge is made explicitly available and thus better usable. Learning from an experienced pairing partner is enabled and supported.
  • Transparency of performance and responsibility at individual and collective level is the cause of performance improvement. It is evident to which performance the team has committed itself and who is responsible for which case. Of course, this transparency increases the pressure, but at the same time the metric also creates the certainty that nothing impossible is demanded from the team with the option of reprioritizing. The team also has the security of a protected space during the sprint because no new tasks are assigned during the sprint.

Third effect: Planning, implementation and improvement of the process are clearly separated from each other and can therefore be monitored and controlled much better.

These short explanations give a first impression of how easy it is to map legal performance within the Scrum framework. Lawyers are often not used to working in a team and pairing and transparency have not exactly been a core component of organizational cultureso far. To create an understanding of this in a law firm or legal department and to practise these agile workflows are the big challenges.

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