How to build an Agile in-house legal team

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Many businesses across a range of sectors are reaping the benefits of Agile project management, and in-house legal teams should be no different. Here’s all you need to get started.

What is Agile?

Agile is a comprehensive task management system that has been adopted by big players in tech like Google and Spotify (who claim to have been “born Agile”). What started as a software development framework is now used across a broad range of sectors and functions, <a href="https://hbr.org/2016/05/embracing-agile"rel="nofollow">from public radio to the automotive industry.

Agile project management emphasises a quick, iterative approach to getting things done. The key elements are as follows:

  • Prioritisation - small teams work together to prioritise tasks according to their business value. Tasks are further broken down into smaller modules and allocated to team members.

  • Rapid iteration and active feedback loop - work is completed in short cycles known as “sprints”. During each sprint, team members gather frequently for short meetings known as “stand-ups” to discuss progress and identify obstacles. This enables teams to respond to early warning signals and adapt their project planning.

  • Retrospection - Agile teams are focussed on continuous improvement. Once a project is completed, teams will reflect on what went well and what can be done better next time.

The overall approach contrasts markedly with traditional project management, which often requires upfront, extensive planning before any work can begin. Delaying feedback until the end of a project can then lead to unanticipated setbacks and cost overruns.

How Agile can help in-house lawyers

Focus and flexibility

In-house teams must tackle a wide range of legal and non-legal challenges from across the business. Agile principles ensure efficient resource allocation, and prevent non-urgent tasks from becoming unwelcome distractions. Frequent “stand-ups” also allow for flexibility, which is important in dynamic businesses; teams can react quickly to changes in business priorities and deadlines.

Effective reporting to management

In-house legal teams are increasingly pushed to justify their workload, legal spend and staffing. By ruthlessly prioritising according to business goals and keeping track of completed projects, in-house teams can effectively demonstrate their value to management, using language that the business understands. A shortened feedback loop also helps with budget management as teams can anticipate headcount and outsourcing needs.

Boosting morale and productivity

Projects are completed quicker with a focused team, and redundant meetings are scrapped in favour of targeted “stand-ups”. Employees are reminded of the value of legal work to the wider business and have better visibility of what other team members are busy with, leading to greater engagement.

To be clear, Agile isn’t always the right fit. If the project involves predictable, routine work (which is less and less the case for in-house legal teams), the benefits of Agile are limited. In that case, drawing up detailed specifications may be more appropriate than setting up elaborate Agile processes.

Four steps to an Agile in-house legal team

If your in-house team is looking to implement Agile, here are four steps to get you started:

  1. Understand the key principles and possible implementations of Agile - adapt it to suit your organisation’s legal needs.

  2. Use a "kanban” board to visualise your team’s workflow and priorities - each member should be clear on who is doing what, thereby avoiding any duplicate work.

  3. Block out time for frequent “stand-ups” - responsiveness to change is key.

  4. Analyse performance retrospectively - after a project is done, consider what did and didn’t go well and how it should be done differently next time.

For real-life examples of the Agile process in action, take a look at this Q&A with Frances Dunn, Senior Legal Counsel at Netwealth Investments and this case study of how Lonely Planet’s legal team implemented its own version of Agile.

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