Dr. Sascha Theissen is an expert in providing lean and agile business improving solutions. He started his career as an attorney, working for six years in two highly respected law firms and serving clients such as Porsche, Intel, Playboy, big OEMs, machine manufacturers, publishing companies and internet startups.
Today, he is the General Counsel of the leading international Holtzbrinck Publishing Group. Dr. Theissen managed to successfully implement Agile methods in his legal department. We contacted him to discuss how exactly did these Agile methods strengthen the team’s strategic and operative activities.
Question: Dr. Theissen, tell us for the start where did your interest in Agile come from?
Answer: I first ‘discovered’ agile methods in the form of SCRUM, when faced with the challenge of writing an agile software development agreement, which is very different from traditional waterfall software development agreements. I wanted to learn more about what they were doing and why, not only regarding software development but also in terms of leadership.
Seeing the high motivation of the self-organizing teams, and the joy they experienced, made me want to adopt SCRUM beyond software development. However, the time boxing element, which is fundamental to SCRUM, wouldn’t work in a corporate legal department, where changing requirements must be met on a daily basis, so I relegated the idea to the back of my mind.
When I was offered the position of General Counsel in 2013, I revisited the idea, started reading up on agile methods and quickly discovered IT-Kanban as an alternative, without the time boxing.
The literature I found was good, but focused on software developers and required a lot of understanding of the process of software development. I asked myself how I could transfer the new method of working and thinking, to something a lawyer would understand and accept, and find out what could work in a legal department.
The more I read, the more I wanted to introduce agile methods via Kanban into my team: I wanted to create a lot of transparency, create a self-organizing team where everybody knows and understands the business objectives and aligns all actions to best further them, where every team member is both enabled and empowered to do so and has fun doing it.
To let the legal department and its members become trusted partners of the business, helping drive the digital transformation wholeheartedly.
Question: How have you implemented Kanban in your legal department?
Answer: I had read a lot about Kanban and agile methods, but I didn’t have any first-hand experience when we started our agile journey. I was looking for an agile coach who would advise, share my vision and would be a good fit with my team. I met Robert Misch, an experienced agile coach, and we clicked, wanted to work together and agreed that introducing an agile framework ‘by the book’ wouldn’t work, as people wouldn’t accept it.
Lawyers are naturally risk-averse and afraid of change, As the new leader, running a change-management process over the heads of my team was the last thing I wanted to do. But they were also very experienced lawyers, driven by a desire to create excellent results, sometimes only hampered by a lack of understanding of the business’ needs, compartmentalized information, and a very high workload.
Robert and I agreed that we wanted the team to understand the core principles behind agile methods, so they would all drive the change themselves. It would feel less alien, less of a change and still become a wholehearted transformation if they felt “ownership” of the change.
We knew it would take time to explain the principles, and have them experience self-management, and require a substantial amount of time and energy to maintain the process, but it would result in lasting improvements.
I attended one of Robert’s agile intro workshops at an affiliate to get a better feeling of what we could do in our workshop, then we amended his concept to match the specific needs of our legal department.
In the end, we decided on a full day workshop for the team to learn about agile principles and possible implementations, and experience agility in games, then end the day with the creation of our very first Kanban board. To cater to change-aversion, there were no changes implemented with the use of the first Kanban board. Rather, our first kanban board was only a reflection of the current status quo.
The only changes were that instead of a weekly jour-fixe meeting we now had shorter daily meetings in front of the board, and the Kanban board now contained the formal? to-do lists of every team member. This did not feel like a lot of change and certainly, was not agile by the book, but it created the necessary transparency; every team member could now see all the tasks the other team members were working on, the workload, progress of the work and obstructions to completing their work.
Question: What are the benefits you’ve experienced of implementing Kanban?
Answer: In the first couple of days, the team already noted duplicate work or opportunities where pre-existing work results could be reused by other team members, to save time and ensure consistency. During regular feedback sessions, team members were given the time, opportunity and power to review ‘how things are done here’ and tackle the most important problems for each. Everybody was equal.
I had so much that I wanted to change, that it was quite frustrating to see the team turn down all my issues during the first couple of feedback sessions. I knew that I had to be patient and let the team decide. After a while, they relented, saw what I saw, and started to address the same issues. If we found the problem but didn’t know what to try to solve it, our coach offered alternative approaches, and the team decided which to pursue. If something didn’t work as expected, we were free to switch to another alternative, so the team learned how to experiment, with very limited risk, and become self-organizing.
After a couple of months, the daily standups became much shorter and routine, and we currently need about 10 to 15 minutes per day, to keep the entire team up to date. Tasks which we previously personalized in the backlog were now simply prioritized for the ‘next available person, with the necessary skill and experience’, which led to faster results.
We began developing more cross-functional skills in areas of high demand (T-shaped competences) to enable several team members to pull (focus on?) those urgent, important tickets, despite their colleagues being busy with other work.
We introduced a work in progress (WIP) limit, to get things done rather than wasting time starting a lot of things in parallel (although this remains a constant battle). We began to spend more time with the actual business, and colleagues from other departments, to better understand their needs, and organized lunch & learn meetings to institutionalize this. This additional knowledge helps us to better prioritize tasks on our board, according to actual business value or risk reduction.
- faster (because we did the right things and had more shoulders to do a certain type of work),
- better (by providing advice and work results much more tailored to the business’ needs),
- a real team (because we communicated better and better understood the work and challenges our colleagues faced),
- and we have more fun, both because we are a better team and because colleagues in the business constantly tell us how happy they are with our work and support.
Although we began by saying we are not going to change anything, we have changed tremendously the way we work, embraced technical solutions as well as new work practices, yet it was completely seamless.
Question: How do Agile methods help legal professionals?
Answer: Agile methods are really helpful to cope with complexity and change. Providing legal advice to businesses can be complex, and even ‘routine tasks’ such as drafting new agreements or conducting M&A activities can benefit greatly from involving the right people at the right time, which is often hard to manage, but occurs naturally in agile, self-organizing teams.
Thus, IF the business model of a law firm involves multidisciplinary approach and teamwork, agile methods can be applied.
Agile brings real advantages where a better flow of information and better cooperation between different experts are desired and leads to a better overall result.
Further, agile methods help distribute work more evenly. However, becoming agile is not easy nor a one-off process, leading to a fixed result at a certain point. It is more a marathon, but with noticeable results even after the first few yards. Thus, from my work experience, both in-house and private practice lawyers can be agile. But, crucially, only if agility is embraced by senior management.
Question: What should be the first steps for all who want to use Agile?
Answer: For me, it really helped to read about organizational agility and the shift in the mindset of individuals involved, as ‘managers’ are replaced by ‘leaders’. I would recommend this approach to everybody interested in more agility, to find out whether it really suits you and your organization. There are many ways to adapt the introduction and implementation of agile methods, but without a wholehearted commitment to pursue change, it will probably not be successful.
Being agile leads to being better able to cope with changing environments and demands, which is something most lawyers are already accustomed to. But I totally underestimated the amount of change our experiment – strictly within the legal department – brought into the entire organization and never dreamed of the legal department being a motor of the transformation, although in retrospect this makes a lot of sense and is something I very much enjoy doing.
Good reads are Linda Holbeche, The Agile Organization, on agility at an organizational level, and Mike Burrows’ Kanban from the Inside regarding a more hands-on, how-to approach to introducing Kanban. With regard to leadership, Jurgen Appelo’s Management 3.0 is a must-read, and his Management 3.0 Workout , describing many more practices which can be used to drive change.
If you still desire to become agile, after you know what you are getting you into, I definitely recommend you hire a good agile coach. To find out if the coach is really good, find out if they just want to introduce agility by following a strict plan, or whether they are willing to watch, listen and adapt their approach to suit your organization.
As to how to run the introduction, I recommend that you set the goal, namely that the team/organisation shall become agile, and then delegate responsibility and decision-making to the teams, letting the teams pick one of the agile methods, adapt it to their needs, and iterate (adjust?) as often as possible. This is a lot of stress for not yet agile teams and you should ensure that the coach is there to support them, as well as help them learn the ropes. But this can really do the trick.
Question: In conclusion, how can attorneys use legal technology to be more Agile?
Answer: I find it unacceptable that attorneys and counsel spend a lot of time doing basic tasks, such as editing out alternative language in template agreements, synchronizing copies of a document and such matters. Efficiencies can already be achieved by simple improvements, such as using cloud collaboration platforms (e.g. Office 365). On those, staff can work on the same document simultaneously and avoid duplication. Existing systems, lack good tracking mechanisms, which could be a business opportunity.
Electronic ticketing systems, like Jira and electronic Kanban boards, help distribute knowledge across locations, which is highly useful as our legal team is in four physical locations, but the UX is not always perfect for lawyers and their needs. What I would really love is a system where all kinds of information and media are merged into a nice track record of a matter, e.g. where a Kanban ticket, created automatically, imports later e-mails, chat protocols, drafts and such, which would enable anybody working on the matter to have all information in one place, instead of several unrelated places. I’d also like to use more contract management tools, but most of them are troublesome due to their bad UX, and an even worse contract generation system.
An easy to use contract generation tool, that allows businesses to create drafts quickly, without having to run them through legal (as long as they stick to pre-approved language), including the opportunity to offer alternative language during negotiations, without having to revert to the legal department, would be a huge gain!
Coupling this with a nice reporting system, showing the accepted risk to legal and the business, would be great. There are many interesting and helpful tools out there, and we look constantly for new tools, to help us do the job even better, but not every tool works well in every case and many tools still leave a lot to be desired.
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