Can Law Firms become Agile?
Yes, and It Starts with Agile Leaders!
Yes, and It Starts with Agile Leaders!
Can law firms really become Agile? At BLG, Canada’s largest law firm, we are experimenting to find out. Having started with our digital innovation function in 2020, at the end of 2022 BLG has over 70 leaders at the Firm trained in Agile Leadership. Agile experiments are now beginning to proliferate.
Our lessons learned so far – the desire for Agility must come from within each of us. It cannot be imposed. But it takes courage on the part of leadership as well as conditions of psychological safety to give teams the autonomy to experiment to find their own Way of Working. Join us as we recount how we have dealt with both the highs and lows of our ongoing journey and hopefully take away some lessons that you can apply within your own organization.
Can Law Firms become Agile? (PDF)
Andrew Terrett (he/him) is National Director, Digital Innovation at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, Canada’s largest law firm. Originally qualified as a solicitor in the UK, Andrew has certifications in Lean Six Sigma and Agile Leadership. He also has over 20 years experience of managing structured project, programs and portfolios. Since 2020 he has been leading a team of software developers, analysts, automation and UI/UX specialists in addition to leading BLG’s overall Agile journey.
Daniel Gagnon is an organizational agility advisor, coach, and trainer with close to three decades of diversified experience.
He is one of two PMI Disciplined Agile Fellows in the world and describes himself as a passionate servant leader and ethical disruptor. His agile coaching and training engagements over the past 12 years have been with diverse clients ranging from the financial sector to public utilities and government entities. He has coached at all levels, from executives to teams and individual contributors.
For the past several years, his focus has been on helping Leaders evolve their mindsets to foster the emergence of true organizational agility. To this end, he became an Agile Leadership Journey Guide in 2019 and co-developed an ICP-LEA certifying workshop under the ICAgile banner in 2021.
Which one of us is a lawyer?
-Okay. -That'd be me.
-Andrew, is it me? -Fully recovered.
Can law firms become agile? Yes.
We really think we can.
Is there a table to put that on, Andrew? Let's put this over here. There we go.
We had some issues. The metadata got stripped, that is the notes in the PowerPoint, got stripped out of the email that Andrew sent me because obviously his machine is provided by a law firm.
I want to talk a little bit about change in law firms and set the stage a little bit. I work at a law firm called Borden Ladner Gervais. We can trace our history back to Montreal in 1823. That gives you a sense as to what kind of traditions you are encountering as soon as you walk through the front door. It might look super modern and super tech-focused in many ways, but there's a lot of culture underneath the surface that is very, very challenging. So BLG is about 800 lawyers, five offices. We're a corporate law firm. Key thing about law firms, you have to understand, each partner has autonomy. So they have a book of business that they bring with them, and they are free agents to some extent. They could take their book of business and walk out the door and go work at the law firm across the street if they don't like what's on offer from this firm. So Daniel, let's just talk a little bit -about partnerships as a network. -Yes.
We'll get to the story of how Andrew reached out to me, how we started working together. We're going to weave that through. But the first thing that fascinated me about this opportunity as a leadership development agile coach consultant, running my own consultancy, my own practice is… Andrew made me realize in our initial discussions very early on that I'd been used to working in large financial institutions in Canada. I'm very… Canada is a smaller country, but our banks are huge because we only have 10. That's it. There's 10 banks in Canada. That's it, that's all. You get banks that have over 100,000 employees, much as the larger US institutions. But I digress, I was used to working with these aircraft carriers. Change in a bank, it was, "Okay, let's start turning. It's Tuesday. We should be halfway there by Thursday with any luck if the tides don't turn." So I was very used to that. One of the banks that I… one of the last financial institutions that I worked with recently, 13 years on their agile journey and still very much a work in progress.
Enter Andrew and I's conversations and I'm going, "You're the largest law firm in Canada. This is another aircraft thing, aircraft carrier thing, this is in a different industry." But then he explained to me the idea that change in law firms is not about changing the oil tankers direction. It is… -Flotilla. -Flotilla. And that just blew my mind… I've discovered a sweet spot on my mic. Hang on. That just blew my mind because immediately when Andrew brought this metaphor to my attention, I said, "Oh, my God. This is like hire. This is like …, potentially." Every one of these little ships in this flotilla is a potential point of entry into affecting, contagious… Pandemic, I stopped using that. It didn't seem like the right word anymore. Propagating, perhaps, still the same idea, but doesn't seem so linked to disease. Anyway, all these little ships are a potential entry point into change, leveraging change. because you see one partner and her crew, to your point, she can walk away.
But if she starts seeing that BLG is a place where, "Oh, well, look at this other partner is running his team like an agile team." He's got interns and he's got paralegals and so on and so forth. So this is all going through my mind. I said, "Oh, this is going to be great." This is almost three years ago, two and a half years ago, I guess. I can't remember. As I mentioned, the practice of law is still tradition-bound and very paper intensive. But there is this new entity called Alternative Legal Service Providers or ALSPs that emerged around about 2010 coming out of the financial crisis. ALSPs, their value proposition is that they say… they go to the general counsel in these big corporate organizations like banks and they say, "Look, you're giving all this work to these law firms. Don't give all the work to the law firm. Give some of it to us." Some of this is process, some of this is tech, some of this is very much data-driven. You don't need to pay a lawyer and a law firm these billable hours. So that ALSP model has grown extensively over the past probably 10, 15 years, and it's growing at around about 20% per year. So that is a challenge to our current business model as a law firm. To meet that challenge, we created our own captive alternative legal service provider.
So we now can say to our clients, "You don't have to go to this third party entity, you can come to us. You get our brand, our reputation. But we also bring in the tech, the process, the data, etc." That was, to me, a really great opportunity for us in terms of bringing Agile into the organization. We've got our own little captive innovation function, if you like, and we can start to experiment and throw some of these ideas around Agile into it. Where did we start? We started with the digital hub.
This is the actual digital hub. It's in a third sub basement under the Toronto headquarters. Let me just explain our digital transformation story just a little bit. Obviously, we had started to modernize through the mid 2010s through to 2015, modernizing our tech infrastructure. When the pandemic hit, we saw an opportunity to really embrace digital in a meaningful way. We set up our own little software development team of analysts, developers, business automation professionals outside of the IT function, so we were not responsible for keeping the lights on. This was very innovative. We were the first law firm to do this in Canada, and a lot of partners just scratch their heads and asked us WT. We did it. When we got together, we realized we had to be agile as a team.
Agile has been around for 20 plus years. This is standard operating procedure. We said, "Let's go be Agile." This is what led me to Daniel's door and the conversation began. Daniel, why don't you carry on from here? Well, the first thing is I just want to… Back button… I'm glad you're the one having to search for it because I… Okay, good. This is an inside joke because we met on Zoom, right? We actually met… After three years of working together, we met for the first time in person yesterday. Every time I met with Andrew on Zoom, he had his Blue Jays cap on. I had never seen the man without a baseball cap until, again, yesterday. Covering with lack of hair. With the weather, he switched to a Yankees cap. When in Rome. When in Rome, exactly. Very wise.
So when Andrew reached out to me, he had done his homework, and that's why we're still working together, he had done his homework. He knew a couple of things that he absolutely wanted my BLG's Agile journey to be based upon. Number one, absolute number one in his mind, no imposition. Invitation was the only way this had a snowball's chance in haze of working. Absolutely no imposition to proceed by careful invitation and to rely actually in this flotilla on the morse code between the little ships. Now, the other thing that he absolutely was adamant on, because, again, he had done his research, he did not want to be limited to the prison of a single methodology or framework.
I love John's talk yesterday. Eight strokes this way, eight strokes this way, squeeze, squeeze. So Andrew was a type of client for us as consultants, as coaches. The client arrives and already knows, "Hey, don't worry, I'm not in the market for a framework." I happened to be one of two disciplined Agile fellows in the world. Now you're going to say, "Dan, you just talked about frameworks and methodologies and you're ragging that you're a fellow." Well, first of all, there's only two of us. Second, it's not a framework. All it is, is basically… Officializing or putting a name on being context-driven and cherry picking and doing it in a very mentally disciplined fashion. That's it. Those are the two things. No frameworks, no imposition, but rather by invitation. And we started talking. Now, our executive's position on this was, I would say neutral. And if you're starting Agile, that's all you need. You just need to get your executives to a neutral position. What did I say to you once? If he had wanted to start this, he would have- He would have strangled it at birth. -Strangled it at birth, yes. -Beautiful. That was not the most politically correct way of putting it, but thankfully, it was just the two of us on Zoom. Here's where it began to change.
I took my team… Sorry. I took the team on training with Daniel. We had one team, there was success. Off we went. I realized very quickly that there was no point in trying to achieve agility within my team if we weren't addressing business agility, which is why we're here today. Having this tiny, tiny team that can deliver very little without having a much more agile environment in which to work. The other thing that changed was that I got a really good 360. I'm not sharing this to toot my own horn, but it was a moment when leadership realized there's so much some value here. There is some value here. And so the chief talent officer, God bless her, mandated leadership training in Agile for all of our managers and business services. That was the start of a journey, and it really was a moment of hallelujah.
There were plenty of times where I would phone up Daniel and say, "Well, I'm on the window ledge here. -I don't know what we're doing." -We actually had a slide like that with me talking you off the ledge, but again, that didn't seem appropriate to put in. We've now extended our Agile leadership training to close to 80 leaders within BLG and BLG Beyond, which has been terrific to see in 2022. Also, I mentioned our BLG Beyond alternative legal service provider, that agility is now a core value. This is huge for me because this gives us license to start to experiment and to innovate in that function and start doing things a little bit differently with license, with permission from executives.
So where are we as of now? Agile experiments are abounding. We've got disciplined Agile accepted within PMO, which was, again, a big win. It was a very much a waterfall-based organization. We've started to experiment with communications, meetings, guidelines. We've put together a lot of the things we talked about yesterday in terms of free Fridays, no meetings, honoring people's work boundaries, saying no to people if there's no specific agenda on meetings. People have got the freedom to throw these ideas and to start to move the needle. In terms of methodology, we've also seen an acceptance of the product owner role.
This is huge for us. We used to do projects. If we wanted to deliver change into the environment, we would only do projects. Well, projects start and projects end. They have a sponsor and then you've got to hand over to operations, but there's often nobody to hand over to. All of that good work that had been created through the project would just dissipate through time. It would just vanish in five years. So now we've got this product owner role being tested and adopted, this may not be significant from your point of view if you've been doing Agile for 20 years, but for us, this is huge. One of the things in getting there, one of the things that mostly struck me is I want to just roll it back a bit to that idea of invitation. So how we proceeded in getting the leaders trained and then coached as well. We started with one cohort of basically a two-day Agile leadership workshop. And by the way, there's someone in the audience here who was very instrumental in helping us in the training, Michael Delus. Would you like to just say hi to Michael? Thank you, Michael. Michael was with me when we trained. Except for the first cohort, maybe. We trained with most of these 77 leaders. But anyway, getting back to what I wanted to say, this is very important. The level of engagement that I found in the sessions when we did the first cohort of leaders, there were no other cohorts planned. It was a pilot. It was an experiment. I said to Andrew, "Let's experiment. Let's try this."
What happened was, again, word of mouth, each leader started talking to other leaders. At one point, Andrew, on our next Zoom call, said, "I have to start a waiting list. I have to start a waiting list because people want this now." They see that the people are coming back from that awareness session are basically now actually trying things. They're watching them try things. And I said, "Well, what gave you the impetus or the initial inertia to even try that?" It was the discussions in this two-day workshop and the coaching thereafter. So slowly, bit by bit, we wound up with nine cohorts, and every cohort was very different in its makeup. And some we had people from talent, and some we had people… We had the CFO in one of them, we had people from BLG Beyond, we had from basically across the organization. But the level of engagement to me was amongst the highest, if not the highest, of any organization I've worked with. It was actually incredibly refreshing to be away from our usual IT-driven transformation type thing. So this is a transition transfolution, you knew I would use that word, transfolution, it's a combination of transformation and evolution, copyright Michael Dillis.
To achieve this evolution of what you would think is a 200 year old firm. I'm just going to throw it back to you, Andrew, for the… So as the slide says, we've got to our base camp, and it's funny how people keep using these mountain metaphors. It's like, "Wow, we're all on this journey. We all recognize the significance of that."
We have our own base camp in the form of our Agile Center of Excellence, which we are just establishing in 2023. But we see huge opportunity for this across the whole firm. From the lawyer's point of view, they are crying out for something. They don't want traditional waterfall-based project management because lawyers don't scope. They work in an inherently VUCA environment. They can't scope. As soon as the traditional project management rolls up, they'll say, "That's not for us." This is great opportunity for Agile. If we can just figure out what makes sense. The cultural basis, the foundation is already there. That's the good news. Now we've just got to tweak and tune and experiment our way to an agile approach so that lawyers can deliver value to their clients and work in the way in which their clients, many of which are in this room also are already working. Huge, huge opportunity. Can you make a law firm be agile? Absolutely, 100% you can. But it has to start with the leadership, it has to start with people and culture. Culture, culture, culture is the ingredient. Without culture, you're kidding yourselves. You are kidding yourselves. Thank you very much.
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