Collaborating with lawyers automation projects
Much has been said recently about running legal technology projects iteratively. This means running projects in small phases, adding in feedback loops. Initial phases can then give an indication of where enhancements might be beneficial, informing the development of subsequent phases.
And of course, most projects need lawyers as part of the project team taking part in these feedback loops.
But, getting “lawyer time” can be a challenge.
As with all projects that sit outside client work, it can be deprioritized when clients must come first. But also, there is a challenge around the way legal tech projects are run. Working iteratively does not fit with the lawyer mindset.
Because lawyers’ day to day client deliverables are the final product. There are no "high level" share purchase agreements or "MVP" credit agreements.
The process of most legal transactions is linear. Certain details may change on the way but generally, the output of the transaction is known up front and there is a set process of how to get there and a definitive end point.
Lawyers aren’t familiar with the concept of feedback loops. Clients don’t usually have a say in how the transaction process should work and are not asked for feedback on where the transaction goes next.
Lawyers are perfectionists and risk aware. Small iterative releases are not aligned with this.
How, then, can we align so that momentum and engagement are ensured through the lifecycle of an automation project?
At echo.legal, we find the following structure helps:
1. Kick off meeting
An initial meeting with the lawyer about the process (or in the case of a document automation project – the document or documents). Keep a note of the main pain points to refer back to throughout the project.
Purpose: to set expectations, obtain buy-in, outline the process in high-level and then focus on the main pain points or must haves for the initial phases.
2. Purposeful Planning
Design a project plan based on useful outputs. This is often specific milestones, based on feature releases. Find appropriate ways to divide the features into the release so that the momentum is maintained. For small to mid-sized projects, we suggest 2 or 3 weekly milestone releases.
Purpose: If iterative releases can deliver discrete useful functionality, which are added to over time to get to the fuller process, this gives something of value at each stage.
If, however, the scope needs to evolve during the project, this can lead to deadlines slipping as initial understanding of the features develop or get expanded. It’s preferable to commit to a set of phased release dates and move the features included in that release depending on what is achievable and how much decision-making time the lawyer can commit to the project.
Use the "must haves" from the meeting to design the first few phases of the project. Try to fit as many as possible into the first phase without moving the milestone deliverable date.
3. Regular short meetings
Set (and commit to) short, regular meetings on a schedule that works for the lawyer. We suggest weekly or fortnightly meetings to ensure lawyer time needed outside these meetings are kept to a minimum. It is easier to cancel unneeded meetings than arrange short term sessions with busy people.
Purpose: to clarify any questions arising in that milestone time period in real time and demo any features that may need lawyer input. Communicate clearly about the current phase and potential features entering the next phase.
4. Feedback loops
Plan and execute feedback loops. This could be immediately following each release, or at regular intervals in the project (e.g. every 2-4 releases) depending on the extent of the project, how often it is used and the overall motivations for the project as a whole.
Purpose: to ensure the project is meeting wider expectations and has benefit. Use this to inform future phases within this project or an updated version of the project. It is vital the lawyer is involved in this stage to ensure they are aligned with the long-term trajectory of the project.
5. Flexible feature list
Keep a list of all features requested and give them a priority rating so they can be slotted in/out depending on the amount of lawyer input needed, time left in the current deliverable date and outcome of the feedback received.
Purpose: this allows for continuous development of the project in a flexible manner while still meeting the overall expectations of the lawyer and wider team.
6. Power of the PoC
If lawyer time is tight, its sometimes worth investing some time into a Proof of Concept which mocks up the minimum features in a visual display. These do not all have to be connected and working, but rather give the impression of how the features would be accessed. Its sometimes easier to talk about how to change something to fit rather than explaining a vision from scratch.
Purpose: this allows those with limited time to quickly visualize how the project will look and perform and affords time-strapped lawyers a much more informed, focused discussion.
There may be projects where staged releases are not feasible or desirable. This could be, for example, where a complete process is required for the system to deliver. If that is the case, many of these considerations will still apply. The core principle is being efficient with your stakeholders time.
Getting the legal experts and document owners involved in an automation project from start to finish is crucial to ensure future engagement with the solution from a wider userbase. Implementing project management techniques borrowed from the software development world of slack and lean/agile development mean you keep the legal experts' time commitment to a minimum while ensuring a quick turnaround on releases.
Our expert automation lawyers at echo.legal have a great deal of experience in automation projects and can help to bridge the gap between other project specialists on your team and a short supply of lawyer time to ensure that when your internal legal resource is needed it is kept to a minimum and highly focussed. If you’d like to discuss how we can work with your legal team, law firm or business on an automation project, contact Julie.Saliba@echo.legal or Will.Sumners@echo.legal.