This week Jules and I are holing up in the storied and fascinating city of Kolkata. The ex-seat of the British raj, this steamy metropolis with its crumbling colonialism channels Myanmar’s Yangoon more so than it’s larger Indian sister city, New Delhi. Bracing for what we (correctly) figured would be a pretty intense urban experience, we went further up-market with our accommodation than normal, having learned the value of an oasis when traveling in urban India. We wound up at the astoundingly nice, and recently restored, Lalit hotel. Though by no means a budget room, at the cost of a Holiday Inn in the U.S., let’s just say your dollar goes much, much, much further in these parts. Compare this (“free”) breakfast with the pre-packaged wasteland of an $80 motel.
(Yes, breakfast does come with malaria tablets).
After getting hopped up on three cups of chai, how does one collaborate with a law firm squarely on the other side of the globe? Here’s a look at some of the tools we use every day at the firm, whether I’m one zip code or many time zones away.
First, a word about who the team is. The core of our law firm is just two attorneys, myself and the extraordinarily capable and amiable Gustavo Cueva. Gustavo has primarily responsibility for much client contact, and the sort of legal research and analysis tasks traditionally done by an associate. The vast majority of routine, commodity legal drafting is done by a large team of contract attorneys that operate independently from the firm. Delegation is made to those attorneys on a task-wise basis. In a typical case, after Gustavo has collaborated with clients to secure all the required information and documents we need for an immigration process, the contract team with be tasked with drafted and quality-review testing the appropriate legal forms, which are then modified and reviewed by Gustavo or I. That whole process is a discussion by itself, but I mention it just to give context for the communications that are going on within the firm.
So here’s how we roll from a communications perspective.
We don’t use it. Okay, that’s a fantasy, but we move closer to the reality every day. Email is the scourge of professional life. We waste a quarter of our time farting around in our inboxes and there’s no correlation between inbox time and actual productivity.
For team-communication purposes, there are two main problems with email. First, email is a terrible way to organize information relating to client matters. The painfully classic example of this is attorneys printing out email threads to put into a paper file. But even paperless folks have to find a hack (here’s ours) to file emails with the relevant client file. Even if you do this well, it’s still devilishly hard to put follow conversation threads and backtrack to figure out what’s transpired in a case.
The second issue is the pure volume of emails. Most professionals get 100 or (many) more emails per day. Email puts critical communications on the same importance level as newsletters, Netflix renewal notices, and “professionals” who are “reaching out to you” (a creepy phrase). Our Golden Rule at the firm is that email is the communication medium of last resort.
If I’m such a kill joy on email, what do we use instead? Thanks for asking. The answer involves much more than just a communication tool, and goes to a core commitment to how we manage the firm. That’s the use of a set of project management practices developed in the technology sector, which are referred to as Agile. (Disclaimer for legit Agile gurus: I in no way claim to be one, I’m just one attorney trying to bring some sanity to projects at our our firm).
Attorneys are project managers whether we embrace that title or not. Whether you’re litigating or doing transactional work, you’re almost certainly working on a complex, multi-stage process with lots of known and unknown variables. Lawyers may be relieved to know that there are entire disciplines devoted to the science of project management, with over a century of knowledge ripe for poaching. Born largely out of project management in tech fields, Agile is a primo example of these goodies.
A discussion of Agile is way beyond the scope of this post. (Absolutely the guy to guy to follow on this issue is friend John Grant over at Agile Attorney). For my purposes, though, a core idea is to know at all times what’s keeping a case from moving forward. At the firm, we think about cases as being in a production line, not because we view our clients as widgets, but because they hired us to get something done for them. They don’t give a darn if we open a file – or worse, “paper it over” – for them; they just want us to accomplish the goal that brought them in our door.
From this need to know what’s going on at all times was born one of the hallmark features of Agile management – the kanban board. This visual tool gives us a consolidated dashboard where we can collaboratively view every single client case and understand where in the “production” cycle the matter is. Here’s basically what it looks like:
Kanban boards are traditionally done using sticky notes on a wall – if you’ve seen any movie about startups you’ve probably seen one. But since we have a decentralized work environment, we use a tool called Trello for a cloud-based kanban board. That’s what your’re looking at above. At a glace, we can tell which lane a particular client matter is in. In the Williams matter, are we waiting on documents from a client before we can proceed? Are we waiting on our contractors to do a first draft of documents? Or does Gustavo need to do a final review of work product?
On the level of a particular client matter, all activity is documented within a client “card.” Clicking into the card, you can see (above) that there’s a master to-do list of high-level stages of the case progression. An activity feed below captures everything going on in the case – we basically use this as a catch-all case documentation as you might see in the notes section of a traditional paper client file. Finally – and very important – we can communicate to other team members within a Trello card. So instead of emailing Gustavo that I need him to ping Mr. Williams about a missing document, I flag Gustavo in the card and make the note. This goes a long way towards keeping all case-related chatter in one spot, so we can easily audit what we’ve been doing on a file.
If you’re looking into using Agile in your practice, consider LeanKit as an alternative to Trello. LeanKit has a much more robust feature set, which isn’t necessarily a good thing if you’re just trying to get off the ground with a kanban board. A critical improvement, though, is that it allows a board-within-a-board, so to speak: within a particular card you can create a second, simpler board with task cards. So using LeanKit, you could have a master client board, as shown above, and then track advancement of individual client tasks within the card, using the same sort of card system. Another very exciting tool to Agile lawyering is Lawcus, which will be the first LPM system built entirely around Agile. Built by neat guy, Harry Singh, Lawcus is doing a private beta right now, but you can probably get a try-out if you ping Harry.
Trello (or LeanKit) is by no means an all-in-one law practice management (LPM) system, and doesn’t pretend to be. We very happily use Clio as our cloud-based LPM system – more on that in the next post about communicating with clients. Obviously we want to be sure that all our activity on Trello finds its way into a client’s master file in our LPM system. Luckily, Clio has a great application program interface (API), meaning its developers make it easy for Clio to play nicely with other applications. We use a third-party solution called Zapier, which is basically a tool for helping various web applications work together. Using a “Zap” that we created, any new activity on a client’s Trello card it is automatically registered as a case activity in the notes section of the client’s Clio matter. In reality, we almost never reference the notes section of Clio to review the case activity, but if Trello ever died on us we’d have all the activity safely archived in Clio.
Bottom line: from a productivity and collaboration standpoint, Trello is absolutely at the core of our daily work life.
When we’re in the same time-zone this is a tool we use frequently. We use the chat function for the sort of quick questions that might traditionally cause an associate to tap on the partner’s door. I try to avoid much of this though, since even small interruptions can take a very heavy toll on productivity – we really overestimate how good we are are multi-tasking. If a chat is more than a couple back-and-forths then it probably merits a focused conversation via phone or video chat.
Speaking of video chat, we often use that for our very short daily standups where we review the day’s battle plan. We’ll also use it later in the day if there’s a particularly thorny issue needing discussion; I find the face-to-face quality of video really helps versus phone.
With a 12-hour time difference there really isn’t much need for contemporaneous communication while I’m working from abroad, though we have used the chat function a few time.
Let’s get cooking.
Hope that’s a helpful overview of our team collaboration tools. Coming up next, working collaboratively with clients on the cloud.
After morning computer time, I’m off to learn some Bengali cooking. The cuisine utterly mind-blowing, featuring lots of light, subtle flavors like banana leaf-wrapped river fish with a mild yellow mustard sauce. The green blob in the picture below was tiny shrimp in a sinus-clearing horse-radish like mustard stew with taro leaves. Like nothing I’d ever had in the best possible way.