Agile working and the legal sector: Towards a clearer definition

In Agile working and the legal sector: Towards a clearer definition Katherine Thomas helps make sense of some the jargon that continues to confuse lawyers seeking to understand what’s happening in legal services and think about how to respond. Written two years ago, the need for this clarification remains cogent today. 

The phrase ‘agile working’ is commonplace in legal news and social media comment, but its meaning varies widely.

I believe the future for legal services lies in agile working and collaboration between providers.  However, as those with legal training will appreciate, this is difficult to achieve without a common definition of the term.

This post posits that common definition.  Its aim is to provide a solid foundation for clearer discussion and more focused action. Please contribute with comments or ideas, as a crowd-sourced definition is likely to be most useful.

Why bother with agile working?

There’s no shortage of commentary emphasising the benefits of agile working. In 2009, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s report “Organisational agility: how business can survive and thrive in turbulent times” identified the top traits of the ‘agile’ business as including a high-performance culture, flexibility of management practices, flexibility of resources, organisational structures that support collaboration, rapid decision-making and rapid execution. In 2013, the Agile Future Forum found that agile working practices create value equivalent to 3-13% of workforce costs. Closer to our industry and more recently, Deloitte’s Insight Report ‘Stepping into the future law firm’, concluded that “…the most successful law firms will be those that are agile enough to flex resources in order to meet client needs at an efficient price.” Perhaps most pertinent are Jordan Furlong’s observations in the LOD report ‘The new world of legal work’. He says, “…the pent-up productivity potential of better infrastructure, workflow and employment systems in the legal market is off the charts…..”.

Let me add my own viewpoint, having led a contract lawyer business for three years.  I saw first-hand, the productivity, innovation, cost and quality benefits that the agile model delivers.  This perspective leaves me in no doubt that working in an agile way is essential for legal suppliers that want to survive and thrive.

Where are we at the moment?

The legal sector is at the start of its agile working journey, full of good intentions and, in some cases, dipping its toe in the water, but with very little truly transformative happening yet.  There are many reasons for this, one of which (and the focus of this post) is a lack of clarity around the meaning of ‘agile working’.

Let me use recent press coverage as an example.  Look at these headline-grabbers from the mainstream legal press in August 2015:

“Olswang to move to open plan and agile working by 2017” (The Lawyer – August 2015). “The refurbishment will include ‘moving to an open plan seating arrangement to cultivate a more agile, flexible working environment’.”

Or, (interesting for the 85 comments that follow as much as the article itself), “Clear your desk – leading firms embrace agile working” (Global Legal Post – August 2015). “Two top 100 firms have this week pledged to move away from traditional working methods to embrace ’hot desking”.

Two points strike me here. First, ‘flexible working’ and ‘hot-desking’ are not ‘agile working’.  Agile working affects every aspect of an organisation: flexible working is but one component. Flexible working tends to exist to benefit the worker. Agile working, in contrast, lies in the mid-space where worker preferences and business needs meet.

Second, I notice the way in which the moves these progressive law firms are making towards agility, focus on input, rather than output.  Their starting point appears to be where people work and for how long (i.e. flexible working) rather than what needs to be done and how it can best be achieved (i.e. agile working).

To advance the discussion and help a more transformational approach, a clearer definition of ‘agile working’ for the legal profession is needed.

Moving to a definition

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘agility’ as “the ability to move quickly and easily” and “the ability to think and understand quickly”. Other definitions mention ‘nimbleness’, ‘adaptability’, ‘briskness’, ‘dexterity’, ‘alertness’ and ‘liveliness’.

How does this apply to legal services? “Work is an activity, not a place” says Paul Allsopp of The Agile Organisation – extremely helpful to bear in mind while building this definition.

At a practical level, the Agile Future Forum suggests that agile working centres on four workforce considerations:
When? – When do they work?
Location – Where do they work?
Role – What do they do?
Source – How are they engaged / employed?
We’re still looking at inputs, though.

Perhaps we need to consider the client? The CIPD report ‘HR: Getting smarter about agile working’, suggests that agile working is about a closer match between resources and demands. So, by being agile, an organisation is better able to match its resources of all types (people, IT, knowledge…..) to client needs, thus competing more effectively and working more efficiently. Is this where the 3-13% additional value comes from?

We’re starting to make headway. Now, what kind of mindset does agile working require? Featured as a case study in the same CIPD report, a Deloitte employee said: “Agile working is about measuring our contribution by output, rather than the number of hours we’re in the office.” Paul Allsop‘s definition echoes this, emphasising a sea-change in the way the work itself is done: “Agile working incorporates dimensions of time and place flexibility but also involves doing work differently, focusing on performance and outcomes – it is transformational.” Unilever, which has pioneered agile working for several years, further emphasises the point, stating that it is an approach to getting the job done “with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints.”  Instead of saying “hi client…..this is us……here’s how we can help you”, agile working says “hi client……what do you want?…here’s how we will organise our skills and resources, to make that happen”.

So, in summary, agile working:
– starts with client and market demands
– matches resources of all types to those demands
– focuses on outputs rather than inputs
– aims for maximum flexibility and minimum constraints.

Done right, amongst other things, it achieves greater levels of:
– efficiency
– value
– adaptability
– innovation.

A clearer definition of agile working for lawyers?

Perhaps now a clearer definition emerges?

“Agile working starts with the client and focuses on achieving outputs rather than managing inputs. It encompasses every area of the organisation and matches resources of all types to meet demands efficiently and adapt to changing market conditions nimbly. Crucially, agile working in legal services exists where business needs overlap with worker preferences and skills, resulting in increased productivity, efficiency, adaptability and innovation.”

Over to you.

Author of Agile working and the legal sector

Katherine Thomas Consulting provides strategy advice and implementation action to pioneering law firms. 

Katherine was a co-founder and Director of Vario (Pinsent Masons variable cost NewLaw business model firm) and before that Head of Marketing for  Pinsent Masons.

To contact Katherine, email: or call on +61 (0)424 983 208.

Katherine first published a version of this post on LinkedIn in 2016

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George BeatonAyse Recent comment authors
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A very interesting read. Would you consent to me sharing this post on my website (still in the development stages) with full credit to you please?

I have been an IT trainer for law firms for 18 years and proposing change (or, heaven forbid, modernisation) and seeing it happen was a rarity, if not an impossibility. Common ground in terms of understanding of the term ‘agile’ is indeed the starting point for change in what is a rather staid industry. Rapid developments in learning technologies, and shifts in client demands and expectations of a law firm are the driving factors behind why change is now absolutely necessary if firms are to stay ahead of the game. As a trainer and eLearning developer, I am championing an educational revolution – technology is the real key to true agility!

George Beaton

Ayse I have written to on behalf of our author Katherine Thomas confirming her permission provided the authorship and source are acknowledged. Regards George