UniCourt Influencer Q&A with John E. Grant of Agile Attorney

on Company, Future Law, Legal Tech

UniCourt Influencer Q&A with John E. Grant of Agile Attorney

Here at UniCourt, our mission is to make state and federal court records more organized, accessible, and useful to provide our clients with the records they need and to improve access to justice. Technology furthers our mission by helping legal professionals scale their practices so they can serve more people, more efficiently.

We love crossing paths with individuals and companies who share our drive for catalyzing innovation in the legal culture. John E. Grant is among them. The Founder of Agile Attorney and a Board Member of The Commons Law Center, John’s career is geared toward “helping lawyers implement better business models” which enables them, in turn, to “help more people and (hopefully) start to close the access to justice gap.”

We were thrilled to chat with John about his nontraditional career path, his work through the Agile network, and his passion for closing the access to justice gap by helping lawyers implement systems and processes to scale their services.

UniCourt: Tell us your story. What is your background, and what inspired you to start Agile Attorney?

John Grant: I have a long-ish origin story—one that goes back generations to a couple of my great-grandfathers being attorneys (one was even an ABA president). Naturally, since there were a lot of lawyers in my family I had no desire to become one myself, so instead I wound up spending a decade in the technology industry starting in the mid-1990s. 

After an amazing rocket ship ride with a startup called PhotoDisc that eventually merged with Getty Images, I worked with a few smaller companies but took the LSAT as a Plan B. Obviously that activity took on some momentum of its own and four years later—in 2007—I graduated from law school, right before the bottom dropped out of the job market. I actually turned down an offer from a solid mid-sized firm because, nice as they were, I knew that my tech startup experience was going to make their buttoned-down environment hard for me to stomach. The career services dean at my law school would later joke that I passed on the last job offer that anybody ever got.

I wound up going in-house back at Getty Images after law school, and while I was busy learning about actual lawyering I also noticed something about the technology teams I used to be part of. In my time away from the company, they had switched from a traditional, waterfall project management approach to Agile, a then-new way of working. And it was WAY better. 

That planted the seed of a question: Since Agile works so well for technology teams, what can lawyers learn from it to make our work better too? Although my career path has taken several turns since then, answering that question has been at the core of nearly everything I’ve done. 

UC: Tell us about your consulting company, Agile Attorney. What does it do? How does it help legal teams thrive?

JG: Let me start with my why: I’ve made it my mission to help legal teams build practices that are profitable, scalable, and sustainable for themselves and their communities. I do it because I’m a true believer in the ability of legal professionals to help people and make the world a better place, but I see so many of us get bogged down in the one-to-one nature of traditional legal services. My goal is to help lawyers imagine and implement better business models for delivering their services at scale. That, in turn, allows them to help more people and (hopefully) start to close the access to justice gap.

I often get lumped in with the legal tech movement, which is a great community. But at the end of the day, I’m definitely a strategy and operations person. One of the many things I learned from the success of Getty Images is that building a great business requires investing in people, process, and tools, roughly in that order. While I love technology’s ability to scale things, people and process are how you make sure you’re scaling the right things.

What I do can take a few different forms. My favorite thing to do is conduct in-person (and occasionally virtual) workshops with individual legal teams to help them learn Agile methods to identify their process bottlenecks and re-frame their workflows to deliver client value more reliably. I love helping teams come to “ah-ha” moments that permanently change how they view their work and their workflows. Those workshops often lead to an ongoing coaching relationship with team leaders to help them continue their Agile journey, though sometimes I’ll start with a coaching relationship before we get to any workshops. 

I’m also a frequent speaker at CLEs and trainings, where I teach an Agile approach to legal project management as well as a lean startup approach to legal product development. And I’m working on a couple of education products of my own, including a book on personal productivity called Kanban for Lawyers and an online course on using Agile methods in a legal setting.

UC: Did you always know that your career would look a bit nontraditional? Did you ever consider working within a traditional law firm? Why or why not?

JG: Growing up around lawyers, I loved and respected them but I also saw first-hand the toll that a traditional practice could take on them. Then, having found early-career success in a field other than law, I grew comfortable with an outside-the-box approach to problem solving. I tried on a traditional legal career as a summer associate with a fantastic firm (the one that offered me my post-graduation job), but I knew coming out of it that I would quickly grow restless within their more traditional culture (which was actually more progressive than a lot of firms’). 

Not too long ago I spent a year and a half working for an even bigger firm as their head of legal project management, but it turned out to be a tough experience. They were more interested in saying they had an LPM function in their marketing materials than they were in actually building one. It was fascinating being in a non-lawyer role and seeing the extent to which old-school lawyers tended to look down upon what they see as “lesser” professionals (even when those people are truly trying to help!). All in all I found it to be a highly toxic working environment, dominated by silos, feudalism, and (misplaced) bravado.

I’ve also learned that I get a lot of energy out of working with multiple clients at once. I’ve looked under the hood of dozens of law practices and I’ve gotten a pretty good idea about what works and what doesn’t across them. I’m constantly learning things from one client that I can later apply with another (in other regions or other practice areas of course; I want my clients to keep their competitive advantages). And I love connecting my clients to each other to compare notes when appropriate.

UC: What is The Commons Law Center? What need in the legal field does it address? How did you get involved in the organization? 

JG: The simplest description is that The Commons Law Center is a nonprofit law firm in Portland that serves modest means clients on a sliding scale basis. What makes us unique is how we do it: We operate somewhere between a traditional sliding scale law firm and a legal incubator program. We think of ourselves as a three-legged stool. In the first leg, we provide affordable legal services to our clients (those making up to 400% of the federal poverty level, a population that includes approximately half of all Oregonians). We do that using a combination of reduced-fee hourly work and flat-fee, unbundled services. We staff that work using our new lawyer fellows and student law clerks, working under the supervision of a staff attorney and what we refer to as pro bono partners. 

Unlike most pro bono programs, we don’t use experienced attorneys to deliver actual legal work. Instead, we ask our pro bono partners to help us with two parts of the overall workflow: system design and quality control. At the front end, we harness the expertise of experienced lawyers to help us design our service offerings and help our new attorneys with initial matter planning. Then, our new lawyer fellows and student law clerks do the bulk of the work while the pro bono partner assigned to each matter helps answer questions and provide quality assurance. This lets us make the most effective use of our pro bono partners’ expertise, and allows them to scale their impact to help a greater number of clients.

This simultaneously supports our second leg, which is new lawyer training. We believe that lawyers learn best from real world experience, but we also recognize the pitfalls of throwing new lawyers straight into the deep end. Using expert supervision helps our new lawyers progress with their skills and experience, starting with simple matters (or parts of matters) and moving on to more complicated work once they are qualified to handle it. 

The third leg is our community education and outreach. Here, too, our new lawyers work with experienced professionals to develop training and education programs to help underserved communities better understand their legal rights and options. Research shows that one of the main reasons people don’t seek legal help is that they don’t often recognize when the problems they’re experiencing may have a legal solution. We hope our outreach programs will help close that knowledge gap.

I was invited to join The Commons close to its inception by Kate Kilberg and Kimberly Pray, who, along with our executive director Amanda Caffall, came up with the concept for the nonprofit. Kate and Kimberly are partners in Catalyst Law, a Certified B Corp law firm that hosts The Commons and gives it financial and logistical support. I immediately loved the concept and have had the honor of helping the nonprofit grow and evolve over the past several years.

UC: You recently made some waves in the Oregon State Bar by freshening and modernizing some of their policies. Can you tell us a bit about that? What inspired this change? How did you work through generations of tradition and precedent to catalyze these changes?

JG: The changes we’ve made to the Mission and Functions of the Oregon State Bar were very much a group effort, but at least some of the impetus came from the findings of the Bar’s Futures Task Force that I co-chaired in 2016-17. The previous statutory mission of the Bar was to “promote the science of jurisprudence” which is a lovely concept that, in practice, can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. The Futures Task Force played an important role in highlighting the depth and breadth of the access to justice problem in Oregon, particularly in showing that it affected a far greater percentage of the population than just those who qualify for legal aid (people making up to 125% of the federal poverty level).

After my time on the Futures Task Force, I was elected to the Bar’s Board of Governors where I’ve continued to be a voice for the task force’s findings and recommendations. I can’t speak for my fellow BOG members, but I came to feel that our then-current foundational language was vague, a little archaic, and too inwardly-focused on lawyers instead of on the populations we serve. In 2018, we kicked off efforts to modernize the language, and in 2019, the Oregon Legislature updated the Bar’s statutory mandate to “at all times direct its power to serve the public interest by: (a) Regulating the legal profession and improving the quality of legal services; (b) Supporting the judiciary and improving the administration of justice; and (c) Advancing a fair, inclusive and accessible justice system.”

There are several things about that new mission that I think are worth considering. First and foremost, it clarifies that the primary purpose of the Bar is to serve the people of Oregon. That is an important distinction for a profession that historically has tended to think of the Bar more as an associational body than as a state agency. My hope is that putting the public service mission front and center will impact how the Bar approaches all of our activities.

I also think it is significant that the Legislature has enshrined the concepts of fairness, inclusivity, and accessibility in our charge. Lawyers often default to a notion that the Bar’s job is public protection, but that attitude has led to a historically paternalistic approach to crafting our rules and policies. One of the consequences of designing for protection is that you naturally inhibit accessibility, and I think that over-building the legal system for protection has been a major contributor to our access to justice problem. Not to mention that when you value protectionism you risk getting it in all of its forms, including economic protectionism. So specifying that fairness, inclusivity, and accessibility are core to our mission provides an important counterbalance to our historically protectionist inclinations.

A few other things to call out: The Legislature included the concept of understanding and improving the quality of legal services, which begs the interesting question: “What should our quality standards be?” We are charged not only with supporting the judiciary but improving the administration of justice – a broader calling than just administering courts or legal services. And the Legislature implicitly recognized that “the legal profession” and “legal services” can include more than just lawyers: Although the Oregon Bar doesn’t yet expressly include other professions, we are currently moving forward with a Licensed Paraprofessional implementation committee.

UC: What are some of your favorite sayings? Do you have any real-world examples of how you’ve seen those sayings come to life?

JG: Sayings I repeat a lot include:

  • “Simplicity is the art of maximizing the work not done.” (From the Agile Manifesto)
  • “Improving your productivity requires an honest reckoning with your capacity.” (I’m pretty sure I made up that language, but it comes from Agile thinking.)
  • “Start less to finish more.” (The unofficial slogan of the Kanban methodology)
  • “Successful development requires you to validate your assumptions, and the hardest part about validating assumptions is recognizing when you’ve made one.” (From The Lean Startup).
  • “Measure what you treasure” was the mantra of PhotoDisc president Sally Von Bargen. She also liked to say “when you work on the cutting edge you’re gonna see a little blood sometimes.”
  • “Get out of the building.” From Steve Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany, meaning you need to go and see what your customers are doing in their environments, not from the safety of your own office.

Frankly, I’ve seen them all come to life in numerous situations. They’re all things I try to incorporate into my own business as well as preaching them to my clients (and anyone else who will listen).

UC: What are your professional goals for the coming year? What projects are you working on? Are there any upcoming events or conferences in the legal tech space we should be aware of?

JG: I’ll be attending the Western States Bar Conference in April with the Oregon State Bar, and I’m leading a design thinking workshop for the Association of Continuing Legal Education Professionals later this summer. I’m hoping to be a speaker at ClioCon in October, but we’re still working on that. And I occasionally hold webinars and other online training that you can learn about from my website or newsletter.

As for goals, I have a sticky note at the top of my personal kanban board that says “start a movement.” When I first started talking about Agile for lawyers in 2014 it was pretty lonely, but I’m loving seeing a lot more interest and discussion about Agile concepts these days. My express goals are to finish my book, finalize my initial online course, and build a forum for legal professionals who are using Agile (and Agile-aligned) methods to engage and learn from each other.

UC: Where can we learn more about you and your work?

JG: My website is AgileAttorney.com where you can find lots of my writing, access to my book and courses, and links to other media like podcast episodes I’ve been a guest on, articles I’ve written, and projects I’ve contributed to. I’m also moderately active on Twitter (@jegrant3) and LinkedIn.

An Agile Methodology 

John’s story clearly shows that the paradigm of the buttoned-up, predictable legal career trajectory is falling by the wayside. As client needs evolve, lawyers can – and should – adapt to meet them. John’s work through the Agile network and The Commons prove just one example of how lawyers can tweak not only their technological resources, but also their systems and processes, to refine and scale their services. 

We look forward to tracking John’s professional successes in the coming months.