Presenting unfinished legal work to clients: the minimum viable product
Jack Shepherd argues how lawyers can benefit from the MVP approach.
When making a piece of software, it’s easy to get excited. You think about all the weird and whacky things you could put into it. You start creating long lists of amazing features, conversations beginning with “what if…” go wild and you start believing you can change the world.
Then, you start baulking not only at the time it will take to implement all of these things but also the costs. This is called the IKEA effect?—?a cognitive bias in which people place a disproportionately high value on products they created. The concept of a minimum viable product (MVP) is advisable for these situations.
What is a minimum viable product?
Books describe this in more detail (e.g.,The Lean Startup by Eric Ries), but in summary this approach involves analysing what problem you are trying to solve and calculating the method that solves that problem with the least possible effort.
The idea of an MVP is to get something in the hands of users as soon as possible, so you can get feedback and data that helps you plan further development. This has its advantages:
- you mitigate the IKEA effect by getting data from actual users, helping you to eliminate your own biases from being personally invested
- you potentially avoid time building needless bells and whistles, by getting feedback on your “leaner” version of the product
- you can validate whether you are even solving the right problems for people without the cost and time of fulfilling your entire wish list
MVP has become somewhat of a buzzword in technology and in legal tech. It definitely has a place in the development of technology, but does it also have a place for lawyers themselves?
Lawyers are often risk averse and perfectionists. Many hate the idea of admitting frailty or knowledge gaps in front of clients. Yet an MVP is an unfinished piece of work?—?its very purpose is as a starting point for something else. Can any lawyer imagine sending an advice note out to a client that just stops after a few paragraphs?
In software, it’s okay to make mistakes?—?that’s how you learn. But for a lawyer, making mistakes can have huge consequences. Being seen to re-trade a position, structure a transaction incorrectly or making flawed arguments in court can have drastic consequences both for the client and for your relationship with the client.
These two things bounce off each other in a way that lawyers often outwardly reject the very concept of an MVP in the work they do. But should they be so ready to dismiss the idea?
Look at scope, not quality
An early-career mistake I made was assuming an MVP relates to the quality of something rather than the scope of something. During one of my early projects, our team compromised code quality and user experience in the name of MVP. The end product was buggy and unusable.
Producing poor quality work product doesn’t help you or the user; you should already know quality matters. The crucial thing I see people miss around MVP is that it’s not just about getting something out quickly, but about getting something out that helps you learn quickly.
Thus, the definition of an MVP should really be around scope, rather than quality. Its quest should be to validate that you are solving the right thing and delivering the core value people care about— all in the quickest way possible.
A lawyer might already know that clients will not like poor quality work product, yet they might not know what problem the client wants solving and what the best solution might be.
Example: work product
Let’s say a client has asked a lawyer to look into a potential defence to a claim around limitation periods. There are a few things a lawyer could do:
- High effort. Draft a long research note about the law around limitation periods (citing all cases and attaching them), how it applies to their case and list further questions that to complete the analysis fully
- Medium effort. Present a bulleted summary of the law around limitation periods and a few more bullets with an initial view of how it could apply. Ask the client if they want a longer, more official note
- Low effort. Carry out research and make internal notes. Arrange a 30-minute call with the client to chat things through and decide on the next course of action.
For a few reasons, a lawyer might instinctively jump to the ‘high effort’ option.
However, a common complaint of clients is that lawyers spend too much time doing things they don’t really care about. Adopting the principles behind the MVP can assist lawyers hugely here. It encourages lawyers to understand what the client cares about and what they want solving, the quickest route to value for them, and any further steps that can deliver more value.
The MVP approach might lead a lawyer to adopt the low effort option. This helps the lawyer understand what the client actually wants. For example, in a hypothetical discussion, a client might say ‘this is coming up on a lot of cases right now,’ ‘we had advice on this in the past, but I wanted to double check it,’ or ‘I need something for the board later tonight.’
Depending on how the discussion goes, you might approach things in a different way. If this issue is coming up a lot, the problem is not confined to this particular case, so you need to produce some work product that is potentially reusable. If they have received advice in the past, it might be that the problem they want solving is verification of that prior advice.
In any case, before you embark on a long research note that might take 10 or more hours to create, it might be an idea to work out what the best way of serving the core value is. If the board needs something for later tonight, would a two-page bulleted summary suffice instead of a 43-page note?
Example: legal processes
Adopting the MVP mindset is arguably more helpful with more complicated processes such as discovery, due diligence or structuring work streams. This is because these work streams often involve interactions with multiple teams and production of numerous pieces of work?—?all over an elongated period of time.
Some lawyers often spend time producing a lengthy due diligence report, reviewing thousands of documents, without understanding what the client is looking to solve with this work, the core value of solving it and the quickest way to bring value.
Instead of spending three weeks working to fierce deadlines to deliver a big bang due diligence report, lawyers could work with the client to understand why they want this work done (eg how much do they know already?—?is this a verification exercise or being done from scratch, how important is the post-integration angle behind this) and then what the priority areas might be.
The end result could be continuous delivery of small chunks of work product over the three weeks, each of which delivers value. In a due diligence process, this could involve focusing on the important counterparties or contracts and delivering a report on those before looking at the less significant risks.
Work product could be delivered over time rather than in one go. This means the client gets value much quicker and doesn’t feel like everything is moving slowly. The client also gets the chance to give you feedback before you invest time in something they don’t want to pay for.
Look at the principles, not the letter
Presenting unfinished legal work to clients might appear to be a daunting concept to lawyers. But unfinished doesn’t mean poor quality or downing tools and forgetting about it. The key to adopting an MVP mindset is to focus on the principles behind it and trying to embed these in every step of a lawyer’s work.
Instead of embarking on a long thesis, give some bullets to the client first and get their feedback on that. Adopting an MVP mindset allows lawyers to work in a less stressful environment and strengthen their relationships with clients.
There are difficulties around how firms are set up and the classic personality traits of lawyers. It will be interesting to see how advancements in technology trends can bring about differences in the way lawyers approach their work more generally.
Jack Shepherd is principal business consultant at iManage