Innovation in Law: An Oxymoron?

This was originally published on Above The Law and has been republished.

Some of the most intelligent, interesting, and high-achieving people I know are lawyers. Yet, few people would describe most law firms as anything close to “innovative.”

In my lifelong quest to encourage innovation in law, I had a conversation with Alicia Ryan, who leads the practice innovation group at Fenwick and West. She left her high stakes M&A practice to help a law firm embrace 21st century technology and social trends, developments, and innovations. According to Alicia, there are well-known historic and systemic reasons for the slower rate of innovation in law firms.

She explains, “For one, some law firms can lack disruptive competition. The billable hour model can also make things challenging. And then there’s the culture of ‘following the precedent.’” Alicia believes that new market realities are coming to law firms. According to Alicia, “The need to innovate at law firms is real. And, many folks are increasingly engaged on the subject.”

So, if you want to further the innovation effort at your firm, here are some of the best practices, according to Alicia, for getting around the institutional barriers to innovation that we all face as lawyers.

Create a Sense of Urgency

Alicia is convinced that change won’t happen unless people believe it is necessary. She explains, “New market forces are on your side and can make this an organic process.”

So, where to start? Alicia recommends talking to the people in your firm who are close to the “pain.” “Those in finance or client marketing face challenges firsthand,” she explains. She advises to “find out which practice groups or tasks are facing the most price pressure. Find out which of your peer firms are innovating and whether those innovations are viewed by partners or management as competitive threats.”

According to Alicia, if you go through this exercise, you’ll learn where innovation efforts can be most impactful. That is also where they will be more eagerly received. It’s where you’ll find more enthusiasm and open minds. Most importantly, “You’ll also learn which executives or partners are likely to champion which types of efforts,” Alicia says.

Allocate Adequate Staff Resources – Time & Expertise

Once you’ve got buy-in and a partner champion for your innovation project — like bringing on a new AI tool or piloting a robotic process automation (RPA) initiative (yes, think big!), you may think you’re ready to go. But Alicia cautions, “Don’t underestimate how high-touch managing innovative change can be! People want to see the change, but also are afraid of uncertainty and risk.”

Alicia advises to actively hold hands and manage expectations throughout the entire process. “Sending a few emails with instructions and some marketing blurbs won’t generate usage and adoption,” she explains. According to Alicia, “You’ll need staff resources and experts for whom this is a priority. They’ll need training and a mandate to stick with the project and be a resource for users for the first year of its use.”

Incentivize People to Help

Alicia explains, “It goes against human nature, especially the nature of humans who bill by the hour, to work more slowly NOW in order to go faster LATER.” But according to her, your communication plan will clarify this as you outline the vision and goals while highlighting successes.

But how can you really get people motivated to learn a new tool or update a form document? Alicia explains, “In the former case, we’ve seen peer presentations have a powerful effect. When associates who are proponents of a new tool or process present their experiences to the rest of the group firsthand, others want to get on board.”

“In many cases, your efforts will be more fruitful if you can get a bucket of billable credit hours approved in advance,” she notes. Make sure you rally up a big army of people to help. Alicia explains, “Need associates to help create and maintain forms for the corporate group? Offer some billable credit for that work. It’s an incentive, but it’s also about removing obstacles. Find out what keeps people from driving or adopting change, and start chipping away at those obstacles.”

Innovation doesn’t have to be slow and painful. It doesn’t have to be painful at all. It is a tremendous opportunity and a huge benefit to a profession that can be stuck in its ways. In fact, the greatest challenges of innovation in law may have nothing to do with innovation itself, but in convincing the risk-averse professionals of its benefits.

That’s where you come in. Arm yourself with knowledge, open-mindedness, and stubbornness to meet the stubbornness of those around you. Change doesn’t always come easy, but it’s worth it in the end! Please let me know if you have other tips for innovating in law. I would love to share with everyone.

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