Innovation in law starts with a good innovation management process

The increasing number of innovation roles in the legal industry is a trend from 2018 that looks set to continue into 2019 and beyond. While this undoubtedly reflects increasing investment on innovation in law, casual observers would be wrong to think that this is the law firms first foray into innovation. Instead, these roles represent an effort to coordinate and formalise pre-existing innovation efforts.

Dan Marcus
by Dan Marcus
innovation in law

Often, the first task of these incoming professionals is to develop and implement an innovation management process. This is no small task. This article explores some aspects of innovation management processes that are repeatedly visited in my conversations with innovation leaders in the legal industry. It is by no means exhaustive, but it provides some insight into important considerations when tackling the challenge of innovation in law.

The need to define a purpose that aligns with business strategy

Hiring roles with an innovation focus creates a natural hub for new ideas to flow to within a law firm. However, all too often these ideas will relate to the mobile device given to lawyers or the biscuits in the client meeting rooms – ideas that are perfectly valid and might deserve implementation, but probably not under the banner of innovation.

This is one of the many reasons that it is important to define the purpose of the innovation efforts within the law firm and relate it back to the overall business strategy. By addressing how innovation is intended to create value for clients and the firm, current innovation efforts will be able to align and new ideas will be assessed in the context of the broader strategy.

Broadening the sources of innovation in law

By default, innovation in law firms will begin with a partner championing an idea (either their own or one that has been brought to them by one of their juniors). While this is often supplemented with ideas that have made it through associate or trainee committees, it invariably leads to a top-down approach to innovation that has the potential to miss great ideas.

“it’s the guys at the coalface saying ‘our clients are saying this’ or ‘I’ve seen this idea’, or typically ‘I’ve seen this in another industry, can we apply it to ours?’ (CEO, Top 200 firm)

As a result, a key aspect of many innovation management processes is how to collect ideas from a broader array of sources, including juniors, non-fee earners and clients themselves. Part of this challenge will be to create an open culture for ideas to be expressed. After all, as lawyers, we are trained to dig holes in ideas and only proceed once an idea is fully understood. When combined with our naturally conservative nature, it is easy to see how some may be discouraged from making their ideas heard.

“Individuals need to feel that there is a welcoming environment to challenge and to bring ideas forward” (Mike Polson, Co-Head of Innovation, Ashurst)

Another element of this challenge is to create better methods for ideas to be put forward. This can include the creation of more physical forums for innovation (for example workshops, committees or hackathons) or the use of new technological solutions like Idea Drop to collaborate, obtain feedback and action ideas.

Increasing the engagement in innovation

A major challenge to be addressed by any innovation management process is how to encourage engagement in the innovation process across the firm. Of course, a well-defined innovation strategy and the use of new technological solutions that we have already discussed can help. Cultivating innovation champions is also a tried and tested method: individuals with influence inside the firm who are open to controlled risk and experimentation can encourage and lead innovation efforts at all levels.

Further efforts tend to focus on celebrating innovation and education on innovation processes. Celebrating innovation can take the form of internal innovation awards or simply promoting early successes. Some firms have even tweaked the forever maligned billable hour to create an incentive to engage in innovation efforts. Workshops on innovation processes can both be a source of ideas in their own right and help participants understand what will happen to their idea after they put it forward. While many innovation managers will have the skills to lead these sessions themselves, appropriate material can be delivered by external providers (such as my Innovation Toolbelt for Lawyers workshop series).

Building experiments into the implementation process

Any innovation management process will have to tackle how successful ideas will be implemented and then rolled out across the firm. An important trend in idea implementation is the use of more experimentation and “soft launches” before any attempt is made to do a scaled-up roll out.

‘It’s better to spend time getting it right rather than being right. Ultimately you learn more testing an MVP of the final use case rather than spending weeks documenting a huge list of requirements while the basic proposition remains untested but testable on a smaller scale’ (Innovation Lead, Top Tier Commercial Firm)

The advantages of doing so are numerous. As each experiment is less costly than a full roll out, more ideas can be tested and explored simultaneously. If the first attempt doesn’t go perfectly (as any innovation manager should expect), there is greater room to improve the implementation or abandon the effort before too much investment (in terms of time, money and reputation) has been wasted.

Finally, scaling up the deployment of an innovation is a challenge in its own right. By separating this stage from idea validation and early teething issues, the proper amount of attention and resources can be dedicated to this hugely important step. Using a cross-functional team at the experimentation stage, particularly one that includes individuals with practising experience, allows you to identify potential objections and hindrances to adoption early. During roll out, both the innovation itself and the internal marketing and communication of it will be more refined as a result of well thought out experiments and iterations.

Key Takeaways:

  • It is important to define a purpose for legal innovation efforts that is public and fits into the overall business strategy of the firm.
  • Innovation can come from all roles and all levels within a firm. Creating a welcoming environment and processes to collect ideas from around the firm allows you to tap into these sources.
  • A major challenge for innovation in law is increasing engagement around the firm.  This will often require multiple initiatives and an ongoing effort.
  • Where possible, experiment with smaller implementations of innovation ideas, learn fast and iterate.

About the Author

Dan Marcus is a qualified solicitor, professional software engineer and the founder of Prokopé Consulting. Prokopé Consulting’s mission is to help legal teams deliver ever better legal services. We offer a variety of services to support and benchmark your legal innovation efforts, including workshops, customer interviews, data maturity audits and more.

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