Innovation requires clients to step up

Bruce MacEwen at Adam Smith Esq. reports on a presentation he attended at Allen & Overy’s New York office titled “Innovation in Legal Service Delivery,” featuring high-profile law firm lawyers, in-house counsel and consultants. The gist of the event and his article is that innovation of this type is still very much wanted and isn’t nearly the hopeless cause many like to believe. As a certified aficionado of legal marketplace innovation, I agree on both counts.

Bruce ends his post by asking a central question: “How shall we continue these discussions? Are they best conducted in law firm-sponsored colloquies such as this? Under the auspices of a legal publication such as The American Lawyer? At dispassionate fora and conferences put together by and hosted at a law school?” I have a couple of thoughts to offer here.

First, the conversation should continue wherever and whenever it can take root and flourish, especially in the blawgosphere, as part of a continuing effort to draw in as many decision-makers, and generate as great a sense of urgency around this subject, as we can. Legal services delivery innovation captures the imagination of lawyers at the grassroots level — at what event speaker Paul Lippe called the “immensely strong pockets of innovation” in law firms. Tapping into those pockets, through online and other vehicles, will multiply and magnify the volume and impact of that conversation.

But secondly, and more importantly, the effort to lionize innovation in the law needs more than law firm colloquia, legal periodical articles or law school efforts, helpful as all these would be. It requires more than the excellent College of Law Practice Management’s Innovaction Awards or the Financial Times’ legal innovation series. Innovation in legal services delivery will not succeed unless clients get seriously and deeply involved in the process.

It should be pretty clear by now that lawyers, by both training and culture, tend to be innovation-averse, for a host of reasons:

1. Innovation requires the embracing of risk, which lawyers instinctively want to control and stamp out, and the spectre of failure, which lawyers regard as a particular kind of hell on earth.

2. Innovation presupposes a competitive marketplace, conspicuously absent in legal services — lawyers all essentially work the same way, bill the same amounts, and bar non-lawyer rivals at the door.

3. Innovation promises great rewards, but lawyers are already pretty nicely rewarded as it is — the status quo has paid off handsomely for us and there’s not much incentive to abandon it.

4. Innovation needs decisive leadership from the top, but lawyers don’t like following, and most leaders find it extremely difficult to sell and enforce a comprehensive strategic direction firm-wide.

But each of these reasons also ties into the fifth and most important factor: with few exceptions, clients haven’t taken serious measures to make innovation by their legal service providers a priority. Clients will complain, at length and in detail, about how their lawyers don’t innovate in pricing, billing, communication, technology, service methodology, business objective alignment, and any number of other aspects of the client relationship. And of course they’re right. But complaining about it hasn’t gotten them or us anywhere yet.

Clients need to recognize that lawyers and law firms, unique among all their service suppliers, resist innovation, for reasons that are deeply ingrained into our professional nature. Blaming lawyers for that, or asking why clients should be expected to repair this flaw in the legal psyche, is pointless. What clients need to do is recognize that a lot of the lawyers who work for them could be more innovative, but they need sustained outside assistance to do so. Only clients can offer that help.

What could clients do?

  • Provide lawyers with tons of positive motivation to innovate, enough to help them overcome the immense cultural and institutional gravity of their environment.
  • Create an Innovation Team composed of client and lawyer representatives to identify those “pockets of innovation” and encourage their growth.
  • Richly reward firm initiatives that aimed (even if they didn’t succeed) to spur innovation in the client relationship.
  • Make innovation efforts a critical element of client satisfaction — tell the managing partner it matters, ask to meet the firm’s five most innovative lawyers and hear their ideas, provide recognition and even direct bonuses to lawyers who did something innovative.

Basically, send as many signals as possible that it’s not just okay to innovate, it’s encouraged, it’s a way to get more client business and approval. Prize innovation the way you prize a successful deal or a court victory.

And while you’re at it, you might consider dialing down the negative behaviours that discourage innovation. When you overreact to a minimized risk, you demonize risk still further in lawyers’ imagination. When you rip a lawyer to shreds because your goal wasn’t met, you reinforce lawyers’ incentive to avoid failure at all costs. When you reject firms’ tentative suggestions to bill differently, as Bruce notes some GCs do, you nip innovation in the bud. And when you continue to accept firms’ standard operating procedures year after year, you remove the incentive for other firms to try a different approach and reinforce the uncompetitive legal marketplace.

If clients want more innovation from their lawyers, they need to roll up their sleeves and pitch in to the effort to make innovation a core positive element of lawyer culture. There’s more than enough evidence on hand that we can’t do it alone.



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